In the last few years, you’ve probably seen some articles about the flaws and failures of the what’s been called the “sharing economy”. Critics often cite the disingenuous use of the word “sharing”, and the exclusion of users as potential stakeholders or owners of the intermediary platforms. Much of the public criticism for these and other issues has been aimed at high-profile online platforms, usually Airbnb and Uber, with good reason.

Two cooperative movements are important in this discussion: Platform Cooperativism, and Open Cooperativism. One may be more publicly visible right now, but they have much in common. These movements marry the power of digital networks with the rich history of the cooperative movement. How do these approaches compare? Are they redundant, complementary, mutually exclusive? What exact problems do they solve, and what outcome do they seek? In this article, we explain their origins and characteristics, and see how the actions proposed by these movements can work together, helping us form resilient livelihoods in our networked age.
IThe sharing economy spawned a lot of initial hype citing its P2P (person to person, people to people, peer to peer) nature, but it wasn’t long until its promised people-powered disruption was unmasked as more of the same undiluted capitalism, just faster and less regulated. Put neatly by Mike Bulajewski in his article, The Cult of Sharing (2014):


From the right angle, though, this “sharing economy” and its digital platforms could be seen as a Trojan horse, both for bad and good. The bad? Further deregulation and accelerated precarity. But the good can advance the conversation beyond the ways people can share goods and services, to address the architecture of the economy where these relationships take place. In reality, we should be asking ourselves, “What economy do we want?” If so, how viable are the balance-restoring proposals being discussed online and in conferences? How interested are people in participating, cooperating, taking ownership — and what would that look like? Enter the next phase in cooperative models: Platform Cooperativism, and Open Cooperativism.

First, some history. In the years preceding the appearance of these digital “sharing” platforms, something else was also cooking: online communities experimenting with different forms of exchange, collaboration and production. “Commons-based peer production”, a term coined by legal scholar Yochai Benkler, describes a new way of creating and distributing value.

Internet-based P2P infrastructures allow individuals to communicate, self-organize and co-create abundant, practical value in the form of digital commons, often comprising knowledge, software and design. The most familiar examples include the free encyclopedia Wikipedia, free and open-source projects such as Linux, the Apache HTTP Server, Mozilla Firefox and WordPress, and open design communities such as Wikihouse, RepRap and Farm Hack.

In commons-based peer production, productive communities create commons. The so-called sharing economy enables processes that are ultimately controlled by the platforms’ owners, who extract value as rents or fees from the P2P interactions happening in the front end. Put simply, these interactions are P2P in the front end, only. It should already be clear, the sharing concept here is window dressing, a marketing ploy.

Doesn’t sound good, but it gets worse before it gets better. The imagery and lexicon of the Commons and P2P have been co-opted by the extractive platforms. Words and concepts (besides “sharing”) have been used broadly and deceptively, including: community, peer interactions and access over property, among others. Driven by absentee investors or shareholder accumulation, the so-called sharing economy, under examination, reveals a deregulatory cartel threatening the labour movement’s century-plus of hard won gains. Their attitude is undemocratic and isolationist towards the real value creators in the platforms — the producers and consumers interacting through their digital toll gate. This threatens to accelerate the ubiquity of the precariat, a new, disenfranchised social class. But a counter offensive to the normalization of the “gig economy” championed by Silicon Valley has risen in reaction, most notably in the Platform Cooperativism movement.

At the end of 2014, Platform Cooperativism first appeared in two articles: Trebor Scholz’s Platform Cooperativism vs. the Sharing Economyand Nathan Schneider’s Owning is the New Sharing. The movement seeks to democratize ownership and governance in the platforms that increasingly mediate our lives, but their focus is not limited to the “sharing economy”. They’ve questioned the extractive ownership models of platforms such as Twitter. The formula is simple: combine the efficiency and lowered transaction costs of digital platforms with the horizontal ownership and democratic control that characterizes worker-owned coops.

Since then, Platform Cooperativism has been remarkably successful. There have been two high profile international conferences and a growing variety of marquee Platform Coops. Some examples are Stocksy, an artist-owned stock photography community; FairMondo, an ethically oriented online marketplace; and Loconomics, a democratic hub for freelancers to offer their services.

The movement has also produced some notable publications, chiefly their anthology book “Ours to Hack and to Own: the rise of platform cooperativism, a new vision for the future of work and fairer Internet”, edited by Schneider and Scholz. Other prominent texts include “Platform Cooperativism: Challenging the corporate sharing economy”, a primer produced on the aftermath of the first conference by Trebor Scholz, as well as Scholz’s recent “Uberworked and Underpaid: How Workers Are Disrupting the Digital Economy”.

The movement also counts on some notable online resources, such as the Internet of Ownership directory, which lists currently existing Platform Coops, as well as a dedicated introductory website. After the second conference in New York, the Platform Cooperative Consortium was announced, which is currently in development.


Platform and Open Cooperativism do overlap, but with distinct differences. Open Cooperativism, in addition to proposing alternatives for gig-economy workers, focuses on traditional co-ops and the P2P/Commons movement.

Since the beginning of 2014, several existing precedents for Open Cooperativism coalesced into recognisable proposals. The point was to study a possible convergence of the Commons and commons-based peer production with the cooperative movement. Josef Davies Coates’ article Open Co-ops: Inspiration, Legal Structures & Tools, Michel Bauwens’ call for an Open Cooperativism, and a 3-day Deep Dive convened by the Commons Strategies Group (here’s the report by David Bollier and Pat Conaty) were some of the key early works.

Beyond critiques of the Silicon Valley-style “sharing economy”, Open Cooperativism questions the dominance of capital in the free and open source software economy, and suggests P2P-empowered digital solutions in order to lower the transactional costs of networked cooperative production. As a corollary to issues of democratic ownership and governance raised by Platform Cooperativism, Open Cooperativism asks a straight question: “What do we want to produce?”

It plays a few angles, with the Commons and P2P community on one side, the cooperative movement on another, and the social and solidarity economy on yet another. Rather than assuming a digital backbone, Open Cooperativism explores how open data, ecological stewardship, and the active production of Commons might expand and revive established cooperative traditions, even reclaim the idea of a Cooperative Commonwealth. Open Cooperativism argues that it’s not enough to have a better Uber or a more democratic AirBnB: we must tackle issues like housing and transportation head on. The root causes of our dysfunctional, destructive economies can’t be danced around.


Open Cooperativism’s aims can be summarized in four recommendations, or “patterns”, but these guidelines are not meant to be prescriptive. Being the best “open cooperator” is not the goal here. Individual cooperatives and groups of commoners should examine their own material conditions and priorities to see which of these patterns they might use.


Production in open coops is determined by social and environmental value. In our existing economy, social rights and environmental protection are regarded as externalities (someone else’s cost or problem), and their regulation is assumed to be the responsibility of an increasingly absentee state. In an open co-op, these factors are not externalized. Instead, they are built into the legal matrix of operations to ensure accountability and compliance with the practices of a generative economy. These responsible principles can be motivators for starting an open co-op, even a point of honor for its members. Statutes oriented towards the common good can also expand on the seven cooperative principles, be updated for the digital age, and help offset troubling tendencies that can appear in certain cooperatives.[1]


The new, ethical, and sustainable open-source cooperativism brings its commitment to economic and social democracy beyond the cooperative’s own company structure. Like an ecosystem, an economy does not work in isolation. Open Cooperativism seeks to enfranchise all participants in the economic value chain, not just cooperative members. This includes affective and reproductive labor, the creation of commons, and other forms of currently “invisibilized” work. The enfranchisement process can happen materially, through support and incentives, and through decision-making power, creating a forum for more voices to be heard. As in commons and contributory systems, Open Coops thrive with an ecology of membership.

Existing examples of this more inclusive approach are the Fairshares Modelthe Enspiral Network, and the Social Care Coops in JapanQuebec and Emilia Romagna.


Open coops don’t just draw from the Commons, they reciprocate, generating new commons in the process. These commons can be immaterial and/or material, and can help encourage cooperative (rather than capital) accumulation by using reciprocity licenses [2]. By immaterial commons we refer to code and design, but mainly to socially advantageous productive knowledge. These should never be privatized in order to generate artificial scarcity or profit maximization.

Open coops may develop and maintain productive material infrastructures through distributed manufacturing, as well as mutualizing spaces for co-working, organizing retreats, and providing mutual support. Unlike the closed-sourced designs of for-profit enterprises with their rampant commercialization and planned obsolescence, commons-oriented manufacturing is geared towards modularity, durability and customization, and a more efficient use of resources (e.g. shared data, manufacturing facilities). That’s the recipe for creating the true sharing economy: commons-oriented manufacturing plus co-ownership and co-governance.


Open coops aim to design global and manufacture local, creating resilient local economies of scope, rather than scale. This face to face economy and the creation of local meta-economic networks [3]should be amplified to a global dimension. The challenges we face are international in nature, often provoked by globalist corporations that subjugate entire economies to their cannibalistic needs. In contrast to the opacity of “green” multinational capitalist business, open coops are fully transparent about their production. This allows them to mutually coordinate production for maximum adaptability based on real-world conditions. The result is networked production for actual needs, not capital demands.

The P2P and Commons Economy needs to create counter-hegemony and a counterpower to challenge what could doom humanity. Imagine a movement harnessing the power of the more than one billion cooperative members worldwide with the hyper-productive capacities of commons-based peer production.

These four patterns are the hallmarks of Open Cooperativism, but where are the existing open coops? Although they may not describe themselves as such (and, in some cases, their legal structures goes beyond that of the cooperative), EnspiralFairmondoSensoricaL’Atelier Paysan and AnyShareembody many of the characteristics of Open Cooperativism. Meanwhile, ventures like the Catalan Integral Cooperative, the Xarxa d’Economia Solidària and the Mutual Aid Network are excellent examples of meta-economic networks where the logic of Open Cooperativism spills over into other aspects of bioregional economics and peer to peer solidarity.


So, back to the question of Platform “versus” Open Coops. Are they complementary, opposed, or redundant to one another? Is this a People’s Front of Judea vs Judean Peoples’ Front situation?

Joking aside, clearly they’re not opposed and not redundant either. Regardless of their individual origins or aims, they are complementary. Both propositions share a common set of ethical concerns and ideals: a fairer economy. If this is the shared goal, the approach wants diverse tactics, avoiding monocultures, and encouraging positive redundancies, the hallmark of any resilient system. Their differences, in fact, lend them to a practical modularity.

The best way to characterize this fit is to put Platform and Open Coops along a continuity. To the immediate question of urgency (defense against the ravages of Silicon Valley’s digital neo-feudalism), we say Platform Coops. To the broader question of building a resilient future, e.g. “what economy do we want?”, we say Open Cooperativism. One tactic pushes forward, supported by a thriving and expanding community; the other pulls, as an attractor, towards a more humane economy.

But this isn’t a sequentialist proposition a la “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin”, no. Even if each movement has different areas of focus and urgency, they shouldn’t be sequential, in fact they should be put to work simultaneously. Much like the false dichotomy between institutional (“let’s hack the system to make it fairer!”) and pre-figurative (“let’s start living from new system right now!) politics, Platform and Open Coops work better together and with a mutual awareness of each position’s strengths. In fact, everything contained in the literature of Platform Coops is contained in Open Coops and vice-versa. It’s the particular areas of advocacy which provide each with their unique nuances.


Why do we need Open Cooperativism? Why is it important in the long run?

We can’t talk about the future without a close examination of the present. Our current economic juncture has two distinct tendencies: financialization and decommodification. Although generally perceived as opposites, they are arguably two sides of the same coin.

Financialization you know about: it’s the ongoing process of turning relationships into services and nature into commodities. It drives the process of enclosures [4] and kills the act of commoning. It also promotes artificial scarcity and obliges us to turn our productive capacities and our responsibility towards nature against our own interests.

Decommodification is a product of digital revolution and describes the opposite process: more stuff that cannot be sold. Think of music, film, digitally distributed culture, universal encyclopedias, software operating systems, etc. [5] As self sufficiency becomes a necessity for survival (more than a lifestyle choice), people turn to each other to meet their needs. Examples are plentiful: solar energy, housing coops, mesh networks, mutual credit systems, community supported agriculture, etc. In the process, they find that they need to relate to each other, not rely on depersonalized moneyed transactions, and take responsibility for their economic environments. This practice gradually breaks down the neat categories that distinguish producers and consumers. If organized correctly, it could lower costs dramatically while increasing bespoke innovation and creativity.

However, apart from creating hybrid monsters trading digital facsimiles of their users, this grassroots tendency towards decommodification within a high level context of financialization can be disastrous for the economy as we know it. If more and more stuff can’t be sold and services progressively turn back into accountable relations, salaried work will decrease. If wages decrease, income taxation follows suit. If we assume that corporate taxation will not increase to pick up the slack, the first casualty will be the Keynesian pact that underpins social democracy.

Here’s a good one: what do the Hawksbill Turtle, the Javan Rhino, and jobs have in common? They’re all critically endangered. You’re right — not funny. The two factors that have killed off jobs like poachers and habitat encroachment are — financialization and decommodification. The former drives the private auctioning of public assets; the latter — along with self-organized service provision, technological unemployment, resource scarcity and environmental hard limits — decreases the need for salaried labor and artificial demand creation. The ground keeps shifting beneath us; it’s not safe to assume a stable economic landscape wherein we’re free to democratize ownership and labor while reaping the benefits of the digital revolution. We have to develop more dexterity, learn to roll with the changes.

Decommodification can be disastrous for the current economy, but why limit ourselves to that playing field? Perhaps what we’re seeing is the shift from an economic system based on scarcity to one based on abundance. As Spanish economist Susana Martín Belmonte says:


How do we adapt our economic behaviours to harness the best of this situation? Enter Open Cooperativism.

Open Cooperativism centers economic activity on the commons. The practice of commoning decreases our dependence on wages, markets and the state to create more resilient and sustainable economies. This doesn’t mean that we will get rid of markets or expect the state to “wither away”. Instead, there are proven solutions within the Commons model for reimagined, even radical configurations for markets and states.

Focus on the common good, multi-stakeholder governance, active production of commons and transnational orientation. These patterns define Open Cooperativism, but what is their potential? Call it a homecoming for the digital economy, more in line with the visionary notions of an open internet that erupted in the early nineties, a way to foster a collaborative economy worthy of the name.

Combining the contributory and resource-pooling logics of commons-based peer production with viable market interfaces (i.e., coops) can ensure the ongoing production and stewardship of the shared resources we’ll need to survive and thrive, absent the current economic paradigm. This is a narrative that picks up on the many possibilities implied in Platform Cooperativism’s present day efficiency, and amplifies them into the larger political economy.

As part of a larger shift towards empowering civil society as the predominant political and productive stakeholder, Open Cooperativism can open doors to an economy of abundance and sufficiency that works for all of society, future generations and the planet. Awareness of this potential can empower our creativity as cooperators, commoners and citizens in an ongoing democratization.

And now, we’d like to leave the final words to Yochai Benkler, from his closing speech at 2016’s OuiShare Fest, in the context of creating viable, ethically coherent, cooperative and commons-oriented alternatives:



Portions of this article have been expanded on from Commons Transition and P2P: a Primera short publication from the P2P Foundation and the Transnational Institute examining the potential of commons-based peer production to radically re-imagine our economies, politics and relationship with nature. Download it here.


[1] These include adopting capitalist practices to ensure competitiveness as defined by market logics, a disconnected managerial class unfamiliar with cooperative practices and ethics, and, worst case, the demutualization of coops. Arguably, these trends are more prevalent in larger coops but, for a distributed movement capable of scaling up and confronting the “big fish”, simply articulating common-good oriented statutes could preempt many of these problems.

[2] Commons Based Reciprocity Licenses (or “CopyFair” licenses) provide for the free use and unimpeded commercialization of licensed material within the Commons while resisting its non-reciprocal appropriation by for-profit driven entities, unless those entities contribute to the Commons by way of licensing fees or other means. Copyleft licenses allow anyone to re-use the knowledge commons on the condition that changes and improvements are added back to that commons. This is a great advance, but should not be abstracted from the need for fairness. Physical production involves finding resources or raw materials and making payments to contributors. Extractive models benefit from the unfettered commercial exploitation of these commons. Therefore, while knowledge sharing should always be maintained, we should also demand reciprocity for the commercial exploitation of the commons. This would create a level playing field for the ethical economic entities that presently internalize social and environmental costs. The use of CopyFair licenses, which allow knowledge sharing while requesting reciprocity in exchange for the right of commercialization, would facilitate achieving this balance.

A first working example of a CopyFair license is the Peer Production License, in effect a fork of a Creative Commons Non-Commercial License, permitting worker-owned cooperatives and other non-exploitative organizations to capitalise the licensed content, while denying this possibility to extractive corporations.

[3] From community-oriented business to business-enhanced communities, meta economic networks are affinity-based networks combining new forms of labor with supportive and commons-generating solidarity structures. Imagine a confederated system combining mutual credit systems, childcare coops, a community bank, fresh produce distribution centers, education and legal advice, and more. Some notable examples of people working together on socially oriented projects include the Catalán Integral Cooperative or CIC (Catalonia, Spain), The Mutual Aid Network, (Madison, Wisconsin USA, now expanding transnationally), and Enspiral (New Zealand, now being replicated elsewhere).

[4] From 1776 to 1825, the English Parliament passed more than 4,000 Acts that served to appropriate common lands from commoners, chiefly to the benefit of politically connected landowners. These enclosures of the commons seized about 25 percent of all cultivated acreage in England, according to historian Raymond Williams, and concentrated ownership of it in a small minority of the population. These “lawful” enclosures also dispossessed millions of citizens, swept away traditional ways of life, and forcibly introduced the new economy of industrialization, occupational specialties and large scale production. Nowadays we use the term “enclosure” to denounce heinous acts such the ongoing privatization of intellectual property, the expropriation and massive land grabs occurring in Africa and other continents, the imposition of digital right management digital content, the patenting of seeds and the human genome, and more. This modern tendency towards enclosures and turning relationships into services and commons into commodities, has been described by Commons scholar David Bollier as “The great invisible tragedy of our time”.

[5] This has led to a panoply of DRM-based panic reactions and more complex monetization schemes to ensure the middleman’s survival, yet the tendency remains. The question is whether digital sovereignty can empower and provide livelihoods for content creators or whether they will still be exploited by the gatekeepers. This, again, is one of the reasons why Platform Cooperativism is so crucially important in the present juncture.


Images by Stacco Troncoso, Trebor Scholz, Daniel Lombraña González, Slava Bowman, Elena Martínez Vicente.

Why Bernie Sanders Is Pushing for More Worker-Owners

In times when Washington is unlikely to agree on much, employee ownership offers a bipartisan approach toward building a stronger and more just economy.

The best-kept business model secret of our age is about to get the spotlight it has long deserved. It’s employee ownership—a proven, common-sense pathway to reduce inequality, anchor jobs at home, and rebuild a strong and stable economy, using a vehicle that’s as American as apple pie: making entrepreneurs out of regular, working folks.

Two progressive champions—Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)—are teaming up to put their weight behind a pair of federal bills to make employee ownership more accessible. And—believe it or not—this is a policy idea that might actually have a chance, since prominent Republicans like Ronald Reagan have long favored employee ownership, which leverages firm structure, rather than social programs, to improve family economic outcomes. In an era of hunger for solutions to inequality, this may be an idea whose time has finally come.

There are more than 10 million employee-owners in the United States today who work and own a stake in companies.

Employee ownership works for the workers who get a direct share in the economy, for the companies whose performance is demonstrably improved by a workforce invested in their jobs, and for the communities that need jobs anchored locally, not around the globe paying the lowest wages. And crucially, it’s a strategy for greater equality and shared prosperity with a proven track record: There are more than 10 million employee-owners in the United States today who work and own a stake in companies like Publix Supermarkets, Wawa Convenience Stores, or New Belgium Brewing. And while there are a wide range of social enterprise approaches being piloted in communities across the United States, none can match employee ownership for proven, scalable impact, with models that are nationally vetted and that have been successfully deployed for decades.

The two bills introduced by Sanders—the Worker Ownership, Readiness, and Knowledge (WORK) Act and the U.S. Employee Ownership Bank Act—are critically important tools in the effort to scale employee ownership in the U.S. The initial research we carried out here at The Democracy Collaborative, through our Fifty by Fifty Initiative, a collaborative partnership between leading employee ownership advocates like the National Center for Employee Ownership, the Democracy at Work Institute, the ICA Group, and Certified Employee-Owned, has suggested that a target of 50 million employee-owners in the U.S. workforce by 2050—or roughly 25 percent of the projected future workforce—is an attainable goal, if key barriers are addressed.

Adoption of employee ownership in the U.S. has been largely driven by powerful tax incentives.

Historically, adoption of employee ownership in the U.S. has been largely driven by powerful tax incentives, primarily at the federal level, that assist owners who want to sell their businesses to their employees and provide a range of game-changing tax deductions to companies operating under various employee ownership structures—like Employee Stock Ownership Plans and worker cooperatives.

The two new bills introduced in the Senate would further incentivize uptake of this key strategy for broadening access to business ownership. First, the U.S. Employee Ownership Bank Act would establish an important source of public financing to help founders who want to sell their companies to the employees who helped them build. By providing loan guarantees or subordinated debt to help employees buy their workplaces—particularly when the owners try to move their jobs overseas—this legislation doesn’t assume that the government can do everything, but instead encourages the creation of a smarter, more sustainable, and more cost-effective public-private ecosystem of financial support for transitions to employee ownership. Such ecosystems of support for broad-based ownership are critical, as we highlighted in our report Strategies For Financing the Inclusive Economy.

Lack of awareness is one of the critical factors preventing employee ownership from scaling to its full potential.

The second bill, the WORK Act, is another key piece of the puzzle. All the tax breaks and financing options in the world won’t create a single employee-owned company if no one is aware of the option or doesn’t have the technical capacity to make the transition happen. Indeed, our Fifty by Fifty research found that lack of awareness is one of the critical factors preventing employee ownership from scaling to its full potential. The WORK Act addresses this barrier head on, making grants available to local entities doing the necessary work of employee ownership education and training. We profiled one of the leading examples of this approach, the Ohio Employee Ownership Center, in our report Educate and Empower: Tools For Building Community Wealth—and found that this kind of education paired with technical assistance is not only incredibly effective, but also highly cost-efficient.

Over the course of three decades, OEOC has helped more than 90 companies convert to employee ownership, creating 15,000 employee-owners at an estimated cost of just $772 a job. The recent success of a similar, smaller-scale initiative in New York City shows that this kind of public support for technical assistance is even more essential for worker cooperative development, employee-owned startups, and employee buyouts of smaller shops. While larger, more established businesses can access the necessary financing and absorb the transaction costs of an ownership transition, launching new employee-owned businesses or transitioning mom-and-pop shops to worker ownership requires a more robust ecosystem of technical support.

A U.S. economy anchored in widespread employee ownership would represent a fundamentally different kind of economy.

Here at the Democracy Collaborative, we’ve recognized with many others the incredible threat presented by the “silver tsunami”: as the baby boomer generation prepares to retire, too many of the businesses they own lack a succession plan. Without plans for ownership transitions, businesses shutter, workers lose their jobs, and communities suffer. But federal support for employee ownership can help turn this looming threat into an incredible opportunity to rebuild a strong U.S. economy where all can prosper. A U.S. economy anchored in widespread employee ownership would represent a fundamentally different kind of economy, in which millions more families enjoy greater financial stability, increased income, and greater retirement security.

Moreover, in times when Washington is unlikely to agree on much, employee ownership’s proven track record and demonstrated bipartisan appeal offers a chance to build toward a stronger and more just economy when many other avenues of transformative reform may prove blocked.

This article was originally published by Common Dreams. It has been edited for YES! Magazine. 

Producing in-depth, thoughtful journalism for a better world is expensive – but supporting us isn’t. If you value ad-free independent journalism,consider subscribing to YES! today.

Jessica Bonanno wrote this article for Common Dreams. Jessica is Chief Financial Officer and Director of Employee Ownership Programs at The Democracy Collaborative, and co-directs the Fifty by Fifty Initiative, a collaborative effort designed to catalyze fifty million employee-owners in the US by the year 2050.

Want to Get “Back to the Land?” You’re Not Alone

Each generation has had one common desire: to live a more honest, ethical life of self-sufficiency and oneness with nature.

Over the past century, generations of young people have turned their backs on city life to embrace small-scale farming and back-to-the-land ideals. The exact circumstances for each generation’s return have varied: the Great Depression in the 1930s, the Vietnam War in the ’60s and ’70s, and, more recently, the loss of ecosystems and biodiversity to industrial agriculture and climate change.

Young farmers today face serious structural obstacles.

Each generation has had one common desire: to live a more honest, ethical life of self-sufficiency and oneness with nature.

Young farmers today face serious structural obstacles: access to affordable land, a steep (and often self-financed) learning curve, debilitating student loans, and lack of access to health care.

But three back-to-the-land farmers managed to succeed in a fickle vocation that seems to demand equal parts skill, determination, and luck. What choices did they make, and are their experiences instructive for struggling young farmers today?

Jean-Martin Fortier: Standing on the shoulders of giants

In the winter of 2001, two freshly minted graduates of McGill University’s School of Environment, Jean-Martin Fortier and Maude-Hélène Desroches (then 22 and 23, respectively), embarked on an eco-exploration of the Americas. They picked coffee beans on a fair trade farm in Mexico and built yurts at an off-grid community in New Mexico. But it wasn’t until they started working at a small organic farm near Santa Fe, New Mexico, that they decided they wanted to commit their lives to small-scale organic agriculture.

Several years later, as they were expecting their first child, Fortier and Desroches were living in a tipi and leasing one-third of an acre, where they eventually launched a 30-member CSA and saved money to buy the 2-acre plot that became their farm, Les Jardins de la Grelinette, in Saint-Armand, Quebec.

Fortier wrote to Eliot Coleman, then in his 60s, who was a pioneer of organic farming and author of The New Organic Grower: A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener in 1989.

“If you’re a vegetable grower and you haven’t yet heard of Jean-Martin Fortier, you need to look him up.”

Coleman’s was the first farming manual Fortier and Desroches picked up, and Fortier wanted to thank the older farmer for his teachings and ask permission to visit his Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine.

“I probably read the book 40 times, always trying to figure it out, read between the lines,” Fortier recalled, visibly moved by the recollection. “I’m sorry. I get emotional about it, but it was the only book that described what we were trying to do.”

Building on Coleman’s farming techniques, Fortier published his own how-to guide in 2012 (and its English language edition, The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming , in 2014). It has been a huge success: More than 100,000 copies have been sold worldwide, and it continues to be published in other languages, including German, Italian, and Dutch. In 2015, it won the American Horticultural Society book award, a coveted prize.

As Mother Earth News said, “If you’re a vegetable grower and you haven’t yet heard of small-scale agriculture advocate and author Jean-Martin Fortier, you need to look him up.”

“Are you just making money, or making a difference?”

To such farmers, Fortier’s message in Market Gardener is enticing: “A well-established, smoothly running market garden with good sales outlets can bring in $60,000 to $100,000 per acre annually in diverse vegetable crops. That’s with a profit margin of over 40 percent.” (For context, the average CSA farmer brings in less than $40,000 per acre of vegetables.)

Like his mentor Coleman, Fortier assured readers that they too could run a profitable farm and have summers off to travel and learn—in short, to live an ethical, good life.

“Are you just making money, or making a difference?” he asked rhetorically. “We’re fortunate because we’re doing both.”

Helen and Scott Nearing: Mentoring the mentor

Just as Fortier looked to Coleman as a role model, Coleman looked to an earlier generation of teachers to show him the way. Thirty-four years earlier, he had made the pilgrimage to see the renegade farmers whose 1954 book inspired him.

In Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World, Helen and Scott Nearing told the story of their two-decade adventure of subsistence farming. It became the hippie handbook of the day. Coleman fell in love with the romance of Living the Good Life, a sort of Walden for a generation disgusted by the Vietnam War and the militarism it stood for.

“They made farming sound adventurous,” he said.

Scott Nearing was a pacifist, vegetarian, and socialist.

Scott Nearing was a pacifist, vegetarian, and socialist. The brilliant economist had been dismissed from the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania in 1915 for his outspoken stance against child labor and vested corporate interests. Homesteading for him was a way to drop out of the “price-profit” economy and the “blood culture” of meat-eating and create a completely self-sufficient and nonviolent homestead.

Perhaps Nearing saw something of himself in Coleman, who was a handsome, confident Williams College graduate with piercing blue eyes and a manic energy level that Coleman himself says “today would probably have me on an intravenous drip of Ritalin.”

His visits to ’60s-era New Hampshire health food stores introduced him to Living the Good Life. The book inspired him and his then-wife, Sue, a dreamy descendent of Mayflower folk, to pilgrimage to Harborside, Maine, in 1968, where the Nearings had relocated 16 years earlier.

So charmed were Scott and Helen—then 85 and 68, respectively—by this young couple, that later that same year they sold them 60 acres of fallow land. Scott’s socialist beliefs and his horror of the “trap of riches” made the thought of profiting from a sale abhorrent.

“We offered $3,000,” Coleman recalled. “Scott said $500 and Helen said $2,000, so we settled on that.” It worked out to roughly the same $33 per acre the Nearings had paid in 1952.

The restless Coleman cleared his rock-filled land by hand and threw himself into farming, making off-hours trips to the library to study the agricultural practices of other ages and cultures.

In 1973, the first year Coleman turned a profit on his 1 1/3 acres, he set his sights on touring organic farms in Europe to bring back the secrets of “biological agriculture,” as organics were known there. Funded by a grant from the Nearings, he made his first visit in 1974 to Europe, where he discovered that small-scale organic farming and machinery were leagues ahead of the U.S.

Importing European market gardening techniques

In France, Coleman met Louis Savier, who farmed a little more than 1 hectare (about 2.5 acres) just south of Paris. Coleman describes the French farmer as “a surviving example of the classic French system of intensive market gardening, with lots of compost, cold frames, and greenhouses,” and he brought those techniques back to Maine, improving on them.

Soon, following the oil shock of the 1970s and the disillusionment over Watergate, Coleman began to attract his own stream of apprentices. Driven back to the land, they joined him in discussions about agriculture and politics and farmed in the nude, high on the beauty of Maine and the idealism of their endeavors. Coleman went on to distill his practical knowledge in his 1989 book, The New Organic Grower, and three more books.

When idealism and know-how aren’t enough

Despite success stories like Coleman’s and Fortier’s, many of today’s young farmers understand how unforgiving it is to make a living through farming. They approach the romanticism of it with their eyebrows cocked, just as they did in Coleman’s time.

Lindsey Lusher Shute, 38, is the executive director of the National Young Farmers Coalition. After six years of highly successful farming on 25 rented acres in the Hudson Valley, Shute and her husband, Ben Shute, realized they had no long-term security, and that every farm in the area they might want to buy was priced over a million dollars. Though she calls Coleman and Fortier “inspiring” to NYFC members and “the spark that gets them going,” she says that “structural problems in farming are not allowing a new generation of farms to thrive,” citing the high cost of land, student debt, and out-of-reach health insurance premiums.

Though the young farmers within her network wield social media to their advantage and benefit from a dedicated customer base that is invested in sourcing its food, that’s still not enough, says Shute.

As older farmers retire and the country faces a serious shortage of farmers.

“Many of our farmers are essentially retiring in their early 30s,” she explained. They think about starting a family and saving for retirement and realize that farm income is grossly inadequate for meeting their life goals.

While the NYFC doesn’t have any hard numbers on farmer retention rate, Shute said, the organization is now analyzing data from a survey of 4,700 young farmers from across the country. Results will be more detailed than with previous surveys, including data on the reasons participants chose to leave farming.

As older farmers retire and the country faces a serious shortage of farmers, the NYFC is lobbying for a federal student loan forgiveness program and working to make farmland more affordable through improved federal and state laws governing conservation easements. (Shute and her husband were able to buy 70 acres in 2012 with the help of a local land trust.)

Helpful traits and techniques

The obstacles the NYFC is fighting to eradicate are real. Yet it is also instructive to examine what helped the Nearings, Coleman, and Fortier and Desroches succeed in eras with different challenges; Coleman, for example, wishes he had even a fraction of the instruction and tools that are now available to small-scale farmers.

In the Nearings’ case, part of their success had to do with their uncommonly ascetic natures and their zealous (perhaps even sanctimonious) embrace of work. Using only hand tools, they erected nine stone buildings, all while keeping up their farming, writing, and lecturing and research trips. Nearing wrote, “Human beings can be divided into two groups: those who yearn for a comfortable existence and those who revel in a hard life of decision and struggle.”

The Nearings were also meticulously organized strategic planners, drafting a 10-year plan “as though we were handling a large-scale economic project.” They even created a color-coded system for storing tools.

Small-scale organic farming requires fearlessness and a certain leap of faith to ensure success.

Coleman and Fortier too place a high value on organization, planning, close observation, and record keeping. In The New Organic Gardener, Coleman details his process of using a 3-by-5-inch index card for each crop type, shuffling them to reflect ideal crop rotation sequence. In The Market Gardener, Fortier supplies a map suggesting the most efficient and ergonomic layout of a market garden, and thanks his businessman father for teaching him at a young age “the importance of being well-organized.”

That market farming has a high failure rate, added Coleman, is no different from any type of small-business startup. “Ninety-five percent of small business startups fail in five years,” he pointed out.

Like any endeavor fraught with uncertainty, small-scale organic farming requires fearlessness and a certain leap of faith to ensure success. It requires the business skills of a corporate CEO, as Coleman likes to say, and the spiritual forbearance of a monk.

In the face of such steep odds, the existence of organizations like NYFC and the teachings of the Nearings, Coleman, and Fortier are crucial—they propagate the urge to return to the land, to quest for an ethical, “good” life.

Producing in-depth, thoughtful journalism for a better world is expensive – but supporting us isn’t. If you value ad-free independent journalism,consider subscribing to YES! today.

Nancy Matsumoto wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Nancy is a freelance writer and editor specializing in the areas of sustainable agriculture, food, sake and Japanese culture in the Americas. Her articles have appeared in Civil EatsThe Wall Street JournalSaveur, Food and Wine, and NPR’s The Salt, among other publications. Headshot by Jennifer Rowsom

LA Ecovillage

Self-Reliance in an Urban Homestead

Kirsten Dirksen

In urban Los Angeles, about 3 miles west of downtown, 500 people live on 11 acres where priority is given to bicycles, fruit trees, greywater, veggie gardens, clotheslines, compost, shared spaces (tool shop, art space, bike shop), micro-businesses, on-site natural food coop and chickens.

The Los Angeles Ecovillage was launched over 2 decades ago when its founders looked to the neighborhood for inspiration. “The way in which we think about making an urban ecovillage, we have to ask ourselves the questions, ‘what are the problems in your neighborhood with air, soil and water'”, explains co-founder Lois Arkin. “And for us, in the beginning, it was discovering that the children in our neighborhood had 20% less lung capacity than children in other neighborhoods. So what could we do, we could stop driving.”

Filmed by Johnny Sanphillippo

Visit the LA Ecovillage website


Come out and meet us!

Community Justice: Alliances for Action

16th Annual Local to Global Justice Forum and Festival

February 24 – 26, 2017

Mark your calendars and join us for speakers, panels, workshops and hands-on exhibits as well as activities for children and youth, musical performances, and tabling from over 40 community groups!

 What if it rains?

– See more at:

Self-Empowerment Through Cooperative Enterprise

Two Examples of Cooperative Business in Rural Latin America
Samantha Greiff

[Editor’s note: below are two short videos that profile rural cooperative enterprises in Latin America: a dairy cooperative in Ecuador and a weaving cooperative in Chiapas, Mexico.]




Salinerito is a Social and Solidarity Economy Ecuadorian brand that represents cooperative companies from the Andean mountain village of Salinas de Guaranda. It is, in effect, a center of entrepreneurship that offers high quality products, locally and ethically sourced. Collectivism and local activities are the main focus.

Visit the Salinerito website

Flores de Chiapas


Estamos orgullosos de presentar Flores de Chiapas, una cooperativa de mujeres fundada y apoyada por Yo’on Ixim

Yo’on Ixim es una organización no lucrativa Mexicana que trabaja con familias Mayas Tzotziles de los Altos de Chiapas. Nuestra misión en la cooperativa de artesanas Flores de Chiapas es trabajar con mujeres que viven en pobreza extrema en el desarrollo de las empresas equitativas y democráticas que les brinde a las las mujeres la oportunidad de trabajar por salarios justos, aprender nuevas habilidades técnicas, y desarrollar la capacidad de dirigir un negocio.

[We are proud to present Flowers of Chiapas, a women’s cooperative founded and supported by Yo’onIxim.

Yo’on Ixim is a nonprofit organization that works with Mexican families Tzotzil Maya of highland Chiapas.Our mission in cooperative is to work with women living in extreme poverty in the development ofequitable and democratic businesses that provide the women a chance to work for fair wages, learn new technical skills, and develop the ability to run a business.]

Visit the Yo’on Ixim website

October is National Co-op Month

October is  National Co-op Month and has been celebrated every year in the U.S. for over 50 years. This is a time to learn about local Co-ops and educate others about the value and benefits of belonging to a Co-op.

The theme for the 2016 National Cooperative Month in October is “Cooperatives Build,” which cooperatives are urged to reflect in their communications and outreach activities. The theme can be used on its own, or extended with sub-themes, such as: Cooperatives Build Trust; Cooperatives Build Communities; Cooperatives Build Jobs; Cooperatives Build a Better World.



…we made it out of the typical system and you can never go back after that…

That’s a quote from the movie I encourage you to watch! Like I asked in previous posts: are we ready to do the work? Yes, it seems a lot of work but how important is it to us to live lives that are authentic and self-directed. Are we really so numbed out and lethargic that the choice of a lesser life with a form of “shadow career” is more appealing to us? All of us have a lot of challenges we share and economically most of us are in the same boat. So what options do you see? How are you doing it: make a living and live your purpose?

Arizona needs a cooperative movement and the hardest is to get it started. Come join us in any capacity and make ever easier for the ones that will undoubtedly join us once we get it going and show some success. We are diligently working on setting up the Arizona Cooperative Initiative in such a way that we can help the development of cooperatives in AZ. We have lots of highly rewarding challenges: funding the AZ cooperative development, working with the legislator to establish statues for AZ, creating working, living examples, educate as many people about the exciting possibilities of all forms of coops and much more… Watch this movie to learn more about what people are doing all over the US:

This video was originally written by Laura Flanders of GRITv for the YES magazine. Click here to read the whole article on cooperative development in the US supported by GRITv and TESA.

Please contact us if you have ANY interest to learn more, help our small team to get bigger, some idea about opening a coop in AZ or for any other reason. Let’s work together to bring the change we seek down into our daily work!