by George Looby, DVM
Cooperatives have long been a part of the marketing side of agriculture and in today’s complex world, Cooperative Development Institute (CDI), located in Shelburne Falls, MA is an organization that supports cooperative economy through the creation and development of successful cooperative enterprises and networks. The organization provides education, training and technical assistance to existing and start-up cooperatively-structured enterprises including those involved in food, agriculture, forestry and fisheries.
A list of areas to be explored in organizing a cooperative include organizational development, feasibility assessment, business planning, financial systems, accounting and bookkeeping, strategic planning, market research, marketing plans, performance evaluation, communications, board training, conflict management and inclusion and diversity.
There are certain criteria that define a cooperative and these include at least seven basic principles, one of which is voluntary and open membership. They should be open to all people able to use their services and are willing to accept the responsibilities of membership and free from discrimination of any sort.
Cooperatives are by their very nature democratic entities with all members having equal voting rights on all matters. Those members serving as directors are directly accountable to the membership in carrying out the wishes of the majority. Members contribute equitably to and democratically control the capital of their cooperative with at least part of equity becoming the common property of the cooperative. Members receive little or no compensation for their contributions as a condition of membership. Surpluses may be used for building up the cooperative, setting up reserves or benefiting the membership in proportion to their transactions within the cooperative.
Potential members need to understand that they will be required to make a serious commitment of time, talent and money to insure that their operation is a success. Those in the organizational group must be prepared to educate incoming members of all aspects, both positive and negative, of the co-ops structure, its needs and its limitations. During the period of organization members should carefully investigate any legal limitations on the size and scope of their organization.
Cooperatives are only as good as their members ask them to be. When members stop investing time and energy, cooperatives must reduce the benefits they provide to their members.
An example of what cooperatives can and perhaps cannot do is to be found in the State of Maine where the Maine Farm and Sea Cooperative has set some ambitious goals, especially considering it’s tender age. Maine has some of the more viable agricultural cooperatives to be found anywhere. They include the Crown o’ Maine Organic Cooperative, The Belfast Co-op, the Maine Community Health Options and the Stonington Lobster Co-op. The Maine Farm and Sea Cooperative was conceived and developed in 2014 by a local steering committee and the Cooperative Development Institute, the region’s center for cooperative business. It is supported by the John Merck Fund, the City of Portland, Norway Savings Bank, Democracy at Work Institute, Impact Assets and RSF Social Finance and founded in 2015 by a forward looking group of Maine businesspeople, food service workers and others who hold happenings in Maine in high regard.
The announced goal of this cooperative is to supply and serve the highest possible percentage of locally produced Maine fruit, produce, meats, seafood and value added foods; manage food services at affordable prices for Maine universities, businesses, hospitals and other institutions and create jobs for Mainers in a resilient food system that protects the environment. The Cooperative will partner with Maine farmers, fishermen, distributors and processors to grow the food system and increase the ability to feed the people of Maine healthy, local food.
In a most ambitious move the cooperative has elected to bid on the food service contract for the University of Maine. This contract would be for six of the seven University of Maine campuses the main campus in Orono operating under a different contract. In May the Board of Trustees of the University voted unanimously approved a directive that called for the next contract to include a preference for local, sustainably produced food. A further commitment of this directive was a goal that at least $1.5 million in local food be purchased by 2020.
For the past 10 years, the University of Maine food service contract has been controlled by Aramark, a corporation based in Philadelphia, that is one of three major food service corporations that control 90 percent of the national food service market. This organization has dictated terms, conditions and prices. With sustainability written into the contract it may be somewhat difficult for a large corporate entity to justify sustainability and local. With the ever increasing demand for locally produced food by consumers and students alike it was felt that time had come to bring local foods to the institutional level. At a variety of different levels the term local is largely a matter of very local opinion there being no formalized definition of the term so it may be that under the Maine system local may encompass quite a bit of territory perhaps from Kittery to Fort Kent.
The Cooperative will make its presentation in December. It is anticipated that the Board will make its decision regarding the food contract sometime in January.
A group calling themselves the Maine Food for the UMaine System has been playing an active role in lobbying the board to accept the contract proposal presented by the Cooperative. This group is made up of farmers, producers and organizations including the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. If the bid is not accepted by the Trustees in January the Co-op plans to work with other schools and institutions within the state to gain their support in using Maine agriculture and fisheries as the source of their food needs. This model will be shared with other states to assist them in developing similar cooperatives if there are groups within those states willing and able to follow Maine’s lead.