Co-operative series: A village garden co-operative – Part 3



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Script 3 – Starting the Co-operative – First Steps

Note: The following item and item 9 continue the story of how a group of villagers got together to start a co-operative garden. Their story began in Package 22 with items 9 and 10. The story will conclude with Package 24.

Summary of “A Village Garden Co-operative – Parts 1 and 2” from Package 22:

The people in a village were faced with another year of hunger because their crops failed once again. The soil was exhausted. Rain had swept away the topsoil on the hillside, and winds had blown the land dry. One villager, Maria, thought the villagers should get together to discuss their common problems and ways they could co-operate to help each other. The villagers met to discuss their problems. At first no one was willing to speak, but finally, Kwesi agreed to tell his story. He said that because his soil was poor, he could grow few crops, and his family did not get enough nutritious food. To feed his children, Kwesi had to leave his family and work for other landowners. The other villagers began to tell their stories. Maria suggested the villagers start a co-operative garden. By sharing their labour and knowledge, they could succeed. The villagers liked the idea, and a meeting was set for the following week.

Special Note: Starting a co-operative is a serious venture. In this and future scripts, we aim to get people thinking about ways they can co-operate to improve their lives. The word “co-operative” has different meanings in different countries. In some countries, this word refers only to organizations set up or run by governments, or with a great deal of government involvement.

In this series, we are talking about a different type of co-operative. The co-operatives we will describe are the kind which spring from the needs of a group of farmers. We are talking about very basic, small-scale co-operation at the village level. In some countries, this would be referred to as a “self-help group” or “pre-co-operative.” Please adapt the term “co-operative” to fit your local situation.

Starting a co-operative is complicated and many co-ops fail. Expert advice is needed at the planning stage to help people avoid the many pitfalls that lie on the road to a successful co-operative. Perhaps someone from a nearby league of co-operatives could be consulted. When presenting this and other scripts about co-operatives, please introduce examples of co-ops in your area, and discuss how they are working.

The day after the villagers had decided that they would start a garden co-operative, Maria went over to the neighbouring village to talk to an elder who belonged to the garden co-operative there. His name was Cheng. He thought the idea of a community garden was a good one, but he warned her that just because it was working in his village, that was no guarantee it would work for Maria’s people. “Every village is different, with different needs and different conditions”, Cheng said.

Cheng advised her to look closely at the food situation in her village. He told her to find out what the people wanted to eat and what other vegetables, grains, and beans can be grown to give them a good diet. He also advised her to visit the city market, to see what was selling well there.

Maria was very excited by the idea of growing extra food to sell at the market. If the villagers started this garden and had a surplus, they might be able to sell the extra at the city market. With this extra money, the villagers could buy more food so that everyone might get enough to eat.

“You need a plan in order to succeed”, Cheng said, “and you must move carefully. First learn how to work together. Find out what vegetables grow well in your village and how much you can produce. For many farmers, time spent at the communal garden is time they cannot spend in their own fields, and so it must be worth their while. It is important to make sure that each person will get enough food from the garden to make it worth their effort. If there is extra produce from the successful garden, the villagers could take it to the village market. After you have answered these questions,” the man said, “come back to see me. Then we can prepare for your next village meeting.”

Maria went back to her village to do her research. She discovered that there was very little extra food to be sold or bartered at the market. Everyone had a lot of rice, but few yams were grown in the village. The vegetables that were available at the market were expensive and of poor quality. Only people with jobs in the city could afford to buy food at the market. The others made do with the crops from their own gardens. The problem with the home gardens was that they were often neglected. People were working off the farm as labourers and so they had little time for their own plots. Rice was their main food. Most people said they would like to buy vegetables more often, except they could never afford to pay the prices. Sometimes they would trade eggs for vegetables, but not very often. She asked them what vegetable they would most like to eat, and one vegetable that most of them named was the onion.

Next Maria took a trip into the city market. She talked to sellers about their produce and how they grew it, and what kinds of vegetables were in demand. They told her that there were too many onions in the market now in the autumn, but most of the year they were in great demand, and people were willing to pay a high price for them. This market was open each Wednesday. To have a stall, the sellers warned Maria that she would have to pay rent to the owner of the market. But the rent was not high. She would quickly make it back in sales if she had fresh produce. Maria discovered that many of the sellers lived far away from the city. They transported their produce with a beast of burden and a cart.

Maria began to put the pieces together. She knew she still had a lot of questions to answer first before she could say to the people in the village that a community garden would work. She decided to visit Cheng again for more of his valuable advice.

Cheng thought onions were a good choice for the garden, but he thought the villagers should experiment with a few other vegetables, and grains and beans as well, so that the co-operative members would have other nutritious foods. He gave Maria a list of questions for all the members to discuss at the next meeting. Questions like: Is there water available nearby for the garden? How much land will we need, and how much space does each person need? Will we build a fence around the garden? Where will we get the materials for the fence? How will we transport the vegetables to the market? Who will take them and sell them? Can the vegetables be transported to the market without spoiling? Is it possible to store some of the produce? And, most important, how committed are the members to making the project work? How much time and determination will they bring to the task?

Cheng also advised Maria to remind the group that each member will have to contribute equally to buy the seeds, tools and other supplies. He also questioned Maria on the other principles of co-operation which she must introduce at the first meeting. She must make sure everyone understands from the beginning that a co-operative is a sharing experience, designed to benefit everyone equally and to exclude no one who has a contribution to make. Maria thanked Cheng for his wise advice, and they agreed that Cheng would teach the villagers the farming techniques which he learned from his father, who learned from Cheng’s grandfather, and great grandfather, and so on back throughout the centuries.

Information sources

Mary Lou Morgan, a consultant for the Canadian Co-operative Association and SUMAC Consulting, a co-operative development group.