How To Form a Successful Cooperative

Reader Contribution by Linda Holliday
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Members of the fledgling Oregon County Food Producers and Artisans Cooperative in tiny Alton, Mo., (population 879) are preparing to celebrate with the community a substantial win – a national award package valued at more than $40,000 to refurbish a vacant building and create an edible courtyard.

Not only are co-op members asking for public input on how to demolish and salvage materials from the old tavern, they will share Nov. 20-22 what they have learned about forming a successful cooperative in a rural community. The 101-member co-op has come a long way since founder Rachel Luster first began turning into every driveway in the county with a “Farm Fresh Eggs” or “Hay for Sale” sign posted in the yard to recruit potential members.

Driving the rugged gravel roads in search of fresh produce, meat and eggs for her family, Luster envisioned uniting producers and artisans with consumers at a centrally located market. After overcoming numerous obstacles, her persistence paid off with the formation of the all-volunteer organization and store opening in March 2013.

Co-op members take turns running the store in a small rented building and stocking it with their homegrown and homemade wares – anything from goat milk lotion, treadle-sewn quilts, dried organic herbs, bedding plants and cedar trunks to homemade laundry soap. Members pay dues of $5 to $10 per month, in cash or exchange of products or labor. Members also set their own prices for their products, with 30 percent of sales going to the co-op for expenses.

Partnering with Alton Chamber of Commerce to apply, the co-op was awarded, just a year after opening its doors, a Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design grant to expand the organization’s community support. The co-op was one of only four organizations across the country to receive the award this year funded, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts and the USDA.

In October, two representatives of the New York City-based CIRD, Cynthia Nikitin, CIRD program director and senior vice president of Project for Public Spaces, and associate Willa Jones, met with Luster for the initial site visit. Both were impressed with the co-op’s mission to sustain Oregon County communities and economies through local trading and selling of homegrown and homemade products and knowledge. Their article, Butchers, Bakers and Candlestick Makers, is posted on the CIRD site.

Since applying for the grant last April, the co-op was gifted the adjoining building by a co-op member. The co-op’s goal is to demolish the building, reusing many materials, and turn it into a multifunctional market and community center with a courtyard of fruits and vegetables available to residents.

With popular “pay-what-you-can” lunchtime meals, an already vibrant store and a community space for workshops and get-togethers, the co-op has grown steadily since its inception. The CIRD award, a total of $7,000 cash and access to free consultation (valued at $35,000), will help enlarge the co-op’s positive impact on the community.

“Over the past year, we have seen how our efforts with OCFPAC have empowered people and offered them a meaningful way to supplement their incomes and give back to the community they love, as well as serve as a bridge connecting residents of various ethnicities, interests and backgrounds,” Luster said.

Luster believes the co-op will also inspire others to form similar co-ops to invigorate their communities and provide a source for fresh, locally grown food and quality crafted items.

Meanwhile, the CIRD grant will be used, among other things, to present a community workshop, bringing together other local organizations, businesses and residents to collaborate on a design plan to benefit all. The rough plans include a kitchen area with enough room for 20 people to can produce at once and a courtyard with fruit trees and garden crops to help those who need it. Other ideas include environmental efficiency, such as recycling greywater to irrigate the gardens.

“I want this to be a game-changer for the community,” Luster told the CIRD representatives. “But people have to be able to relate to it or it’s going to be an alien spaceship in the middle of downtown.”

The public is invited to tour the building Nov. 20-22 and offer suggestions about its use and revitalization. All input is encouraged.

“We want this to not only be a building that can broaden the scale of our mission,” Luster said, “but also one that contributes to aiding other community organizations whose aims are to help people in need and strengthen the communities of Oregon County in any and every way possible.”

A series of presentations and engagement activities over the weekend includes designers, horticulturalists, market specialists, architects, cultural geographers and more. The resource team includes Richard Saxton and Kirsten Stoltz of the M12 Collective, Guy Ames of Ames Orchard and Nursery and ATTRA, Maria Sykes from Epicenter, and Ben Sandel of CDS Consulting Co-Op. Other presenters include Matthew Fluharty of Art of The Rural, Jesse Vogler, designer and cultural geographer, Mark Wise, an architect with KEMStudio, and Emily Vogler a landscape architect from Michael Van Valkengurgh Associates Inc.

“I feel very fortunate to have the collaboration of such a wonderful team of specialists and people!” Luster said. “I know that each member of the team places, foremost, the engagement of community in their process, and I really think, with our community and this team, we can make something really special happen on the square in Alton.”

Luster said the co-op’s mission basically comes down to cultivating and nurturing community life and an economy of neighborliness.

“Not to sound too precious,” Luster said, “but we do all depend on one another and this place to make it, why not work together to make it the best it can be and to serve as many of us as possible?”

Luster said those questions led to starting the co-op. Her philosophy in all of this remains that a vibrant and dynamic culture is both the flower and the seed of a well-tended community.

“The process is and has been allowed to be organic and has manifested itself in ways I could have never imagined,” she said. “Some were foreseen or predictable, but others have been pleasant surprises.”

While preparing for the Nov. 20-22 weekend, Luster said she looks forward to this next phase, one where the coo-op expands its mission locally and to seeing this model adapted and tried in different places to address the needs and resources of those sites and communities. Already two sister/spin off organizations have formed with interest mounting in other regions.

“I think this model has the ability to be locally adapted by a variety of communities and disciplines and be successful,” Luster said. “I look forward to seeing that happen!”

To learn more, visit the co-op at Oregon County Co-op’s Facebook page or see this 2013 Mother Earth News blog – Food Co-op Promotes Bartering, Sustainability.

Linda Holliday lives in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband formed Well WaterBoy Products, a company devoted to helping people live more self-sufficiently off grid with human power, and invented the WaterBuck Pump.

Photos by Linda Holliday and courtesy of Oregon County Food Producers and Artisans Co-Op.

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