Who would have thought that one of Argentina’s largest farmer-owned cooperatives was started in a small bodega in La Rioja, Argentina? In the 1940s, a group of Italians who had experience making wine immigrated to La Rioja. They bought a bodega and started purchasing grapes from local growers to make wine. As interest grew, they started planting grape vines and La Riojana Cooperative was born.
Today, a group of 422 farmers own La Riojana Cooperative, many whom have been part of the business for generations. Of these farmers, 80% are small scale and grow grapes and/or olives on seven acres or less. No matter the size of the farm, each member gets one vote to democratically determine the path of the cooperative.
La Riojana primarily produces a delicious and reasonably priced variety of fair trade wines, including Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Bonarda Malbec. Additionally, they produce a small amount of organic fair trade olive oil, which was exported to the United States for the first time during the 2016 holiday season.
National Cooperative Grocers (NCG), which represents 150 food co-ops across the US including VFC, developed the export relationship and helped get the oil into food co-ops across the country. In 2016, NCG co-ops purchased just over $1 million worth of La Riojana wine and olive oil. That was a 400% increase over prior year volume. Given current growth projections, NCG predicts that La Riojana will sell over $2.5 million of product to U.S. food co-ops by the end of 2017. Viroqua Food Co-op is excited to carry La Riojana products as they are a perfect example of our P6 values of co-op-to-co-op trade in action.
All of La Riojana’s products are certified fair trade by Fairtrade International. Through the fair trade premium on their products, the members of the cooperative have invested more than $11 million Argentinian pesos (~$730,000 US) in community improvement projects, including: a new drinking water supply for the village of Tilimuqui, where many of La Riojana’s workers and their families live; new community centers; new medical equipment. The most visible result of the cooperative’s reinvestment in its farmer members and their families can be seen in their commitment to education.
With support from La Riojana, a new secondary school specializing in agriculture opened in Tilimuqui in 2010. Offering free education to children age 13-18, the school has had a profound impact on its community, providing a catalyst for local development, increasing employment by the creation of more than 50 new jobs at the school, and providing training in technical agronomy to help slow the migration of young people to larger cities. Since 2010, enrollment in the school has grown from 33 pupils to more than 300. With plans to build new classrooms, the cooperative hopes to expand the school’s capacity to 600 students in the next few years. The cooperative also provides kits of school supplies to children of its members, as well as free computer courses to adults.
Besides supporting health and education, the cooperative is invested in green initiatives and sustainability. One of their goals is transitioning more of its growers to USDA Certified Organic. With a focus on becoming
carbon neutral, La Riojana Cooperative is introducing improved water management techniques, the use of solar and bio energy and a reforestation project.
When you purchase La Riojana wine and olive oil you are not just purchasing delicious foods to enjoy, you are casting a vote in favor of cooperative, fair trade businesses – and helping more than 422 cooperative members continue to invest in a brighter future.