Yogurt Cooperative in Spain Provides a Different Form of Help: Meaningful Work

Anna ThomsonDavid Baksh
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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.

Our Documentary

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.”

We are funding our documentary with support from several media organizations in Spain, and through a kickstarter campaign, which ends on July 7.

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Anna Thomson

Anna Thomson, co-director/producer of the Yoghurt Utopia documentary, is a director of documentaries and drama-docs who has worked for Discovery, Nat Geo, History Channel, BBC, Sky Arts and Channel 4 on productions as varied as the award-winning "Days that Shook the World," "Al Murray’s German Adventure," "Objects of Desire,"  "Fatal Attractions" and the Channel Four series "World War 2: The Last Heroes." Crucially for this project she is a fluent Catalan speaker. www.annathomson.dunked.com

David Baksh

David Baksh,  co-director and cinematographer for Yoghurt Utopia, has had a diverse directing career, which spans broadcast TV, commercials, event visuals and award-winning digital ad campaigns,  making him a multi-platform specialist.  He is at home shooting commercials and documentaries as he is creating immersive experiences for the web. www.annexfilms.co.uk/directors/66/david-baksh

25 COMMENTS

    • I don’t really believe in meaningful work. I don’t think there’s help for people like me.

      Look. there’s a human ghost behind these words.
      I’m a human being. Who tried to get help for myself and others through a lot of channels for a long time. Legal advocacy, direct action, formal, informal, social movements, social media, whatever. Who made a lot of self-representations on websites in this electronic massive-archive in this at-once hyper-connected and infrastructure-collapsing stage of late civilization. Tried everything. I’m probably going to kill myself.

    • Thank you, Uprising. Thanks, Oldhead and Stephen.

      Oldhead, I made it through the first 3 chapters back in like 2011…. 10 Yards Of Linen. 1 Coat. Hegel. Something like that, right?

      To be clear, nomad’s and liberalminority’s criticisms of the cooperative are not my criticisms. It could be a relatively benign workplace, I have no idea. Just, capitalism is exhausting and eats you, and my last straight job was in a yogurt factory and it was hell, and I was drinking and I saw this and the bitter irony of it just felt like the focal point for all my lunatic prole issues.

      Thanks for all being here. Through whatever combination of luck, privilege, resistance, and fighting dirty, I hope y’all keep making livable niches for yourselves. We need to make more ruptures for others.

      I’m in a pretty small city now, but we had about 30 people turn out today for a series of workshops/talks on being Mad and interacting with racism, police violence, sizism/body policing, etc… followed by an actually really amazing concert. Happy creative maladjustment day.

      • Damn, you mean something’s actually happening somewhere?

        I didn’t even see you as criticizing the article btw, I thought the synchronicity was just blowing your mind. As for Marx, I do vaguely remember something linen, but the thing that stands out to me is the guy who can’t afford to buy the shoes he spends all day every day manufacturing.

        Anyway, thanks for checking in.

  1. This is really interesting to me. I look forward to seeing the film and learning more. But this article also leaves me with a lot of questions:

    In what sense is Fageda a cooperative enterprise? Who directs the company and who are the legal owners?

    How is “sustainable, socially responsible capitalism” even possible when even democratically-run cooperatives must compete in capitalist markets that do not value humanity or nature except as means to an end?
    What happens if competition in the market dictates the adoption of unsustainable and socially irresponsible practices or the self-imposed austerity of the workers?

    I don’t mean to sound too critical. The prospects for survival for the psychiatrized are often grim, and it sounds like Fageda probably improves the lives of many. My questions notwithstanding, I often wish I could figure out a way to start a co-op myself, because the US does not give disabled people enough money to meet our basic human needs, and it is difficult to find jobs that are willing to provide necessary accommodations.

  2. You want people to work at a yogurt farm as a modern day slave? People don’t want to work for minimum wage, that is what is causing them to be mentally ill. You can’t give them jobs when being over worked and underpaid is causing their sadness and anger.

    Why are you trying to suggest work will cure sadness when the majority who are mentally do have jobs? Do you not understand there are people who don’t want to work because they are too stressed out, or in distress to function in society?

    Why don’t you try working 80 hours a week for minimum wage trying to make ends meet and then say this is a cure for depression?

    • Many people will not be happy working their lives away at a yogurt farm for income, they will want better job opportunities that challenge their intellect and can change the world.

      Forcing mentally ill people to slave on a yogurt farm is sadistic, and is not a cure for their problems.

        • What child says when I grow up I want to work on a yogurt farm?

          Please use critical thinking or common sense at the very least, they are trying to find a place for the mentally ill to make them productive for their own good.

          Don’t demean the mental patients, give them the same opportunities as you to better themselves.

          • What’s wrong with working on a farm? Lots of people make a happy living doing so. It’s been the primary mode of survival for humans since the beginning of the modern age. I think you should visit the place before you make any assumptions about how miserable and enslaved the workers are. In any case, it certainly seems a big step up from prescribing a lifetime of brain-disabling, life-shortening antipsychotics, doesn’t it?

            — Steve

  3. The people on this comments page have raised many valid questions about and possible objections to this article. Since I share these questions and possible objections, I’d like to see this documentary for myself and find out if my fears and doubts about this work program are valid. I’m going to donate to this documentary’s Kickstarter account and, hopefully, in time, we’ll all get the facts about the Fageda Cooperative. Maybe we’ll all be pleasantly surprised by it once we see it in action. Who knows.