The art of cooperation is embedded in every molecule of CROPP Cooperative Organic Valley, the U.S.’s largest cooperative of organic family farms. It begins on the ground beneath our feet with over 1,700 organic family farmers who belong to and own our cooperative. Because we farm organically, we work responsibly on behalf of all earth’s citizens. But the partnership doesn’’t stop there.

One of the foundational tenets of cooperative business is “giving back.” All co-ops fulfill this vital role by way of many initiatives. One CROPP initiative particularly close to the heart is Farmers Advocating for Organics (FAFO), a grant organization focused on advancing organic education, research and advocacy. What’’s even more meaningful about FAFO is that the grant funds are created by contributions from CROPP farmer-owners. In 2011 alone, CROPP farmers funded $373,966 to eight projects, from anti-GMO initiatives to pollinator conservation strategies for organic seed producers.

One such ongoing relationship began in 2009 between CROPP and the University of Vermont Extension service (UVM) when Dr. Heather Darby submitted a study proposal to the FAFO grant committee (a committee that consists of all farmers, naturally!). As a born and raised Vermonter who still lives on her family farm, Dr. Darby goes about her research in a slightly different way than most scientists. Instead of creating research from inside academia, she solicits ideas from farmers themselves. “I listen to what farmers want to know and try to figure out how we could do a study and get results that can be shared with the greater agricultural community. I’m trying to answer questions that farmers have today.”

Given that mission, the segue between Dr. Darby’s need for research funds and Organic Valley’s FAFO fund program was as natural as could be. The focus of the study – —optimizing the production of dual purpose cereal crops on organic dairy farms – —sprang from a serious need: organic grain can be the single largest expense on organic dairy farms in some regions. It’’s the expense that can make or break a farm.

There are plenty of obstacles to growing traditional grain crops (like corn and soy) on farms in northern areas like New England, where the topography, climate and lack of available land are formidable. When pasture is dormant in winter months, or when frequent droughts threaten the quality of pasture in the growing season, farmers must have supplemental feed for their animals. The “dual purpose” part of the study is meant to fill needs in both those areas: by providing high-quality, hardy crops that stand up to adverse growing conditions, as well as provide quality feed when harvested and stored for supplemental use.

Working with Organic Valley New England farmers Brent Beidler and Guy Choniere, and with the help of funding from FAFO, organic farmers and UVM were able to research double cropping cool climate annual forages and various fertility programs that would help increase the quality of those forages.

By pooling university resources in collaboration with farmers, we’re working to make growing systems sustainable and more profitable. This practical, real-world partnership benefits farmers everywhere, as well as consumers and the planet.

And that’s the full-circle, cooperative way of doing business in this world.