Cooperation, Competition and Community

by J.F. Pirro
11/13/2013


        Robin Ostfeld and Lou Johns, the owner-operators of Blue Heron Farm (www.blueheronorganic.com) in Lodi, N.Y., were lucky enough to experience the Ithaca (N.Y.) Farmers' Market for the first time in the midst of a cooperative workday, a work-party cleanup and maintenance day for the grounds.

        While the growers were new to the area at the time (more than 25 years ago) they weren't new to the industry, and the popular market in Ithaca was one of the reasons they came east in the fall of 1986. They were searching for a market similar to the one they were leaving in Olympia, Wash., and they found it.

        Another reason for the move was to get closer to Ostfeld's family after spending 10 years on the West Coast, closer to Johns' family. Plus, land prices were better on the East Coast than in western Washington, and the couple wanted a farm of their own.

        The Ithaca Farmers' Market (IFM, www.ithacamarket.com) is a cooperative organization that provides local producers the opportunity to sell their goods directly to consumers in a relaxed social atmosphere. The market's 160 vendors live within 30 miles of Ithaca. Agricultural vendors offer high-quality fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs, poultry and dairy products. Food vendors bring a wide variety of freshly baked goods, jellies, honey and sauces, as well as delicious meals to eat at the market. Talented artists and craftspeople sell everything from accessories to hand-spun wool.

        Located in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, the market pavilion is situated on the edge of Cayuga Lake in a garden-like setting, surrounded by trees and flowering plants. Built entirely by volunteer labor, the market has developed a former debris site into a beautiful, thriving community gathering place. The market first opened in 1973 and moved five times before settling into its current location.

        A cooperative model
        As a cooperative model, market members are required to serve on committees or participate in shared work hours for the good of the overall market in a program called Work Hours.

        "This program was developed to help cover the cost of getting important market work done, and to build a stronger market community through membership participation--and it sure has," explains Cathy Koken, IFM manager.

        Members are required to put in a certain number of hours/labor days, prorated to the number of days a vendor spends at the market.

        For any unfulfilled work hours, members are required to pay nonworking fees, which are calculated at $20 per hour owed and capped at 30 hours per year. Almost all of the 160 vendors work for "their" market.

        The member-elected board of directors sets policies, and the board and most committees meet once a month to discuss market business. The committees are broken into two categories, operational and governance, and the management oversees the work of the operational committees.

        There's a full-time manager (Koken) and a part-time assistant manager, and then the committees. There are three member categories; the largest is agricultural, a state-mandated guideline based on a state grant, but the other two, artisan and food, split the other 40 percent of the vendors. There are also committees for each of those membership categories.

        There are larger spring and fall workdays before the opening of the market season. There are landscaping jobs, such as planting, mulching and clearing. Committee-specific work covers every operational aspect under the sun, from buildings and grounds to information technology--maintenance of the market's Facebook and Twitter accounts--to member relations tasks that involve organizing social events for the members and festivals for the public.

        Ostfeld is in charge of the sustainability committee, which advocates a zero-waste initiative. For example, all food vendors are responsible for using compostable bags, cutlery, etc., all designed to reduce waste. "We all work to our abilities," she says.

        The "coolest" thing the cooperative has done, Ostfeld says, is to build the pavilion. That took place over the course of one season. To build the pavilion, members acquired a substantial state grant, largely because of the plan to utilize member labor, which also kept costs down.

        The T-shaped pavilion covers 90 stalls. With the waterfront backdrop, beautifully landscaped grounds and even a tour boat, the IFM is a tourist draw, with as many as 5,000 visitors a day at times. "We attract people from all over the world," Ostfeld says.

        Next up construction-wise is the plan to one day winterize the facilities. However, that requires money, and probably another grant or two. The existing pavilion, although it has aged well and hasn't needed much maintenance, is at capacity. On any given week, should every vendor be on the grounds, they don't all fit under the roof. It does help that some share booth space, and at peak times, and on a good day or two, some prefer an open-air spot.

        The community has both "stability and new blood," Ostfeld says. "It's a good mix." Committee chairs don't change over much, but there is some ebb and flow to membership. Her committee meets more often over the winter, when there's more time to do so.

        Veteran growers
        Blue Heron prides itself on offering a wide variety of organic fruits and vegetables, beginning with early greens and benefiting months later with extended-season harvest. The farm sells bedding plants early in the season, then throughout the season there are lots of specialty items in tomato varieties and other vegetables, as well as berries, pawpaws and persimmons.

        "The goal is 25 different harvests each and every Saturday and Sunday from the beginning of the season to the end," says Ostfeld.

        At Ithaca, she and Johns helped usher in the concept of certified organic through NOFA-NY (Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York) Certified Organic, LLC, an approach that didn't really exist when they arrived.

        "Working with and for over 160 members can be inspiring, perplexing and unbelievably rewarding," says Koken, who is responsible for the market's day-to-day operations and bookkeeping and assists the IFM with community relations and development. "The original members were visionaries. They really thought of everything when they organized and wrote the guidelines."

        The vendors are involved with everything from ground and road maintenance--"We rent from the city and have to maintain and plow the grounds at our own expense," Koken explains--to working with advertisers, maintaining the website, and helping with events and growth.

        She says, "It's actually amazing, and sometimes extremely taxing, working with so many different personalities, but I have learned the hard way that the end result is not [for] me or any one individual, but for the best of the entire market community."

        The market is cooperative, but competitive, Ostfeld says. "They go hand in hand. People are people, so we're not free of competition, but there is a spirit of cooperation, and we're willing to help each other. Often, as an experienced grower, I get questions from a less experienced grower. Maybe they're putting up a greenhouse, or it's a question about a variety, and I'm happy to share," she explains.

        A unique bottom line booster that has evolved in the cooperative is group purchasing power, particularly with compostable supplies. "We pool our resources and get better prices," Ostfeld says.

        There are also personal benefits. Several years ago, when Ostfeld and Johns were going through a family health crisis, a group of Ithaca vendors lent a hand at their home farm and did the fall cover crop planting. That's the kind of thing you don't forget.

        Yet Ostfeld acknowledges that there are some vendors who say Ithaca is way too competitive, that it's too difficult for a new grower to get in or keep up. Market committees have tried to combat that with innovation. Since there's no room at the market on Saturdays, there's now a Tuesday market day, a concession to allow newer growers some space while still maintaining the seniority rights for long-term tenants.

        "We've made a bigger pie, rather than cutting the same pie into smaller pieces," Ostfeld says. "It's not like we're the model of perfection, but there's a lot of good at both markets we've been at, though we really don't have any experience with any other model. This system works really well. It's been successful, and we've continued to grow and prosper while maintaining good relations with the community."
 
        The author is a gentleman farmer and experienced reporter and writer who lives in Quakertown, Pa.
 
        Photos courtesy of Blue Heron Farm.