By Mike Templeton
When we think about building and empowering communities, we often think in terms of two separate spheres of work. We look to businesses to offer employment, and we look to groups like non-profit organizations for community engagement projects and things of that nature. But there are models in which business and community come together toward something that is entirely outside common experience. Our Harvest Cooperative is a worker-owned cooperative that offers a model of economic growth centered on engagement. They are fairly unique in Greater Cincinnati, and their work coincides with many of the values of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition.
When I caught up with Alex Otto of Our Harvest Cooperative, he was busy working at the farm even as we spoke. The farm is Bahr Farm in College Hill, which consists of six acres of garden space, twenty acres of pasture with cows, all of which is situated on a 100-year-old farm within the protection of the Cardinal Land Conservancy. From the site on which the food is grown to the work in Greater Cincinnati neighborhoods, Our Harvest Cooperative is local and completely focused on our area. Their work, beyond the obvious work of growing food on the farm, is to build a worker-owned cooperative and sustainable business that supports individuals, communities, and the environment.
Alex Otto explained that the model they are using to build the cooperative comes from European models of worker-owned cooperatives. The most notable example is the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation in the Basque region of Spain. Mondragon describes themselves as a cooperative business project. It was founded in 1956, and their entire business model is one based on “inter-cooperation, grassroots management, corporate social responsibility, innovation, democratic organisation, education and social transformation, among others.” Mondragon is enormously successful and is now quite large, competing on an international level with multinational corporations and representing a federation of hundreds of businesses. This is the business model for Our Harvest Cooperative, and it is one of many things that sets them apart from other grassroots projects.
Our Harvest Cooperative is a business venture, but built into what they do is community engagement. The cooperative business model provides an alternative to strict for-profit ventures on several levels, and an active role in communities is one of the important differences. The cooperative works within what Alex Otto described as “the social economy.” Perhaps the best way to understand this is that it is a holistic approach to business. It is a system wherein “people get the option to be workers/owners and take part in participatory management,” as Otto further explained. One example is a recent project with students at Aiken High School who got the chance to work on the farm planting tomatoes in the Coop’s hoop house. This is a project that offers training for the next generation of gardeners and farmers.
Our Harvest Cooperative also works with the agriculture program at Cincinnati State as part of their ongoing farm training. They also have a program with City Gospel Mission doing care farming that assists homeless people and people living with mental health issues. These kinds of projects fit well with a business model centered on the social economy because this model does not draw such a stark distinction between the interests of the “company” and the interests of people. Our Harvest Cooperative works with the assumption that their success is inherently tied to a flourishing community.
Our Harvest Cooperative is a working farm providing fresh food for the Greater Cincinnati Area. You can sign up for a weekly Harvest Box. These are delivered to various locations around the city. Alex Otto also told me that they “have a husband-and-wife duo who picks up the weekly harvest to do farmers markets around Cincinnati.” The goal after all is to build a successful business. The crucial difference is that Our Harvest Cooperative is dedicated to building a business that builds community. The entire project is summed up on their website: “By creating farm jobs that pay family-sustaining wages and employing responsible growing practices, we are working to strengthen Cincinnati’s local food system. Through strategic partnerships and advocacy, we seek to make access to fresh, local food a possibility for all in Greater Cincinnati.”
By building economic empowerment directly into advocacy, Our Harvest Cooperative offers a realistic model for how to build community in practical terms. This is the type of action so valued by the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition. When we think about things like grassroots engagement and advocacy, we have always looked toward things like education, for example, as a means toward economic and social empowerment. Our Harvest Cooperative takes things a step further by incorporating individual ownership in an economic project that is deeply committed to community, one that ties into education and local action.
You can learn more about Our Harvest Cooperative at their website: https://www.ourharvest.coop/.
You can also follow Our Harvest Cooperative on Facebook at this link: https://www.facebook.com/OurHarvestCoop.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He is the author of the forthcoming The Chief of Birds: A Memoir. Available later this year from Erratum Press, and Impossible to Believe, forthcoming from Iskra Books. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.