Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Women in Co-operatives in the alternative food economy

Women in Co-operatives in the alternative food economy

Women have been involved in the co-op movement since its inception (Smith, 2003). Traditionally women have been more active in consumer and housing co-ops which are more closely aligned to women’s domestic roles than in worker, producer, or marketing co-operatives (Smith, 2003). During the second wave of feminism in the 1970s, some women used the co-operative model to create new employment options for themselves. For example women on Malcolm Island, a resource- based community, formed the Treesing Treeplanting Co-operative in response to limited employment for women. This co-operative had a policy that half the members must be female (Smith, 2003).
Co-operatives have many forms including buying clubs, local exchange systems and joint-stock companies (Elsen and Wallimann, 1998). Buying clubs consist of small groups of people who then have greater purchasing power than individuals and remove the profit-taking middleman by purchasing directly from the grower. Co-ops are flourishing in rural areas where communities want to make their own decisions to deal with economic downturns in resource-based economies. Co-ops are normally defined as enterprises that are jointly owned by members and democratically governed for the benefit of all the members. This does not mean that there are no controversies between members and boards however or that they remain viable.
Some figures estimate that one in five of the population of BC are involved in co-ops.  British Columbia has 700 incorporated co-ops and has recently added 70 to this number each year (Wilson, 2004). The co-ops in BC are located in resource-based economies dominated by agriculture and forestry. In the workingman’s culture of agriculture and forestry, masculinity is constructed in relation to other men, not in relation to femininity. Representing the norm, masculinity becomes invisible, institutions and practices are said to be gender and race-neutral and men become entrenched in their privilege (Reed, 2003; Lee and Lam, 2004).

In the past ten years the involvement of co-operatives in building an alternative food economy has grown (for example the multi-stakeholder Growing Circle Food Co-operative on Salt Spring Island).
Not theoretically co-ops but similar in principle are farms operating under the framework of community-supported agriculture (CSA). Consumers buy shares which entitle them to a certain amount of crops for the summer. They also get a say in what is planted and usually do some of the farm work. The crops are usually delivered in boxes to the consumer on a set schedule. Box programs like Saanich Organics are slightly different from “true” CSA operations because they do not require the consumer to do any work on the farm. Box programs may offer consumers more choices in selections and quantities. Box programs give farmers money up front for the crop so that they don’t have to take out a loan.

There is a Powell River Farmer’s Institute that was established in 1915 by 32 farmers (Walz, 2005). It had a co-operative grain business from 1978 to 1984 with 500 members. The Farmer’s Institute also worked with the Powell River Regional District to declare their district a genetically engineered free crop area.

References (some missing)
Elsen, S., Wallimann, I. 1998. Social economy: Community action towards social integration and the prevention of unemployment and poverty. European Journal of Social Work 1(2), 151 - 164.
Smith, Julia. 2003. Worker Co-operatives [on line]. Victoria BC: University of Victoria. [cited 16 September 2003]. Available Web: (

Reed, Maureen G. 1999. “Jobs talk”: retreating from the social sustainability of forestry communities. Journal of Forestry 75: 755 – 763.
Reed, Maureen G. 2003. Marginality and gender at work in forestry communities of British Columbia, Canada. Journal of Rural Studies 19: 373 – 389.
Reed, Maureen G., and Bruce Mitchell. 2003. Gendering environmental geography. The Canadian Geographer 47 (3): 318 – 337.