Co-ops Are Democracy in Action

Worldwide 1.4 million cooperative businesses unite 1 billion people together under seven principles: 1) Open Membership, 2) Democratic Member Control, 3) Member Economic Participation, 4) Autonomy and Independence, 5) Education, Training and Information, 6) Cooperation among Cooperatives, and 7) Concern for Community. In the U.S., 29,000 cooperatives unite 350 million people. In Montana, 209 cooperatives unite nearly 600,000 people.

In Western Montana, cooperatives provide electricity, financing, affordable housing, home building and design, counseling to children in schools, professional midwifery services, local food production and distribution,  storefronts for purchasing  locally grown, healthy and affordable food, and in 2013, member owned and controlled healthcare insurance.

The Occupy Wall Street movement brought to the media forefront the ever increasing economic and social divides that communities throughout the world have been experiencing as a result of the consolidation of wealth into the hands of a few. We here at Mission Mountain Food Enterprise and Cooperative Development Center believe cooperative businesses offer a proven democratic alternative.

In the next few minutes I will focus on two cooperative businesses – Western Montana Growers Cooperative and the Missoula Food Cooperative -that have emerged in western Montana’s food system to ensure the economic viability of small farmers and the equitable access to healthy food.

In 2002 seven small acreage vegetable farmers in the Mission Valley came to together with an idea that through cooperative marketing and distribution they could pool enough supply to sell to restaurants and stores. In 2003 this idea became known as the Western Montana Growers Cooperative. The first year in business saw modest sales of approximately $10,000 from 7 farms. By 2011 sales increased to nearly $750,000 from 38 farms.

The formation of Western Montana Growers Cooperative required a pioneering spirit. The business was developed in the early years of food system development before the United States Department of Agriculture created the “Know Your Farmer Know Your Food Initiative” and before there was a definition for “Foodhubs”. In April 2012 I had the pleasure of joining Western Montana Growers Cooperative’s general manager at the 1st annual National Conference for FoodHubs. This was an invitation only event for businesses or organizations that build stronger local food supply chains by connecting farmers and buyers through production, distribution, and marketing services. Western Montana Growers Cooperative stood in the company of businesses from across the nation who deliver fresh healthy food to their customers and are driven to increase small and mid-scale farm viability and equitable access to healthy food.

Providing healthy food access to its membership is the foundation of the Missoula Food Cooperative. In 2006 the Missoula Community Food Cooperative was incorporated. The purpose of the Missoula Food Cooperative is to democratize access to healthy and locally produced foods and non-food products for its membership.  The members envision a business that creates and nurtures relationships with farmers, local producers, small businesses and other cooperative organizations. The cooperative works to strengthen production and distribution networks in order to provide regional alternatives to larger, more exploitative, global systems.

In the pioneering spirit, the Missoula Food Cooperative stepped out of the norm of consumer food cooperatives. The founders believed that the investment of human capital was as equally important as the investment of money. As such the Missoula Food Cooperative modeled their business off of Park Slope Cooperative in Brooklyn, NY. The founders developed a business structure where members invest human capital into the business as well as annual membership fees. This model reduces overall overhead of the business, and then the business spreads the savings across the whole cooperative community.

So where else might cooperatives democratize western Montana’s food supply? How about vegetable seed production? Seed is at the core of a democratically controlled food supply. Without seed we cannot grow food. And just as the food supply has consolidated into the hands of a few, so has the seed supply. Currently, a steering committee of growers are exploring how a cooperative business can build the capacity of our region to grow, preserve, and develop locally resilient and locally relevant seeds in the face of a changing climate and an ever more consolidating seed industry.

Innovation is at the core of western Montana’s regional food system work. Cooperatives serve as a powerful and flexible tool to define how businesses serve their community rather than how people serve the business. This year is the International Year of the Cooperative. If you are a member of a cooperative I encourage you to organize an event to celebrate your cooperative or better yet organize multiple cooperatives to celebrate together. If you are not a member, find a cooperative and join.

In Ronan I’m Karl Sutton for the Alternative Energy Resources Organization.  AERO has been linking people with sustainable agriculture and energy solutions since 1974. Visit us online at aeromt.org.

This commentary aired on May 24, 2012 on Montana Public Radio.

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