hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




Markets with a mission

Food co-ops expand their reach – and goals – around the region


Contributing writer

When the Stone Valley Community Market opened its doors in late June in Poultney, Vt., its founders hoped the “soft opening” would help start the process of recruiting 200 member-owners for the cooperative market by December.

That was the number of memberships their business plan had predicted would make the fledgling cooperative an economically viable enterprise.

They did far better than that. By the time of its official grand
opening on July 23, the co-op, with its old-fashioned barrels of bulk goods and signature 1950s appliances, had signed up 213 members. Those members paid either an annual $20 fee or a one-time investment of $300.

“We ran out of membership forms,” said Julia Riell, the new co-op’s manager. “We are a victim of our own success.”

A self-described “recovering corporate accountant and software analyst” from Hyannis, Mass., Riell is a passionate advocate of cooperatives.

“I am a co-op evangelist,” Riell said. “They are the last bastion of democracy. They’re messy, but they build community and bring people together in amazing way, because in a co-op every member has the same vote, the same power.”

Poultney, it turns out, isn’t the only town where the co-op concept is catching on. New cooperatively owned food markets have recently opened or are planned in several communities around the region, and existing co-ops are expanding.

In Columbia County, N.Y., new cooperative food stores are being organized in Philmont and Hudson, while a 2-year-old co-op is thriving in Chatham.

In Great Barrington, Mass., the long-established Berkshire Co-op Market is making plans for new, larger quarters after outgrowing its current home, which was built only seven years ago.

And in Cambridge, N.Y., and Williamstown, Mass., established food co-ops have grown their membership significantly after moving to new storefronts in recent years.

Evolving movement

The co-op movement seems to have come a long way from the church basements of the 1970s, where the Great Barrington and Rutland, Vt., food co-ops got their start. Back then, these co-ops operated as buying clubs, with members mainly aiming to save money on food by buying in bulk and cutting out the retail middlemen.

These days, co-op enthusiasts appear less concerned with price than with being part of a community with shared values, like environmental sustainability and economic egalitarianism, rather than buying into the corporate goal of profit above all else. For some, that may make the co-op movement seem a bit subversive.

“Cooperatives have a triple bottom line,” explained Dan Seitz, the board chairman of the Berkshire Co-op Market. “They have to succeed financially, socially and environmentally.”

He describes co-ops as practicing “enlightened capitalism.”

“The nonprofit movement expresses a yearning for new types of community, ones that are committed to providing living wages and transparency,” Seitz said. “People have a right to know what’s in their food, even though powerful economic interests are opposed to this simple bit of information.

“Human culture is evolving and needs partnerships, transparence and a sense of community,” he added. “Co-ops are a business model that taps into these deep needs, a way of conducting commerce that can overcome the traditional corporate trends.”

Alternative business model

In some cases, the cooperative form of commerce is taking the place of traditional privately owned businesses.

The Old Creamery Grocery and Deli in Cummington, Mass., for example -- “not just a store, it’s the heart of the hill towns” – is in the process of converting to a cooperative form of ownership after years of private operation.

And in Philmont, N.Y., the demise of a Stewart’s convenience store in the center of the village has created the opportunity -- and the space -- for a co-op that by next year will provide the community with a local market once again.

Erbin Crowell, executive director of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association in Shelburne Falls, Mass., cited a University of Wisconsin study that found there are 29,000 cooperatives in the United States, with more than 500 operating in western New England. These co-ops generate annual revenues of $652 billion, the analysis found.

Cooperatives come in many shapes and sizes, ranging in size from small storefronts to Fortune 500 companies. There are consumer cooperatives, such as food co-ops, but there are also producer cooperatives, worker cooperatives and shared-services cooperatives.

But they all share common attributes: They are owned and democratically controls by their members; they all return surplus revenues to members; and they are not motivated by profit but, instead, by their members’ needs for affordable goods or services.

Further, cooperatives are guided by seven internationally recognized principles. Among them are open membership, democratic member control, cooperation among cooperatives and concern for community. Crowell estimates cooperative organizations of one sort or another serve four in 10 Americans.

Food and a social context

The food co-op originated in England in 1844, when the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers opened a grocery store. The Pioneers envisioned a new way of doing business: putting control of the enterprise in the hands of those of who patronized the business and thereby controlling the costs. In return, members were expected to volunteer time on behalf of the enterprise, thus reducing labor costs and the prices of basic commodities.

“The key to growth of the cooperative model was the establishment by the Pioneers of a set of principles that have guided the movement ever since,” Crowell said. “At a time when access to nutritious food was limited and adulterated products were common, the most urgent need was for pure, wholesome and affordable food. But the vision of the Rochdale Pioneers encompassed more than just retailing. Their goal was a transformation of the economy, and early co-ops set about the development of agricultural and manufacturing co-ops to supply their stores and support employment, and to provide shelter.”

Some of those 19th century concerns seem to be coming back to the fore. The contemporary co-op movement appears to be riding a tide of anxiety about the future of the planet. With the climate warming while economic prospects cool for everyone but the very wealthy, and with the nutritional value of processed and genetically modified foodstuffs in question, cooperatives offer an appealing alternative to consumers concerned about the sustainability of agriculture, the environment and the economy.

Locally, new and established co-ops are emphasizing their support for local food production networks and sustainability.

“Our basic idea is food security,” Riell said. “Since the 1970s, there has been talk of a co-op in Poultney. But recently we have come to the realization that we need ‘relocalization’ – independence from the network of food distribution that depends upon long-distance transportation.”

Two years ago, Riell said, a survey found that Poultney residents had to drive out of town five or six times a month to get what they needed.

“What happens when the oil runs out?” she said. “Furthermore, many of our customers don’t have cars. We need to be able to get our stuff locally without having to drive.”

Replacing for-profit stores

In some towns, co-ops aim to fill in where private enterprise has pulled out.

Philmont, for example, lost its only local supermarket several years before Stewart’s also left town, so the planned Philmont Market and Café will fill a void, co-op President Elizabeth Angello said.

“There is no whole foods market here, and we have a lot of people without cars,” Angello said.

The fledgling co-op has been working with Philmont Beautification Inc., a local nonprofit group that owns the former Stewart’s shop and plans to rent it to the co-op.

“The co-op movement is so fascinating, for it shows what people can do when they get together for altruistic reasons,” Angello said. “There is a huge movement here to get local foods into our markets -- and to train people in what good nutrition and whole foods can mean to their health.”

Although Angello is optimistic the Philmont co-op can be up and running by the spring of next year, cooperatives are notoriously slow to develop.

Just to the north in Chatham, N.Y., the Chatham Real Food Market needed six or seven years of preparation before it was ready to open its doors in 2009, recalled Marcie Gardner, who became the co-op’s manager after more than a decade of working with Community Agriculture of Columbia County, a distribution network for locally grown products.

But the Chatham co-op has since become a local institution, with 600 members.

“Our whole motivation is developing the local food system, which is good from every point of view,” Gardner said.

Similarly, the 35-year-old Cambridge Food Co-op has become what manager Nancy Smith calls “the hub of everything” and has been growing since moving to its current home on West Main Street in 2009.

“Our sales have increased 25 percent since we moved into a larger space, and we’re seeing a broader demographic,” Smith said. “But the co-op is not just about food, it’s about everything. It’s about the community.”

In Chatham, the Real Food Market has become a center for education on nutrition and what Gardner describes as the “backyard homestead.” The co-op has been hosting weekly seminars on beekeeping, the cultivation of herbs, and the keeping of chickens.

Gardner points out that member ownership has made the co-op a year-round farmer’s market and community center.

“We are working with 50 to 60 Columbia County farmers, and we hope to be making a profit in a year or two and be able to offer our patronage refund to our members,” she said.

But she added that supplying fresh locally grown produce year round is now challenging.

“Local growers are no longer accustomed to winter storage, since there has been no call for it until now,” she said. “It is expensive to store produce through the winter, and we’ve lost the infrastructure to do it.”

Pricing out the masses?

Although co-ops aren’t motivated by profit, their reliance upon natural, organic, locally grown food products can result in higher prices. And that, in turn, prompts some to complain that food co-ops, having originated as a way to pool resources to reduce the price of basic food commodities, have over time evolved into exclusive, upscale marketplaces.

Mickey Friedman of Great Barrington, who in 1981 became one of the founding members of the Berkshire Co-op Market, recalls how it grew out of the anti-poverty movement.

“We used to go over to Springfield to get sacks of rice and flour and big blocks of cheese,” he recalled. “We’d divide and package the food ourselves. But now, I can’t afford to shop at the co-op.”

Seitz, however, disputes the view that cooperatives have evolved into elite marketplaces accessible only to the affluent.

“The Berkshire Co-op is committed to natural, organic products, supplied by local producers when possible,” he said. “But we have to run at a surplus or we don’t exist.”

He argues that the healthier -- though more expensive – products at the Berkshire Co-op reflect the true cost of growing and marketing natural and organic foods. And he suggested that the some of the cheaper foodstuffs available at chain supermarkets carry hidden costs.

“Isn’t it curious that as the price of food has gone down in this country, the amount we spend on health care has risen?” Seitz asked. “That is not a coincidence.”

He maintains that the true cost of conventional agriculture is far more expensive than its price at a conventional supermarket would imply.

“The price of nonorganic food does not reflect the depletion of soil, the contamination of pesticides and fertilizers, and the lowered nutritional value,” Seitz said. “Food production in the United States is artificially high because of synthetic fertilizers. You can’t consider food prices in a vacuum.”

He also believes the current system of large-scale agriculture is doomed.

“Civilizations rise and fall on the quality of their soil,” he said. “They fail when they have depleted the fertility of the earth.”

In contrast, he added, “there is no more productive farm than the true organic farm that is carefully integrated. That is a sustainable source of food, and one that we at the Berkshire Co-op, along with other co-ops, are supporting.”

Expanding membership, mission

Since its founding three decades ago, the Berkshire Co-op has grown to encompass 2,700 owner members and $8 million in annual sales. It has expanded twice since its beginnings in a church basement -- first to several rooms in the ground floor of a regional theater, and then, seven years ago, to a custom-built structure on Bridge Street.

Now, convinced that it has outgrown its current home, the co-op board is contemplating construction of yet another larger marketplace. There, members say, the co-op would be able to increase its educational outreach on the values of healthier eating habits – efforts it now conducts in partnership with local schools and the Nutrition Center, a local nonprofit.

Meanwhile, the Berkshire Co-op Market has grown so fast that its demand for local food products that has outstripped the capacity of farmers to provide it, said Art Ames, the market’s general manager. As a result, he said, the co-op may soon invest in the producers themselves, allowing them to increase the quantities of food they grow and thereby better meet burgeoning demand for healthy, locally grown products.

“We are a consumer co-op, and our goal is to give back to the community in the largest sense,” Ames said. “We are governed by seven principles – they are displayed on posters mounted on the walls of the market – and everything I do is working toward those goals. It starts with those values.”

At the Berkshire Co-op, the one-time membership “investment” is $150, a fee that can be paid in a lump sum or at a rate of $30 per year. Rather than give members discounts on purchased items, as it did in its formative years, it now offers patronage rebates based upon the co-op’s profitability.

“Last year, we returned $30,000 to our owners,” Ames said. “The profits don’t go to my salary.”

He also points out that one of the principles at the Berkshire Co-op is to pay a living wage to its employees so they can afford to live in the community.

“We pay $2 million – that’s 26 percent of our gross receipts – in salaries, and even during the recession, we had a 10 percent increase in staff because people needed jobs,” he said. “That’s how we identify and try to serve this community.”

And in the information-sharing tradition that’s common among co-operatives, Ames assists other businesses, such as the Old Creamery in Cummington, to convert to cooperative ownership structures.

Still, Ames has serious concerns about the viability of the American economy.

“The reason co-ops are viewed with suspicion and are not as common a structure as they are in England is ideological,” he said. “Until the economy crashes entirely, co-ops will continue to be the alternative rather than the norm.

“The national economy now has been propped up, but it’s only temporary. The question is not if but when the economy will go into crisis mode. And at that point people will realize that co-ops provide the business model that balances the needs of the community with profitability.”








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