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Growing our food infrastructure through cooperatives

Cooperatives have long played an essential role in meeting the needs of communities, farmers, and food producers, by bringing together labor, capital, and people’s voices into creating essential goods and services.  Cooperatives provide food infrastructure that is needed to feed our communities including milling, processing, preservation, storage, distribution, shipping, and stores. From the early roots of the 19th century Grange Movement to the cooperative distribution, food processing, and stores of today, the cooperative structure provides a model for our region as we work to feed ourselves.

Much of our local processing capabilities have been lost and will need be to rebuilt at a scale that can meet the demands of our region. Cooperatives provide a way for communities, farmers, and food producers to pool their money, resources, and labor together to meet this need.  The cooperative structure empowers the voices of the membership while creating a resilient business that is naturally rooted in the community.  

There is now a new wave of cooperatives starting in Maine providing inspiration and possibilities for increased support of our food system.  These new developments are happening from all sides of our food chain with producers, workers, and consumers forming co-ops to meet their needs and the needs of their community.  There are some hybrid models of co-ops, also called solidarity co-ops, where multi-stakeholders are coming together to meet their collective needs and aspirations. 

In a series of blog posts to the Food Solutions New England Blog, I will be highlighting some of the Co-ops in the food system in Maine and the region. 

Worker Cooperatives

Worker Cooperatives are business that are owned by their workers, governed democratically, and often involve participatory management.  While worker cooperatives are the smallest sector of cooperatives nationally, they are growing quickly.

One of the most exciting co-op stories in the last year in Maine is the conversion from sole-ownership to a worker co-op of two grocery stores and a variety store with a pharmacy and hardware on Deer Isle.  By selling these three businesses to become the Island Employee Cooperative, the original owners were able to retire while keeping these businesses and jobs in the community.  And the community in turn has access to food, medicine, and tools. This conversion has inspired people around the country to explore other possibilities for businesses selling to their workers and particularly holds promise in the food sector as a way to keep farms and food businesses stable for future generations. 

Crown o’ Maine Organic Cooperative has been a worker co-op for a number of years and this year is bringing on new worker-owners to join Marada and Leah Cook, who were the two worker-owners after their father passed the business onto them.  Crown o’ Maine distributes many products to many buying clubs and co-ops around the state and picks up from over 150 local farmers and food producers.  

Local Sprouts Cooperative is a worker-owned café, bakery, and catering business providing local and organic food as well as learning programs.  When the Café opened in 2010 there were four worker-owners and now there are over 25 worker-owners at Local Sprouts in downtown Portland.

In the next post, we will explore producer co-ops amongst farmers and fishermen in Maine.

 

Jonah Fertig is a cooperative developer with the Cooperative Development Institute in their rural cooperative services program. He co-founded Local Sprouts Cooperative in Portland, the Machigonne Community Land Trust in Portland, the Portland Urban Agriculture Sub-Committee that is part of the Mayor’s Initiative for a Healthy and Sustainable Food System, Cooperative Fermentation, and more.

Featured Image of Portland Fish Exchange courtesy of Susan Tompkins, Rising Tide PR