By Jack Kittredge
The cooperative movement began in earnest in Britain in the 19th century in response to the industrial revolution and the economic transformations that were threatening the livelihoods of many workers.
There were earlier efforts by workers to form cooperatives, of course. The Shore Porters Society, for example, claims to be one of the world’s first cooperatives, being established in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1498. It was a removal, haulage and storage company, originating as a group of porters working in Aberdeen Harbor.
The Fenwick Weavers’ Society was a professional association created in the Scottish village of Fenwick, East Ayrshire in 1761. The original purpose of the society was to foster high standards in the weaving craft, but activities later expanded to include collective purchasing of bulk food items and books. In 1769 members formed a consumer cooperative and manhandled a sack of oatmeal into John Walker’s whitewashed front room and began selling the contents at a discount.
By Julie Rawson
I don’t know what originally got me interested in cooperatives, but I signed up for a cooperative living space when I went off to college – and I loved it. I love being around lots of people and I have forever been trying to balance my competitive nature with my cooperative one. Early on I think I was trying to squelch my competitive nature, as a matter of fact. But as I have gone through a few more decades of life I have come to believe that there is a very productive balance for all of us, and all of our institutions, in including both competition and cooperation in our endeavors.
My next cooperative immersion was to join a food co-op right after our first child was born. From 1977 for 5 years in Boston and then another 20 or so here in Barre (until UNFI pretty much shut down the local pre-order co-ops), I was a much invested food co-op member. Food co-oping always provided a quite enjoyable community of people who had a slightly different take on reality and values than the average person. I remember on September 11, 2001 that we had a co-op delivery that day. As we sat around awaiting the truck we spent some real quality time considering this disaster and feeling solace in being together to begin the processing of it. Truly I have met some of my best friends over the years in food co-ops.
By Doug O’Brien and Greg Irving
People are having a harder time finding their place in an economy that is excluding more and more workers, families, farmers and small business people. Trends in inequality, poverty and job availability have prompted researchers, policy makers, and society in general to look for strategies on how to meaningfully include more people in an economy that for many features decreased opportunity and less stable workplaces. These economic trends are also associated with nutritional issues for low income Americans and reflect the effects of business models that often do not sufficiently incorporate sustainability into their practices.
The cooperative business model is a proven strategy for addressing these types of problems, used by people successfully for generations. Many co-ops already exist within the organic movement, including well-known businesses like Organic Valley, Deep Root Organic Co-op, Equal Exchange, and Fedco Seeds — as well as your local food co-ops. Broader collaboration with existing cooperatives and expanded co-op development can empower the organic movement to grow while remaining in close alignment with its broader values. Co-ops already help farmers, retailers and consumers minimize environmental impacts, expand access to healthy foods and build stronger communities. Development of additional cooperative enterprises will benefit the organic movement and the local communities in need of healthier food and more sustainable, inclusive businesses.
By Jack Kittredge
excerpted from “Cooperative Farming: Frameworks for Farming Together” by Faith Gilbert with Kathy Ruhf and Lynda Brushett, a 54-page Greenhorns Guidebook funded by SARE and available at:
What is a cooperative?
The word “cooperative” has two meanings: As an adjective it is both a type of business and an attitude that can be broadly applied. A cooperative (n) is a specific type of business that is formed expressly to provide benefit to its members, such as:
- a producer co-op that is created to provide cost savings and or marketing services to a group of producers
- a worker cooperative created to provide stable, fair employment for its workers.
A cooperative business is defined by three major standards:
- It is owned by its members, those participating in the business, not by outside shareholders or investors.
- It is governed by its members. Each member of the business has a vote in major business decisions and in electing representatives or officers.
- It exists for member benefit, not profit for outside shareholders. Any profits are distributed equitably among members. In addition, cooperatives operate according to internationally recognized core principles and values, which include operating as an autonomous organization, investing in the training and education of their members, and supporting other cooperatives and the community.
By Erbin Crowell
From healthy food to organic agriculture, Fair Trade to building stronger local economies, good jobs to renewable energy, food co-ops have been pioneers, empowering people to work together to make the world a better place. At the same time, they have not always done a good job in telling their stories, working together to measure and communicate our collective impact, and leveraging shared strength for mutual success.
Almost ten years ago, in the Winter 2010-11 issue of The Natural Farmer, I wrote about a group of food co-ops that had recently begun to work together to change this. The article, “Collaboration for a Thriving Regional Economy,” described the efforts of an informal group of managers, board members, and support organizations who had begun a conversation in 2004 about what the future could look like if they worked together more deliberately. Regional collaboration was seen as an opportunity and strategy for pooling resources, leveraging scale, and sharing ideas and innovations for shared success.
By Jack Kittredge
Johnson, VT, lying along the Lamoille River about 40 miles south of Canada, is central to a number of NOFA’s large organic vegetable growers. That is where, right on Route 15, they have located the facilities of their marketing cooperative, Deep Root, which includes an office, three large coolers, and several loading docks.
Tony Risitano, sales manager for the co-op, explains its purpose: “Our function is to give growers access to markets they couldn’t otherwise reach by themselves. Our theory is that here in Vermont there are a lot of small organic farms and we have reached local market saturation. We have to find a way to pool our produce and reach larger markets. We have to help each other out to keep the organization as a whole thriving so we can all benefit. That gives me the ability to go to a buyer like Whole Foods and get them produce from the small family farms that are still thriving in the hills of New England.”
Bruce Kaufman, grower at Riverside Farm in East Hardwick, has been with Deep Root since it was organized in 1985. He seconds Tony’s explanation: “In the beginning, back in the 1970s, there were a lot of growers up here needing markets. There wasn’t enough local organic consumption and we needed to ship to the urban areas. But they were far away and hard to reach. For awhile we made deals and shipped stuff out with companies that sold items here and had empty trucks going back – we could get inexpensive rates for backhauling.”
By Jack Kittredge
The cooperative movement found its birth in necessity; the necessity of poor black people to combine their resources, talent, [and] labor to make an economic unit able to survive in an economically hostile environment. Cooperatives sprung up throughout the south – from Texas to Virginia. They were varied in their type, e.g. manufacturing, farming, cut and sew, consumers. These cooperatives were operated by the disadvantaged of the south; the blacks, Spanish speaking minorities and a few whites. We organized these combinations of poor people to raise ourselves out of poverty. – Annual report of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, 1976-77
The southern civil rights movement that developed in the 1960s focused on legal rights – voter registration, public accommodations, desegregation. But an outgrowth of that movement was the creation of a number of agricultural cooperatives. In part this was a natural result of an organizing black community looking at further ways to improve their conditions of life. But partly it was out of necessity. Many blacks were tenant farmers and hired workers on the land of whites and often those who registered to vote or were activists in protests immediately lost their jobs or were evicted from their tenant land. So they drew on their agricultural skills to build farming cooperatives that could sustain them economically.
By Roger Noonan and Erbin Crowell
This is an exciting time for the co-operative movement, particularly here in the Northeast where producer co-ops, food co-ops, and worker co-ops play an important role in building a more sustainable, resilient and inclusive food system. On an international level, the United Nations has long recognized
the contribution of co-operative enterprise to human development, poverty reduction and food security. For example, the UN’s International Year of Family Farming in 2014 emphasized the role of co-ops in enabling the world’s small producers to achieve scale and efficiency, competing with global corporations without sacrificing local ownership and control. And more recently, the UN Sustainable Development Goals promote co-ops as a key solution to challenges of food security, economic inclusion, and climate change.
In addition to being driven by a distinct set of values and principles, the co-operative legal structure prioritizes local needs and goals above the maximization of profit. Based on the principle of one member, one vote, co-ops are very real examples of economic democracy — and they work! America’s family farmers have been pioneers in co-operative development, with generations of advocates creating the state legal statutes that have empowered rural communities to form producer co-ops, marketing co-ops, purchasing co-ops, food co-ops, credit unions, worker co-ops and utility co-ops. It is an amazing and often neglected story, in which the National Farmers Union (NFU) has played a key role, fighting for the basic national legislation that enabled producers to form co-ops and helping to organize countless community-based businesses. True to this legacy, the Farmers Union continues to defend the integrity of the co-operative model of enterprise at both the local and national levels.
By Kristie Snyder, GreenStar Marketing Staff
GreenStar, a natural foods cooperative established in 1971, has more than 13,000 member-owners and operates in three locations in Ithaca. In 2018, they generated just over $20 million in sales, with 26 percent of those from products grown, made, or produced within 100 miles of Ithaca. Among other sustainability initiatives, GreenStar owns a remotely located solar farm and has committed to using 100 percent solar power for all operations, including heat, by the end of 2019. In 2018, the co-op donated nearly $50,000 to community organizations large and small and offers further local support through a non-profit arm, GreenStar Community Projects, whose mission is bringing food justice and food security to all residents in the surrounding areas.
A supporter of local farms and producers from its inception, GreenStar has active vendor relationships with over 270 local producers. In 2018, the Co-op stocked 5,320 local (within 100 miles) products on the shelves, with 4,660 more that were produced or grown regionally (defined as within 300 miles of Ithaca). Last year, the Co-op sold 21,283 gallons of local milk, 12,994 pounds of local tofu, 8,583 bunches of local kale — and 111,232 dozens of local eggs!
By Jack Kittredge
Congratulations! The board of the Nell Newman Foundation, Inc. is awarding Northeast Organic Farming Association a donation in the amount of $2,500 specifically to fund The Natural Farmer project. The board is very inspired by the work your organization is doing. — Evelyn Fasheh, Nell Newman Foundation, Inc. (August 5, 2019)
Thank you Evelyn.
This comes as a complete surprise but my colleagues in NOFA will be very pleased at your support. — Jack Kittredge and Julie Rawson, editors