Every one of the Fageda Cooperative’s 300 workers — from milking shed to packing plant — will tell you that this cooperative makes the finest yogurt in all Spain, if not in the world. Last year, they made 1.4 million yogurts every week. In Catalonia, only Nestle and Danone sell more.
But Fageda isn’t in business to make yogurt. For over 30 years, its sole mission has been to provide fully-paid, flexible employment to anyone from the region diagnosed with a mental health problem but who still wants to work.
The pioneering Fageda Cooperative is the subject of our forthcoming feature documentary, Yoghurt Utopia. And it represents the fulfillment of the vision of a remarkable man.
Back in the 1970’s, Cristobal Colon (literally Christopher Columbus, in English) began work as a therapist in a large asylum in Northeastern Spain. Under Franco, psychiatric care had yet to progress beyond the 19th century and Colon was one of only four doctors overseeing 900 patients. Treatment meant either solitary confinement or complete abandonment in a maze of dilapidated buildings.
Colon concluded that the patients weren’t being treated at all; they were being hidden, shut away from sight and medicated into docility. Under the pretext of care, society was exiling the mentally ill and denying them the hope of returning to society. In Spain at that time, everyone “knew” that once you entered the asylum, you didn’t get out.
Eventually Colon had enough and quit. However, remarkably, he persuaded the local health board — now freed from Franco’s ideological shackles, as the dictator had died in 1975 –to release 15 patients into his own care.
He was motivated by a simple idea: work could be the key to enabling his patients to return to society, and to restoring their sense of pride and dignity. But to test his theory, the work needed to be meaningful enough for society to see value in it; proper jobs for decent pay in a bona fide business. In other words, they would have to start their own company.
Colon acquired land in the middle of a nearby forest and turned it into a farm. He purchased cows, and after a few years, built a yogurt factory. His patients became the cooperative’s workers.
That was thirty years ago. Today, the Fageda Cooperative is one of Catalonia’s best-loved and most successful brands, held up as a beacon of enlightened mental health care and a model of sustainable, socially responsible capitalism. It has been featured in the Harvard Business Review.
But the lessons of La Fageda go further still.
To best treat his patients, Colon had to cast a doctor’s eye over the workplace and design a business capable of prioritizing its uniquely sensitive workers’ wellbeing, while still making the profits needed to keep the lights on, pay the wages, employ a team of onsite care staff, and fund the continuing development of the factory.
In examining the world of work, Cristobal diagnosed much of the malaise facing today’s 21st century workforce, and then he set out to find a cure for that malaise. He wanted to build an organization that would make for a happy place to work.
For the past 2 years, we have been following life at the Fageda Cooperative for our documentary, Yoghurt Utopia. While our title tells of a remarkable success story, we have, of course, discovered that running the cooperative provides a steady challenge for Colon, given that he must always confront the harsh realities of business without compromising his commitment to provide a supportive environment for his workers. The last few months have been further complicated by rumors in the media of Colon’s intention to retire, which happen to be true.
As could be expected, the work at La Fageda does not provide a magic pill for all. We have been spending time with many of the workers, intent on capturing a frank, unsentimental portrait of a remarkable collection of people. Often they are at odds with the world and even themselves, battling with life even as they attempt to live it. Relapses and crises can and do occur, and we have witnessed their devastating effects. But we have laughed with the workers as much as we have cried, and have experienced the one trait they all share — an indomitable spirit.
One of us (Anna) has had a fascination with the Fageda Cooperative back to its earliest days. Anna writes: “My Catalan mother and family grew up barely a mile away from this pioneering business. Throughout my childhood, I spent my summers in the same village, Olot, and saw the local people’s attitudes change towards the Cooperative, from suspicion to acceptance and finally to pride.”