Disasters Spur Co-Op Formations: Louisiana Co-Op Association Helps Farmers, Fishermen Recover Following Hurricanes and Oil Spill

Article excerpt

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Despite hurricanes, drought, floods and oil spills in recent years, agriculture and fishing remain among Louisiana's top-earning industries, netting about $6.1 billion last year. More than half of the state's producers are small-scale farmers and fishermen, for whom these natural and man-made disasters have created an especially heavy burden, since even in the best of times, achieving economic viability can be a challenge for them.

According to the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, slightly more than 60 percent of the state's producers are classified as operating small farms, with less than $20,000 in annual sales. Besides low earnings, small farmers and fishermen face other barriers to sustaining their businesses.

These barriers are especially prevalent for socially disadvantaged, often minority, producers. Challenges include having limited operating and investment capital and a lack of access to credit. They also struggle more to tap state, federal and other support resources. Small, socially disadvantaged producers also often lack the technical expertise, business acumen and marketing skills needed to improve their income and overall chances of business success.

Harvey Reed III is a "man on a mission" to turn things around for socially disadvantaged small farmers and fishermen in his home state. As the founder of the Louisiana Association of Cooperatives (LAC), Reed knows all too well the day-in, day-out hurdles that small and minority producers face. He's seen those difficulties first-hand through more than 20 years of direct experience with rural agricultural production in Louisiana.

Reed, a graduate of Southern University and Louisiana State University's Ag Leadership Program, specializes in development of co-ops and also works in agribusiness and general economic development.

Rebounding from Hurricane Katrina

On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina--one of the five most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history and the costliest one to date--struck southeast Louisiana. It caused widespread destruction throughout the Gulf Coast region, but especially in Louisiana, where almost 1,600 people lost their lives.

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The impact in New Orleans was cataclysmic. The storm surge, coupled with scores of levee failures, put 80 percent of the city underwater and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. The devastation extended over about 90,000 square miles of the Gulf Coast, from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle. The estimated damage from Hurricane Katrina was more than $81 billion. Louisiana's farm economy alone suffered about $1.6 billion in losses.

In the aftermath of Katrina, the situation was dire for small farmers and fishermen of the Louisiana Gulf Coast. They were in a desperate struggle to survive the ecological and economic effects of the disaster and to keep their businesses afloat.

Witnessing their plight led Reed to form the Louisiana Association of Cooperatives (LAC). His goals were to: engage in the Katrina recovery effort; reach out to disadvantaged small farmers and fishermen and provide them with technical assistance and resources; and to help them form new cooperatives to collectively strengthen their operations. His vision was for a grassroots, highly mobile and rapid-response organization.

Reed was already deeply involved in Katrina recovery work before the official incorporation of LAC. He initially worked with two groups of fishermen, located on opposite sides of the state, to assess their needs, help them secure resources and organize as co-ops.

"Recovery and relief--that was our main focus when we got started," Reed says. "We realized that after the hurricane they couldn't do any fishing because their boats were under water, damaged or just lost. We asked them about forming a co-op and they agreed to do it."

The two groups Reed initially worked with organized as the Gulf Coast Fisheries Cooperative in Hackberry, La. …