The members of a new dairy product cooperative speak of the social and economic model found in a piece of cheese

Chickens are constantly clucking around, anxiously waiting for Txetxu Núñez, a shepherd who has taken early retirement, to sprinkle their food on the ground so they can start pecking at it. Núñez is a countryman, with strong hands and a deep voice, who says what he thinks. He has spent his life working in pens with goats, sheep and cattle. He knows how difficult it is to eke out a decent living from the land and from livestock, and this is why he has been talking of food sovereignty at the agricultural union EHE, of which he is a member, and of how important it is for young people to return to the country and for the institutions to show more commitment to the primary sector.

To go from theory to reality only needs one step, action, so Núñez contributed his knowledge and expertise to the creation of Esnetik, a dairy product cooperative that opened in 2012 in Orozko. With eight farmers guaranteeing the raw ingredients, the capital from 80 partners, a processing plant and with the real life expertise of shepherds and country people like Núñez, Esnetik started out making mature cheese, cheese spread and grated cheese. A few months later, they launched cow and sheep milk yoghurt and it really took off last year with the Latxaren bihotza, a type of Camembert cheese that has become its banner.

Although it is no secret, the key ingredient in the diversification and success of Esnetik products is the different way the agri-food model has been developed by the partners; “our rejection of the obsession for the marketing of food, which has subordinated all human activities to the economic and financial sphere”, says Núñez. Teresa Sancho, a young coordinator of Esnetik adds that “the standardized goods in a globalized market eventually destroy the cultural bases of the local markets that provide the traditional knowledge, food sovereignty and self-sufficiency”.

Sancho, who has been part of the project from the beginning, believes that one of the values of Esnetik cheese and yoghurt is consumers’ awareness in the entire production process. Following the premise of transparency, Sancho proudly shows us the Ugao facilities where it all takes place, where four people hired by Esnetik, a number they hope to increase, prepare these products with dedication and care. A place where shepherds come every week; such as Joseba Ruiz de Alonso, a 25 year old youth from Okondo, who has taken over the family business.

Núñez believes that young shepherds play a key role in the cooperative. Although he states that milk production in the Basque Country is “at serious risk of disappearing due to the low prices imposed by the traditional dairy industry and to the expensive and unsustainable production model imposed by the institutions and companies; Esnetik must strive, in the future, to pay the fairest price possible and become an example for the dairy industry”, he concludes.

Esnetik militancy

Onin Ruiz

Onin Ruiz

Young people are also key players in another facet of the cooperative; the consumption of its products. Some people who have decided to include the cheeses and yoghurt produced by the cooperative in their shopping baskets are young people, such as Onin Ruiz (26), a member of Desazkundea, a group established in 2009 and that flies the flag of economic downgrading, responsible consumption and solidarity.

“We do not have the capacity to create an extensive communication strategy because the cooperative is small”, says this Esnetik coordinator. “In the beginning we simply told people we knew and existing consumer groups about it”, she recalls. It was when the cooperative was just starting out when Ruiz and Desazkundea joined. “We started out with a contribution. We now have a larger stake and, as a group, we have two partners in the cooperative”, explains Ruiz for whom forming part of the project was a political decision.

“We truly feel we are an integral part of Esnetik, just like the people who are making the cheese or the shepherds. We see this association as a transformation project, a political issue… When I have breakfast and I decide to have an Esnetik product, I am making a decision on how I want our social, economic and political model to be. In the end, small gestures in your daily life, like a spoonful of yoghurt, can transform the society in which we live”, says Ruiz.

Zero Balance Sheet

Esnetik does not seek economic profit in competitive terms; something that sounds like fiction in a world where people and projects are measured in terms of profitability. The partners of the cooperative are seeking to achieve intangible benefits, such as the creation of jobs or the generation of knowledge. They also want to consolidate a brand that generates trust and that is linked to a philosophy and to a different way of working.

“The price for Esnetik cheese is probably higher than that from a large supermarket, but I know what is behind those cheaper products: if I am not paying for that cheese, someone else must be paying for it”, says Ruiz, referring to the trap behind low prices. “If you don’t pay a fair price for a product, the producer will be paying the price through his working conditions and his health”, says this young partner, for whom responsibility and not price is the main criterion when buying a product.

“By means of a small action like having a responsible breakfast each morning, we can make a statement on what model we want for future generations. We are absolutely clear about this today. We believe in the direct alliance with consumers and with small retailers”, says Núñez.