Want to move to a co-op?
A few days after this story on Rainbird Village was published, I received a new request to connect, along with this message, on LinkedIn: “Saw your article on my friend Colleen Dick’s Rainbird Village. Her idea is good, but only exists on paper. The Utah OSR Land Cooperative is actually building a real live town in Utah for those who want to live a self-sufficient lifestyle.”
This message came from Jesse Fisher, a member of the Utah Operation Self-Reliance Cooperative. When I spoke with him a few weeks later, he emphasized a lack of hard feelings for the Rainbird team or anyone else trying to build sustainable living communities.
In fact, he tried to join them first.
“I was really interested in what Colleen had in mind,” he says. “But then I ran across OSR, and they were just a lot further along than Colleen or I or anyone else in this field. That’s why I chose Philip Gleason’s project.”
While organizations like Rainbird are still scouting for land, Gleason’s OSR—Riverbed Ranch in Juab county—is an entire community you could visit today. If you drive two hours west of the I-15, you’ll eventually bump into their little oasis.
“Education, private capital, and a complex, cooperative business come together to create the opportunity for families to transition from a city lifestyle to a country culture of self-reliance with like-minded neighbors while remaining debt free.” That’s how, in one breath, Gleason summarizes the purpose of OSR.
Unlike other communities of its kind, OSR has deep, traumatic roots for its founder. As a young father, Gleason and his family were living in a trailer park during a Utah winter. When the power went out in the middle of the night, they were forced to do something they’d never done before: fight to survive.
“Our drinking water was frozen, the temperature was dropping rapidly, and we had no way to feed our babies,” he says. “That experience rewired my brain. Since then, I’ve always been cognizant of having multiple heating sources as well as food and water storage. I’m constantly thinking of ‘What if?’ scenarios.”
The desire to create a community where he and his family would feel safe is one reason construction happened so quickly. But Gleason also has something communities like Rainbird Village don’t: money.
In 2019, Gleason formed the corporation that now owns the rights to Riverbed Ranch, along with five other primary investors. After drafting membership and proprietary occupancy agreements, the six used their savings to secure a lease option on Utah land and water rights.
“I’ve had people tell me that you can’t own land in a co-op, and that’s absolutely not true,” he says. “If you and your siblings bought a farm and then put it into a family trust or an LLC, it’s the same process. This is just another way of owning the land.”
The current selling price of a share is $35,000—money that the co-op’s board is now using to expand the ranch. But though all the profit goes back into the project, they’re still trying to lower the cost.
“Our focus isn’t on making a bunch of money as developers,” Gleason says. “Instead, we’re putting everything into making living with us as cheap as possible. Unfortunately, it isn’t free, and there’s no financing available.”
A share guarantees one lot between two and 2.4 acres in size, along with water rights that Gleason says are worth more than the cash value of the share and land combined. Once you’ve secured that plot, though, the co-op expects more from you.
“You’re contracted to build a house (minimum of 600 square feet with a proper septic system),” Gleason starts listing on his fingers. “Since we don’t have a power grid, your house must be passive solar and meet our installation specifications. Then you’ll need a barn. We don’t care what size—raise horses or worms, it’s your business—and a greenhouse, along with a garden or orchard. Oh, and you’re going to need a well.”
Shareholder contracts also require that all the above have at least a 10-year life expectancy.
“We don’t want the wind to come along and take away your things,” Gleason says. “What you’re building should be permanent structures.”
Of course, it doesn’t have to be you building everything—Gleason says people often hire contractors or other advisors. Still, in a self-reliant community, it’s not surprising that you’d be expected to put in some of your own manual labor.
“I’d never used a backhoe until we started working on my house,” Fisher says. He dug his own septic tank hole and the foundation for his shipping container garage.
“I’ve got some skills now, and I saved money,” he says.
Building out your own infrastructure can trim some costs. Still, Gleason says the price of starting a life within the co-op begins around $230,000.
“Still less than a house in a suburb,” Gleason shrugs.
Clearly, the cost hasn’t slowed the project down. After launching with 250 voting shares, 125 were sold to 115 families. When purchasing a share, members enter a contract in which they promise to have their properties constructed and be moved onto the farm within three years.
Today, 30 members live on the farm, including Gleason and his family. With a strong population, the town center is bustling: the ranch has a medical clinic, volunteer fire station, gas and diesel tanks, and a town store.
“We’ve had a heart attack, seizures, carbon monoxide poisoning, construction-type accidents, and everything has been handled safely on the premises,” Gleason says.
Both Gleason and Fisher say the community’s success comes from their selection process. Unlike other co-ops with dreams of self-reliance, you must advance through multiple rounds of interviews (where the interviewers determine your “like-mindedness”) to purchase shares and officially become a member of the OSR. In the preliminary interview, Gleason and other community members review the applicant’s “transition plan,” which proves they can make the transition to OSR with their current resources.
"Nine months ago, we paid off the whole lease option for the land. Now, our focus is marketing and bringing in new shareholders to continue to expand our self-reliant community.”
“You’d be surprised how many people don’t have qualifying plans or who didn’t expect such a serious picking through,” Gleason says. “But we’re serious, so why shouldn’t you be?”
Most of the time, this is where the interview process ends. Other times, those who failed the first round will show up a year or so later with improved plans or better funding.
“Those boomerangs, that’s what we’re looking for—people who want to be self-reliant and will take the steps to get there,” Gleason says. “The truth is, most people don’t want that. They’re looking for a check or a vacation, or for easy instructions.”
OSR has received criticism for its interview process, but Gleason says it’s baseless.
“I have the right to create a neighborhood. For example, we know you can’t discriminate against age, but how many 55 and older communities are out there? It just depends on how your organization has been set up legally, and we have the right lawyer to make our case.”
Gleason says if you have enough in your savings account and the right attitude, anyone can buy in–—and they really do mean anyone.
“The youngest member of the OSR is 18,” Gleason says. “His parents fronted the cost, and he’s in the process of paying them back, but he showed us that he had both the capacity for membership and the drive.”
As it grows, Riverbed Ranch’s focus has turned to younger members of the community. Gleason says the desire to be self-reliant starts early, and the ranch gives that desire somewhere to go.
“You’ve heard the phrase, ‘Teach a man to fish, and you’ll feed him for a lifetime,’” Gleason says. “What we’re doing here goes further than that: Teach someone how to teach how to fish, and you’ll feed a nation.”
If you empower young people, he says, they’ll shock you.
“Give them a mentor and a bunch of opportunities, and they can learn about gardening, construction, farming, the circle of life, and everything in between,” he says. “We’ve seen rebellious teenagers flip. It’s life-changing, especially for city kids.”
Gleason and Fisher say they’ve seen changes in everyone who moves to the ranch, regardless of age. “It does something to an individual’s psyche in today’s challenging times to have a safe place with like-minded neighbors where you can raise your own food and live with people you love,” Gleason says. “We jump at any chance to help each other. There’s real love and support here.”
Gleason looks for applicants who are already exhibiting self-reliance, i.e., they have a home garden or are raising animals. Once shareholders have moved onto the farm, they’re encouraged to continue these behaviors through cottage industries. Gleason and other advisors accept business plan proposals from residents regularly.
“We look for folks with integrity who can work well with others,” he says. “And especially those who will follow the laws of Juab County, the state of Utah, and federal legislation.”
That last criterion has led to Gleason and his team turning a lot of people down.
“The local community thought we were tax protestors or that we’re polygamists or preppers,” Gleason says. “Recently, we had a bunch of militant guys show up and say, ‘We like what you’re doing here. How often do you march, and where do you put your 50 calibers?’ Repeatedly, we have to say, ‘This isn’t a commune; we’re not making a political or religious statement. We’re a simple agricultural endeavor!’”
Gleason has two main priorities as Riverbed Ranch grows: get certified as an organic producer and build community resources.
“If we’re registered as an organic producer, we can make money off our produce and animals outside of the ranch,” Gleason says. “That boost in funding would mean we could put more money into things like schools, a library, things we’ll need to be a long-standing community.”
That seems like a real possibility as shares continue to sell.
“Nine months ago, we paid off the whole lease option for the land,” he says. “Now, our focus is marketing and bringing in new shareholders to continue to expand our self-reliant community.”