Our Harvest: Growing a new type of food business

With a background in economic equality and social justice, Louisville native Casey Henry never expected to land a job in the food industry. But her service with the Presbyterian Hunger Program through AmeriCorps VISTA recently led her to a position with Our Harvest Cooperative, and it’s a perfect fit.
“I was focusing on healthy food and local food access issues around Cincinnati,” she says. “I started out by connecting Our Harvest with CAIN Food Pantry in Northside and helping out with the College Hill Farmers’ Market to get their food stamp program up and running. Those projects led to a deeper relationship with Our Harvest, and after my term ended in February, I became their sales coordinator.”
Part farm, part food hub, Our Harvest is the first union worker-owned food cooperative in North America — and it’s based here in Cincinnati’s College Hill neighborhood. The idea for an aggregated food distribution hub that pays workers livable wages was put into motion in 2010 by union organizer Ellen Vera after a friend told her about a European business model called Mondragon.

Founded in 1956 in Spain, the Mondragon Corporation is the world’s largest worker cooperative, centered on the principles of cooperation, participation, social responsibility, and innovation. Companies throughout the world have used Mondragon’s progressive practices as a model for their own business structure and culture. In 2009, Mondragon and the United Steelworkers Union agreed to partner, and the Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative, which oversees Our Harvest, emerged from that historic agreement.
After forming a study group to determine what type of project to apply the Mondragan model to, Vera gravitated toward something food-related, recognizing that the United Food and Commercial Workers Union represented 1.4 million food workers around the country and that her local union alone represented roughly 30,000 food workers along the I-75 corridor in Ohio.

“We recognized the need to do an aggregated distribution center because we had this local food renaissance going on, but it’s not in our schools, it’s not in our hospitals, it’s not in a lot of our grocery stores. And the big issue we found was that there was a lack of infrastructure here to really aggregate and distribute local food to get into these bigger places,” Vera says.
So she set out on an innovative mission to grow sustainable crops, make healthy food accessible to a larger population, pay workers a livable wage, and provide farmers with accredited training. “I had been working as a traditional union organizer for six years, and I was just really excited that this model was about being proactive about creating good, living-wage jobs,” Vera says.
According to the United States Farmworker Factsheet, farmworkers were excluded from nearly all of the major federal labor laws passed in the 1930s. Some of the laws have been amended to include workers on large farms, but farmworker exemptions remain in both labor organizing and minimum wage laws. Despite these loopholes, Our Harvest pays its workers $10-$25 an hour plus a $450 monthly health care benefit. Vera says, “That’s $26,200-$57,400 a year in wages and benefits compared to the average $18,910 a year ($9.09 an hour) that farm workers make according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.”
A holistic view

Fast-forward four years, and Vera and her team are starting to see their mission unfold. In addition to its Weekly Harvest Box Program—the CSA that has grown six-fold from the first year of operation and which continues to expand this year—Our Harvest distributes produce to a growing list of local companies such as Pipkin’s Market in Blue Ash, the distributor Pic’s Produce, Cincinnati State’s foodservice group, and Madison’s at Findlay Market.
Co-owner Mike Madison says he started sourcing produce from Our Harvest last year because of the exceptional quality of its organic products, many of which aren’t typically grown in Ohio—leeks, flat-leaf and curly parsley, and cilantro. He sells these items as a complement to the food his local sources are growing, like sweet corn, peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers. “[Our Harvest’s] offerings are unique, the quality is exceptional. It allows us to pair [their products] alongside the other things that we’re getting locally, so that they’re not in direct competition with the other producers that we already have been working with for a number of years,” Madison says.

As Our Harvest’s client list expands, so does its geographic footprint. The cooperative farms on multiple local properties with the Bahr Farm in College Hill serving as its primary growing and training site. On all of its properties, Our Harvest not only cultivates produce for its CSA programs and other markets but also educates new farmers through its innovative apprenticeship program and Cincinnati State's Sustainable Agriculture Management certificate program.
Training new farmers helps further Our Harvest’s commitment to creating family-sustaining jobs, producing sustainably grown local produce, and building a food hub to strengthen the local food system. “I love the Our Harvest project because it creates a truly holistic view of what is sustainable,” Vera says. “So many times when we hear about sustainability, people think about the environment and only the environment, but at Our Harvest we are creating a business that is environmentally, socially, and economically responsible.”
To date, Our Harvest has created 12 full-time farm and food hub staff jobs. Vera hopes to have 15-20 full-time workers on the payroll by the end of the year. Her long-term goal—gazing four to five years into the future—is to grow to a wholesale level with 700 acres of production and 200 employees.
Return on investment

Although the worker-owner model is still in its early stage, workers are already being paid fair wages, which has engendered a sense of ownership in the company. “[The worker-owner aspect] makes me feel really valued in addition to just the good relationships that I have with the rest of the Our Harvest team and the board,” says Henry, whose role involves overseeing the Weekly Harvest Box Program. “Structurally, I feel like I have a say in what happens and that my opinions matter, so it is a powerful thing.” She also is receiving an education of her own, which speaks to the organization’s investment in its workers. “I don’t really have a farming background, so I’ve learned a ton about how these crops are grown,” she says.
Henry adds that she’s moved by the commitment and tenacity of the Our Harvest leadership. “I’ve been so impressed by the ambition of the Our Harvest team really moving full-speed ahead toward some lofty goals,” she says. “It’s cool to see people’s flexibility to just figure things out along the way and create a new path. Being the first union co-op like this in North America is not the easiest route to take, and it’s not a challenge that everyone would want to take on.”
To that end, both Henry and Vera are passionate about elevating the conversation about sustainability from a primarily agricultural concern to a social justice matter.

“We have such an issue around jobs and inequality in our country right now,” Vera says. “My hope is that Our Harvest Cooperative and the Mondragon-USW union co-op template can serve as a model for communities across the country as a way in which we can truly improve our food system, employ our neighbors, and create the type of society we all want to live in.”

This article first appeared in the Summer issue of Edible Ohio Valley. Some information has been updated. Photography by Michael Wilson.
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Sarah Whitman is a freelance writer/editor with an emphasis on design and creativity. She served as Managing Editor of Soapbox Media from 2012 to 2014.