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Meaning and History of Co-ops

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While I was reading Grocery Story, Jon Steinman delves into the history of co-ops and what a co-op, so I think it might be worth going into ehat exactly a co-op is.

What is a Co-operative?

From the video description:
"Co-operatives give people control over things that matter to them. There are nearly 7,000 independent co-operatives working across the economy. They contribute £37 billion to the British economy and are owned by 15 million  people across the country."

In brief, I think of a co-op as a community member owned businesss that follows the \seven principles of cooperation:

1. Voluntary and open membership
2. Democratic member control
3. Member economic participation
4. Autonomy and independence
5. Education, training and information
6. Cooperation among cooperatives
7. Concern for community

The 7 Cooperative Principles

From the video description:
"Find out about the 7 principles that guide all cooperatives, including our start-up food co-op, Mad River Market! Aiming to open in 2019 in downtown Winsted, CT, serving the entire Northwest Corner!"

Historically, these principles started originated from the Rochdale Pioneers' Rochdale Principles:

1. Open membership.
2. Democratic control (one man, one vote).
3. Distribution of surplus in proportion to trade.
4. Payment of limited interest on capital.
5. Political and religious neutrality.
6. Cash trading.
7. Promotion of education

The Story of the Rochdale Pioneers

From the video description:
"The Story of the Rochdale Pioneers narrates how a group of people from ordinary working families set up their co-operative underpined by a set of values and principles that keep inspiring people all over the world nowadays."
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Wow.  This is really interesting stuff.

My main grocery store is call The Co-op, but I never understood why it was called that.  We bought a membership and each year they give us a fistful of money based on how much we spent last year.  So much better than these point reward grocery stores.  

Quite often I like a specific local brand of food, like the local-ish milk that comes in glass jars.  I mentioned to the person stocking the shelves in the coop about how much I wish I could buy this milk here instead of going into town.  The next week, they started carrying this milk and gave it half a shelf on the bottom of the cooler.  But they were always sold out, come Wednesday (the milk comes in on Monday).  Now they have a whole cooler section filled with this milk (and it still sells out by Friday because it's so popular).

The co-op is so responsive to customer requests.  If I ask a big grocery store for this kind of milk, they say... "well, we'll have to ask head office, but quite frankly, no one wants to spend an extra $2 per bottle and we don't have the space so don't expect we'll get this in."

The co-op also has these colourful labels next to the price tags that say if something is gluten-free or vegan-friendly so we can see at a glance which foods meet the special dietary needs.

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We do not have a lot of co-ops in Maine. A few health food stores perhaps, and business wise, a few lobsterman get together to form a co-op to help get expenses reduced, but unlike the mid-west, co-ops in farming is just plain unheard of. That is because we get so much rain here. It is nice that we do not have to irrigate, but when we only get short windows in which to work in fields, every farmer is doing the same thing, on the same day. That means a co-op would have to buy every farmer in the co-op the same equipment, reducing the effectiveness of a co-op since no equipment can be shared.

The only adaption I could see working is having a special rental location for farmers. In that way a rental location would have enough profit to buy more and more equipment like balers, mowers, rock pickers etc as the need arises. It might be a business model that works because the farm rental location would have a mechanic or two on duty to keep the machine maintained and repaired. So kind of like a co-op, but more profit minded in nature.
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Travis Johnson wrote:We do not have a lot of co-ops in Maine.

Indeed there aren't many, but after having the pleasure during my spring book release tour to visit 4 of the 8 food co-ops in Maine, I'd say Maine is doing pretty well in the food co-op movement - particularly given the highly seasonal demographics in the state. Each of the co-ops I visited were really inspiring (Norway, Damariscotta, Gardiner and Portland). There's a great story in the Grocery Story book about the emergence of the food co-op in Portland. That co-op opened up after the largest Whole Foods in the country opened its doors just down the street. The co-op is actually doing really well despite this! Over in Blue Hill, the co-op there just moved into a shiny new store. Pretty exciting. And I unfortunately couldn't make it to Belfast but I only ever hear amazing things.

Here's a directory of food co-ops - https://grocerystory.coop/food-co-op-directory

and an excerpt from the book....

The launch of the Portland Food Co-op (PFC) in Portland, Maine,
helps tell this story of ambition and resilience in the face of seemingly
impossible odds.

When it opened in 2014, PFC wasn’t the first food co-op to have
operated in the city; the previous one had closed its doors in 1997. This
left eaters who were interested in alternatives to the big grocers to rely
on the Portland Public Market, The Whole Grocer (a privately owned
natural food store), and one location of the Wild Oats natural food
chain (which, by the way, to much disdain, had opened literally nextdoor
to The Whole Grocer in 2003). Then, in 2006, the Public Market
closed and Whole Foods moved into town. Whole Foods staked its
claim by purchasing The Whole Grocer and commencing construction
on a megastore that opened the following year. Whole Foods shut
down The Whole Grocer location, then announced its nationwide
plans to acquire the Wild Oats chain. Portland’s Wild Oats location
was soon shuttered. Whole Foods had effectively colonized the alternative
food scene in Portland, Maine.

Rather than surrender to the Texas-based grocer, in 2008, residents
launched the Portland Food Co-op — a buying club that relied on
distributors like UNFI, Frontier Natural Products Co-op, and local
suppliers. By 2012, 350 member–owners were purchasing $200,000 a
year through the co-op’s online ordering system. In their move toward
a storefront, a core group of fifty members began forming committees
in 2013, and by 2014, membership had grown to two thousand.
The required $1.3 million was raised to open the store — $800,000
of it provided by members, with the remainder contributed by the
Cooperative Fund of New England and the City of Portland. The store
opened in 2014. A pretty incredible story of “what’s possible.”

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Dave, thanks for all the informative info!  I learned so much from your post.
The book, Grocery Story sounds like it would be a wonderful part of my reading library.
Travis Johnson
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Jon Steinman wrote:Indeed there aren't many, but after having the pleasure during my spring book release tour to visit 4 of the 8 food co-ops in Maine, I'd say Maine is doing pretty well in the food co-op movement

Wow, thanks for responding, I am honored.

I would agree with you too on that. I have always said that Maine is the Permie Capital of Maine, and where I live, (Waldo County) is the epicenter of that. Belfast Coop is definitely a success story, and I have been approached by them to provide lamb, but I never could get the quantity that they wanted. I am just not big enough.

Beyond co-ops though, Maine has had huge success in Farmer's Markets, not just in getting them started, but quality food in the mouths of the poor...literally. Food Stamps are accepted at all Farmer's Markets so that the poor can get good food, and a local greenhouse accepts food stamps for seeds, and for transplant veggies in the spring so the poor can get vegetables for their garden. This is huge because I just learned that my town is the poorest town per capita in all of the USA. (Maine is the poorest state in the nation, Waldo County is the poorest county in Maine, and Jackson is the poorest town). So this is important.

They have a new thing now called "Farm Drop" where you put in an order for food, (cash, check, credit card, or food stamps) and then area farmers bring the food to the Unity Food Hub and people (poor or otherwise) can pick up their food. That is nice because you do not just get what the farmers market has to offer that week, it pools from a host of area farmers to get you the groceries that you need. It also keeps a farmer from babysitting a parkinglot one day per week.
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Jon Steinman wrote:
Here's a directory of food co-ops - https://grocerystory.coop/food-co-op-directory

Thanks for that. Looks like Nashville TN is ripe for a co-op, though nothing yet. I grew up in Madison WI and the Willy Street Co-op there is awesome!
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There are real food coops and fake food coops.  Those that listen to consultants who tell them to run it more like a "real business," or else it will go out of business, have encouraged practices that have undermined the cooperative values AND caused the coops still to fail.  Albany did the opposite, and they rescued their coop and it is thriving. I got the impression the Portland, Maine coop was on the right track, but don't know for sure.  

Carl Ratner critiques the 7 principles in his book Cooperation and Coops in a Global Era, pointing out that open membership, while it seems like a good idea, means that it can be open to people who don't understand or commit to cooperating, and eventually outvote people who do.  The relevant permaculture principle here I think is "use slow and small solutions"--yes you grow more slowly by requiring people to invest more and learn about cooperation, but you get a better result in the long run.

I don't agree with everything Ratner writes but it is really well-researched and thought-provoking.  In particular, the cooperative villages in China that provide for all the residents' basic needs are an inspiring example of what is possible on a medium scale.

The Brooklyn Park Slope Food Coop is the other solid example in my perception--EVERYONE has to do work shifts to be a member.  They're pretty strict with people trying to buy their way out of their work shifts.  I'm sure it's not perfect, but they mostly hold people to it.  So when you're running checkout, if the customer is impatient with you, they have to remember that another day they're doing your job.  It's the only job where someone told me to take my time.

I don't undestand why any coop would compromise on the work requirement, it's the best way to get people really involved and have them understand and feel the difference between a coop and just consumption-as-usual.

I don't remember what Permaculture 1 said about worker coops specifically, but I think that there was an assumption of labor involvement, not just a buy-in membership, the focus was more on worker-coops in that book.
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Great string, thanks

I've been studying this topic a lot.  I got invited to speak at the N American convergence a few years back, and since I spoke on cooperatives being the only type of business in integrity with permie ethics, I wasn't invited back.

I think part of what's happening here is that there are employee owned businesses, which is what we all think of when we hear Co-op, and then there are businesses, such as REI, that have co-op'ed the word co-op, so to speak, by representing themselves as an employee owned business, when really they are a top down capitalist business in which the Buyer's/consumers form a collective group of people with similar interests, fondly referred to as a Co-op.  

If your local grocery store in Maine follows the pattern of 1) the owner's own a home, have 100% equity in the business, and make all decisions, while 2) the workers rent, have 0% equity in the business and have zero legal voice in decision making, then, you have stumbled upon a Buyer's Co-op.  Not in line with permie ethics, no?  Not a worker owned cooperative, but a buyer's Co-op.  I'm not sure, but in your story you mention that other buyers wouldn't approve of your suggestion, not that the worker/owners didn't approve.

The state of California recognizes worker owned cooperatives as a means to provide workers with equity, dignity, and a legal voice at work.  https://www.co-oplaw.org/statebystate/california/#:~:text=California%20Cooperative%20Guides-,California%20Cooperative%20Corporation%20Statute,seek%20investments%20from%20their%20communities.

We claim, as permaculture practitioners, to share the surplus, yet I have witnessed first hand situations that use the word permaculture, while acting in non cooperative work places.  

I find this to be hypocritical.  The Latin American community find this to be hypocritical, and they now use "agroecología" instead of "permacultura" due to this repeated misleading information.  

We do this to our own detriment.  How can others take us seriously when we don't follow our own ethics?

Hopland, the solar living institute, is one of the first residential and commercial solar installers in the USA, and they were purchased by a larger company.  This is big business.  The interns are in tents with rice and beans.  We cannot take the leadership of the permaculture movement seriously, when this is the context.  

I was invited to write a story for permaculture north American magazine, in which I interviewed an individual who had worked for the owner of the URL permaculture. Com, and I was threatened by a group of lawyers.  The article was pulled.

Seems it's permissable to greenwash this topic of sharing the surplus 💰 of a business (profits), so long as Earth Care is pushed to the forefront.  Unpaid internships are popular in the green movement, and the people care dynamic of this situation is questionable.

This is the key to the Green Revolution.  It's the half Revolution that Robert frost writes about.  We don't want local farms owned by conglomerates and a workplace where we are continued to be exploited with no legal voice. We want true cooperative workplaces, we want equity, legal voices at work etc etc.  

The ownership class needs to invest in the youth and jumpstart this movement, or we are destined to have solar brought to us from Exxon, gardens sponsored by Dole etc etc

Thanks for listening
Kind Regards
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