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Strength in Numbers

Cooperatives are all about trust-driven relationships
By Cynthia Tokos




Rick Duane and his daughter, Amelia, for New Hampshire Growers Co-op.
Photo by Cynthia Tokos.

A cooperative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise.

Cooperatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. In the tradition of their founders, cooperative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others."

These are the words used to define cooperatives in "Co-op 101: A Guide to Starting a Cooperative," presented by the Cooperative Development Institute, the Northeast Center for Cooperative Business (http://www.cdi.coop).



Deep Root Organic Co-op tomato.
Photo courtesy of Deep Root Organic Co-op.

Dr. Lynda Brushett is a senior partner with the CDI, where she leads agricultural, fisheries and food systems initiatives. She helps build new cooperatives and works to strengthen those in existence. When asked why people start co-ops, she said, "It's something you have to want to do."

Cooperatives are owned and controlled by their members, and trust is an issue. Those who are successful understand this principle and work hard to keep their members informed on key issues. It goes without saying that it takes a commitment of both time and resources.

According to Brushett, some are not able to move from "park into drive" in their efforts, but for those who do, they "realize that by working together, they can make it better for all of them."

Anthony Mirisciotta is sales manager for Deep Root Organic Co-op (http://www.deeprootorganic.com) in Johnson, Vt. It is one of the oldest organic vegetable cooperatives in the country. It started with five members in southern Vermont and western Massachusetts, because those farms were closer to regional markets. Now there are 20 members, with most of the farms located in Vermont, but the co-op also has seven members in southern Quebec. All member farms are within a two-hour drive of Johnson.



Organic carrots from Deep Root Organic Co-op.
Photo by Cynthia To kos

The name Deep Root reflects the focus of the co-op, which is primarily root vegetables. Cold-weather crops grow well in this region, which produces winter squash, turnips, rutabagas, onions, potatoes and parsnips. Produce is shipped year-round, with over 150 varieties being sold.

Mirisciotta said that the co-op works because it has "great, talented growers that are tuned in to what they want to do." Although it's hard to explain, he believes being a good co-op takes a special group of people. Its success is that it allows farmers to "do what they love, which is farming," rather than deal with marketing and sales. That's his job.

Being a co-op "helps us get into the market and compete with larger, regional growers," said Mirisciotta. It's tough to do with one farm, but having a number of small farms working together is a cost-effective way to ship product out of state.

The co-op's focus is New England, and its largest market is Whole Foods, which has over 30 stores throughout New England. None of this is easy. As there are more new groups starting up, the market is getting smaller. However, Mirisciotta's - and the co-op's - philosophy is that this work connects people and builds relationships across New England. Co-op members want to work together to help each other and build success.

Cooperation and helping each other is also the story of the New Hampshire Growers Cooperative (http://www.newhampshiregrowerscoop.com). Only two years old, this marketing co-op is owned by its five members: three apple orchard owners and two vegetable growers.



Crown O' Maine Organic Cooperative logo.
Photo courtesy of Crown O' Maine Organic Cooperative.

This idea grew out of New Hampshire Cider Works, a joint venture between Rick Duane of Duane Family Farm (http://www.duanefamilyfarm.com) and Rob Larocque of Carter Hill Orchard (http://www.carterhillapples.com). New Hampshire Cider Works produces and distributes fresh apple cider that is sold at farmstands and grocery stores. In addition to making cider, the two farms also grow and pack apples, not only for New Hampshire Cider Works, but also for other small orchards in the area.



Leah (sitting) and Marada Cook of Crown O' Maine Organic Cooperative.
Photo courtesy of Crown O' Maine Organic Cooperative.

As more grocery stores wanted New Hampshire apples, Duane and Larocque convinced other growers to join them in meeting this need. Since they already had the packing equipment, no money was needed for infrastructure or equipment. A small state government grant was used to help with marketing and went toward developing the "New Hampshire Growers Co-op" logo and having bags printed with the logo.

According to Duane, the idea was to not charge members any dues or fees, and in return put the co-op's name on a bag that brings people to a website that lists the members and their farms. "It's a great thing to be able to do for the growers," said Duane. And it helps members build relationships with customers.

The New Hampshire Growers Co-op currently markets to over 20 stores in New Hampshire. Although apples are the primary crop, vegetables include summer squash, zucchini, tomatoes and corn.

It all works because of the "good rapport with produce managers," stated Duane. "They come to you because they trust you and know the quality of what you grow. The better quality we produce, the more money we get, which is great for our members."

The timing for the co-op couldn't be better, as there is now so much interest in buying local. Consumers in New Hampshire want to know where their food comes from, and the market shows that people are willing to pay a little extra for food if they know its source and perhaps might even know the grower.

The Crown O' Maine Organic Cooperative (http://www.crownofmainecoop.com) brings customers a variety of foods grown, gathered and produced in Maine. This co-op distributes food to over 300 locations in Maine and Massachusetts.

Co-directors Leah and Marada Cook manage the co-op that was started from their parents' - Jim and Kate Cook - farm in 1994-1995. Leah Cook said the co-op began as a way to bring farm products to market. Her dad went on the road every other week, going door-to-door, with produce to sell to restaurants and retailers, mostly in Boston.

Cook said that in 2004-2005, her dad decided to put energy into addressing Maine's food security issues. Since food producers didn't have a means to get their products distributed around the state, he used a small business development grant to purchase two refrigerated trucks.

In 2008, with his health failing, he created an employee-owned cooperative. "He read ['The Company We Keep: Reinventing Small Business for People, Community, and Place'] and thought an employee-owned cooperative business, where the salaries aren't high but work is meaningful and the hours are long, would give added incentive to employees to build a food system that's necessary and important," she explained.



Apples in New Hampshire Growers Co-op bags.
Photo by Cynthia Tokos.

He was the sole employee owner, and by the time he died in 2008, his inbox was flooded with requests to buy and sell products; he wasn't able to keep up with the demand. Gross sales in 2008 were $380,000.

At that point, the family questioned whether or not they should continue the work, but Cook, who shared her father's passion, stepped into the position and was joined by her sister in 2009. Since then, four additional employees have also become part of the organization.

The co-op now has $1.4 million in annual sales, works with about 180 farmers and food producers from all over Maine, and is on the road 50 weeks a year. Staying true to Jim Cook's vision, the co-op is on the verge of transferring employee ownership to the other four employees.

Crown O' Maine buys from organic and nonorganic farmers, with a very diversified food landscape.

Maine is ideal for co-ops. Cook said, "It's known for its locally driven agriculture; it is a very community-oriented place to live. You can't really live in Maine without being neighborly; it's so part of our culture. Since we are so community-based, the idea of purchasing from your neighbor is really important. Buying locally from farmers - we are not as far removed from that concept as other places."

Cook contends that the people who live in Maine also don't have the disposable income of people living in other states. The state is "a bit more hardscrabble." As with the co-ops in Vermont and New Hampshire, it's all about trust-driven relationships. "Our customers trust we have a larger vision and we will work toward it," Cook said. "They won't pay higher prices year in and year out only to find we're paying the lowest we can get from our farmers."

Cook and her sister Marada are clear: "Growth for growth's sake is the anatomy of a cancer cell. Just getting bigger exponentially every year is not strategic and not necessarily the destination we want to get to with this company. The typical exit strategy is to sell the company, make money and pass it on to your children, or make money and retire."

The Cooks have strong values. "The future of the company is to intentionally and intelligently expand opportunities for local foods," stated Cook. "If everyone is buying food from the farmer next door, then we don't need to be here. If that's a future that plays out, then we will have been successful in our work."

The author lives in Exeter, N.H., and is a marketer, freelance writer and documentary photographer.