Disaster recovery and resilience: TAFCO

Pivoting in response to industry changes – building a more resilient co-op positioned to support the community to cope with disasters

Interview by BCCM
Photography by Josh Robenstone

This case study was developed as part of the BCCM's Co-operative Farming report, Primary producer co-operatives: The beating heart of community resilience and recovery.

The Tobacco & Associated Farmers Co-operative Limited (TAFCO) was formed in 1987 by tobacco growers to purchase products on their behalf in response to price gouging they were facing. Based in Myrtleford, Victoria, TAFCO reaches across 3 Shires (Local Government Areas) Indigo, Alpine, and Wangaratta.

TAFCO has a broad horticultural base and has grown from 174 members at the start, to over 650 in the present day, with many members operating multi-commodity farming enterprises. Share capital has been capped at 600,000 made up of $1 shares held by the members of the co-operative. The continued investment into the co-operative by new and existing members helped in the opening of the store at 215 Great Alpine Road, Myrtleford in 1998.

TAFCO and its members have been through a major industry disruption and natural disasters in the form of floods, fires, smoke and drought. For many in the community, TAFCO is the first point of contact and a strong source of support borne from a history of dealing with adversity.

Every decision is about the members. The members are TAFCO’s genetic makeup.
Kerry Murphy, Secretary

In 2006, the tobacco growing industry ceased almost overnight, along with its $30 million farmgate value. What followed was a great story of TAFCO’s - and the region’s - transition. After the closure, the region’s growers were supported by TAFCO to transition to producing and selling vegetables, such as cauliflower and broccoli, TAFCO organised and facilitated crane licenses for grape growers. TAFCO supported people beyond their status as co-operative members, such as by holding workshops on mental health and suicide and facilitating financial advice.

TAFCO has a long history in responding to the needs of its members and broader communities in the face of disasters.

While the dynamic changes in tobacco growing occurred, other factors hit the region hard as well. Drought followed by the 2009 ‘Black Saturday’ Bushfires and the resultant on-going smoke haze took a huge toll.

After the fires, TAFCO ran field days on fencing and aid pasture recovery. TAFCO was supported by the Myrtleford Lions Club to obtain a pneumatic star post driver mounted on a trailer which was stored at the TAFCO yard to be used by the community free of charge when fencing items had been purchased.

Trust is the primary value of the co-op. Long established over 30 years, the community trusts TAFCO and this is very important for us.
Lachlan Campbell, Chairman

In 2009, TAFCO partnered with corporate sponsors in the establishment of four weather stations in Myrtleford, Porepunkah, Coral Bank and King Valley to launch TAFCO’s online real time weather data website. Additional external funding was later secured to add two more weather stations in Whorouly and Beechworth and Rosewhite.

TAFCO manages the weather monitoring as a community project, ensuring that the weather stations play their critical role in providing current and historical weather information not only to their members, but the whole community.

When the community is hit by disasters, TAFCO focuses on recovery post disaster rather than the immediate response.

TAFCO is there for its members and the wider community with mental health support and community activities such as on farm BBQ’s, concerts and dinners, building a sense of community and family. TAFCO also acts as a communication pathway between co-operative members and government agencies, supporting and facilitating others who are leading the disaster response.

TAFCO has also helped secure government funding for wine growers dealing with smoke damage – including $1.1 million for a smoke signal system for wine growers, and $200,000 for adaptation and resilience planning, including an international smoke impact symposium.

What is TAFCO’s secret ingredient? To never walk away!
Kerry Murphy, Secretary

A farmer’s market was launched by TAFCO in 2016 in Myrtleford, and it has become a major social event for the whole community as well as a business incubator. Held on the fourth Saturday of each month, producers sell produce and share with visitors about the wonderful, ethical, local food system. TAFCO also uses the markets to support the community more broadly, such as providing mental health support services – it is much more than your standard weekend market. The market not only plays a role in social connection, but it provides a commercial opportunity for farmers like Silvana Micheli to remain farming and provide a cash flow and build a business. Agriculture is risky, and the markets add to the range of income sources increasing the economical resilience of the region.

The markets, they warm my heart, we love the markets! TAFCO is there to make sure they run smoothly… you set up, sell your produce, go home and TAFCO takes care of everything else. They are amazing.
Silvana Micheli, Farmer and Member

TAFCO is a living example of how co-operatives can provide ‘extra value’ that private or government organisations cannot. Co-operatives cannot always compete on price with larger private organisations yet can provide essential value to the community that comes from being member-owned –accountability, community support, family, care and longevity.

TAFCO lives and breathes life with its members as everyone is dealing with the same issues and challenges. The lack of redemption of shares during transition away from tobacco and during disasters shows continuing relevance of and commitment to the co-operative – through good times and hard times, TAFCO members have stayed and supported each other.

TAFCO, and its role in supporting local economic and community development was featured in the ABC Documentary Fightback Farmers currently available on ABC iView.

Lessons from TAFCO

TAFCO is a co-operative that has supported its members and community through multiple disasters. It was established through adversity to provide a viable financial model for local farmers following the closure of the tobacco industry. As a member owned organisation, they have focused on group buying to ensure that they can offer their members affordable prices ongoing for their rural and farm supplies. As the area pivoted to other forms of primary production TAFCO was able to support their financial viability in this way.

In line with their focus on community TAFCO has grown into more than a store and is a key foundation of the community, providing access to fencing equipment and weather monitoring and establishing a farmers’ market to promote their member’s produce and deepen social bonds.

TAFCO is the backbone of its community. It is a living example of how co-operatives can provide ‘extra value’ that private or government organisations cannot.

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