Tuesday, May 13, 2014

One Year as a Co-op

We just wrapped up our fiscal year at Real Pickles. In many ways, it was a typical year for the business. Interest in fermented foods has continued to rise, and the year was another strong one for us. As is often the case, the uncertainties of the growing season necessitated some creative problem solving (a wet spring in the Pioneer Valley resulted in much less early cabbage than we were expecting) but in the end we got all of the fresh ingredients we were hoping for and processed over 300,000 pounds of Northeast-grown vegetables during our production season, an increase of about 40% over last year!

What was different about this past year, however, was our structure as a business. May 9th marks the day that Real Pickles made the transition from a sole proprietorship to co-operative ownership. It took a lot of work to become a co-op, and now the process of running the business involves both shared effort and reward for our new group of member-owners. Some of what we encountered during our first year was expected and other things took us a little more by surprise. As an increasing number of businesses consider transitioning to the co-operative model, we want to share some of our experiences so far.

Learning to be Business Owners

The founding worker-owners on May 9th, 2013 getting ready to
sign the legal documents to convert Real Pickles to a co-operative.
(Photo credit: David J. Singer, Esq.)
As Real Pickles made the structural shift to becoming a co-op owned by its employees, those of us who hadn’t previously been owners knew we would have to make the mental shift to thinking like owners. Looking back a couple years, as the founding co-op group worked together to figure out if Real Pickles' transition to a worker co-op made sense for the business and for each of us as individual potential owners, we spent quite a bit of time on activities that served the joint purpose of strategic planning and practicing the art of ownership. Inspired by our friends at South Mountain Company, we prepared an exercise that encouraged us to articulate what kind of growth we want for Real Pickles, and the possible outcomes of different approaches for our future. Since completing the transition, we’ve continued this important strategic planning work.

To further foster a learning culture in our business, we started holding internal classes on five core topics - Social Mission, History of Real Pickles, the Co-operative Movement, Finances and Governance. While all staff people attend, all potential worker-owners are required to complete these classes before becoming part of the co-op. This has given us all a common base of understanding of Real Pickles as a co-operative business and some of the tools we need to be effective business owners.

The need to think like owners was highlighted when, recently, we were looking at increasing certain benefits for staff - in this case, starting a Real Pickles sponsored retirement account, increasing our paid time off and implementing a family leave policy. While we as employees were, in principle, supportive of enhancing benefits for ourselves and our co-workers, as owners we also had to take responsibility for the impacts of these decisions on the business that provides us with employment. When we looked at the costs within our budget for next year, we ended up proceeding more cautiously, scaling back the new benefits for the upcoming year with the understanding that we will revisit this topic after we have another year as a co-op under our belts and can envision what long term sustainability looks like.

Another example of new owners having to broaden their perspectives came recently when it was time for Dan’s first annual review as General Manager. A small group of board members was formed to conduct the review process. This process of evaluating our General Manager — who is also the founder, hired many of us and who many of us report to directly — exemplifies how the workers have had to step up and manage multiple roles with this new co-operative. In the end, the review went extremely well. It was a powerful experience for all involved and a clear example of what makes a co-op different from other business models.

Charting Our Future

Last May, as we looked forward, we knew that if the co-op was to be successful over time we would have to make worker-ownership appealing to more staff people. We expected that other employees would see the value of being worker-owners but didn’t expect it to happen so quickly.  Even before we officially made the transition to a co-op, two more staff people expressed their interest. In the midst of working on our business strategy, investment campaign, incorporation and legal documents, we had to scramble to articulate the “path to worker-ownership” at Real Pickles, with an eye to finding the balance between making the ownership process clear and accessible to workers while maintaining a high level of training and engagement for potential new members.

We have also been careful to create clear distinctions between the responsibilities of the worker-owners, the board and staff. We wrote our bylaws with an eye to these issues but, taking a cue from fellow worker co-op Equal Exchange, we later also created a governance matrix that both lays out responsibilities from our bylaws (such as only a consensus of all worker-owners can amend Real Pickles’ mission) and clearly communicates what body is accountable for other areas of the business (for example, the General Manager creates the annual budget to be ratified by the Board of Directors). This clarity of responsibilities has served us well so far and the clear delineation of authority and oversight has helped us to work efficiently.

For Brendan Flannelly-King, Real Pickles’ facility manager and one of the five founding members, much of the work setting up the co-op felt abstract and it was often difficult to imagine what it would be like to be an owner. “In some ways,” he says, “owning the business has been easier than I had expected. It’s hard work, but since the worker-owners as a body aren’t involved in operations, we have been able to really focus on strategy.” As we look to our second year, we’re working to anticipate the systems that will help us to be even better business owners, and will help make future decisions as clear and simple as possible.

Real Pickles & Our Community

Real Pickles as a sole proprietorship has long had a strong network of support within the community and we knew we would need to engage that network in a variety of ways as we made the transition to a cooperative. One thing we did was to gather a group of community members as a Board of Advisors to help us look at strategic planning, particularly the issue of how to grow our business in a way that is thoughtful and sustainable. This topic has provided fodder for energetic meetings with lots of debate about competition, mechanization, growth and sustainability. We as worker-owners have been inspired and motivated by these discussions.

We have also found that the outreach work we did throughout the months leading up to our co-op transition has continued to benefit us. Real Pickles’ local following has grown and become even more dedicated - we sold over 7000 more jars in the Pioneer Valley in 2013 than we did in 2012! It is encouraging that worker cooperation appears to have value not only for our own employees but also for customers who can see its benefits for the wider community.

Central to our vision as a sustainable, mission-based co-operative is further engaging our community — the growers who supply us, the farm stands, food co-ops, natural food stores and other businesses that carry our products, the people who purchase them, the investors who helped finance our transition, and the co-ops that have supported us along the way — as we chart the future success of our business. Thanks to the many people who have supported us in this exciting first year of what we hope will be a long and inspiring journey. A co-op is a community effort, and we could not have done it without you!
The current Real Pickles worker-owners (from l to r): Kristin Howard,
Dan Rosenberg, Andy Van Assche, Rebecca Lay, Brendan Flannelly-King,
Annie Winkler, Addie Rose Holland. (Photo credit: Heather Wernimont)

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Beyond Local: The Case for Regional Food

Where should we get our food from?  How far need it travel?

These are essential questions for anyone who wants a better food system – one that is ecologically sound and socially just.  After all, a big impetus for the rapidly growing movement to transform the food system is the modern-day reality that places like New England – quite capable of raising such crops as apples or tomatoes – will instead import them from thousands of miles away and burn up large quantities of climate-changing fossil fuels in the process. 

Long-distance food transport brings other drawbacks, too.  By getting our food from California or New Zealand, we're often giving up on flavor and nutrition because those distant farms are growing crops that were bred, first and foremost, to be shipped.  Farms supplying national or global markets also tend to become big and concentrated, and thus are more likely (organic or not) to be engaged in industrial, monoculture practices, rather than the kind of agriculture that supports healthy soil, healthy crops, and healthy ecosystems.  And, of course, eaters in this kind of food system are left hopelessly disconnected from the source of their food, which brings all sorts of unintended consequences.

As local as possible

Buy local! This has been a primary response to the crazy, unhealthy, industrial food system we have in this country.  Leave behind that bad supermarket food shipped in from who knows where, and go get to know your neighborhood farmer.  The push to buy local is taking the burgeoning new food system far.  Countless farmers markets and community supported agriculture farms have come into being.  More and more restaurant chefs are buying ingredients from local farms.  Local food has even begun to make its way into schools and hospitals.

The idea of buying local makes sense in many ways.  If our food system is broken and a central problem is that we're sourcing from thousands of miles away, the obvious response is to switch to getting our food from as close to home as possible.  And if the disconnect between farmers and eaters is a serious problem, we should start buying our food from a farmer who we can actually meet face to face.  There's a logic to it, and this indeed is an important part of the solution to building a new and better food system.

Is "buy local", however, the end of the story?  Is the right way to create the food system we need to buy as local as possible every time?  It's an increasingly popular idea.  These days it serves as the basis for commissioned studies and marketing slogans suggesting that single small states – even single towns – might feed themselves almost entirely.  But, I think the real answer is more complicated.

Urban and rural

A trip to a pickle festival in New York City a couple of years ago got me thinking about the issue in a new way.  Addie Rose and I traveled to the Lower East Side to set up the Real Pickles booth at the Peck Slip Pickle Fest, a special one-day event at a public food market called New Amsterdam Market.  During a short break between pickle sales, I got a chance to walk the market, and was struck by how different it was than the farmers markets back home in western Massachusetts.  In rural western Massachusetts, farmers and other food producers typically travel ten or twenty miles to get to a farmers market.  Here at New Amsterdam Market, I noticed that the vendors – vegetable farmers, cheesemakers, maple syrup producers – were coming from a much greater distance.  Some had driven 100 miles or more from various points in the Hudson Valley.  Others had traveled even further, coming down from the Finger Lakes or Northern Vermont.  There were a few vendors with products made in Brooklyn, but few if any were using agricultural ingredients produced local to the city.

None of this came to me as a real surprise.  A place like New York City – with its urban development stretching for many miles – obviously can't support many real farms anywhere close to its borders.  But, it got me thinking about all the talk about being a "locavore" and switching to a "100-mile diet". 

For those of us living in rural places like Vermont or the Berkshires or Maine, it's remarkably easy to become convinced that solving our food system's problems can be wholly accomplished by the act of buying as local as possible – and organic – in an effort to create a multitude of insulated, local food systems.  And, yet the point of changing the food system is not to create an elitist alternative for a limited subset of the population.  The point is to bring about a transformation that gives everyone the opportunity to participate in and benefit from a healthy, just, and sustainable food system. 

If everyone is to be part of the new food system, then I think we need to keep this fact in mind: the majority of the U.S. population lives in concentrated urban areas whose local agricultural resources are entirely inadequate to support the food needs of their populations.  For those in and around cities, then, the task of sourcing food from much closer to home means re-building the food system on a regional level.  Instead of local food systems with a 100-mile radius (as many choose to define "local"), this means focusing on regional food systems with, perhaps, a 250- or 500-mile radius.  

Those of us in rural areas – rich in agricultural resources – thus have an inescapable responsibility.  As we do the necessary work of helping to overhaul the food system, we must consider what part we can play in feeding the populations of places like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.  While it is surely tempting (and so much simpler) to focus inwardly and exclusively on how to feed merely ourselves, that is not, in the end, the way to build a better food system.  It is essential to be actively promoting and supporting our local farm economies – and, at the same, we need to be thinking more broadly.


There's another strong reason why we need to think regionally as well as locally, one that undermines the notion that it would even be possible for any one town or small state to securely depend on its own agricultural resources.  It has to do with things like weather and pests – those unavoidable factors that make farming inevitably risky and unpredictable.  Factors which also threaten to make farming even more unpredictable as a result of climate change.

The changing pattern of cucumber growing here in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts helps to illustrate the issue.  Dave from Chamutka Farm in Whately has been growing pickling cucumbers (among other crops) since 1980.  Before that, as a kid, he helped out his parents and other local growers raise them for the old Oxford pickle plant in nearby Deerfield.  Dave, who was Real Pickles' first cucumber supplier, has witnessed the harvest season for local pickling cucumbers shrink dramatically in recent years.  When he first started growing, he could harvest cucumbers all summer long, typically going into mid to late September.  By the time Dave started supplying cucumbers to Real Pickles in 2001, cucumber harvests would last at least until early September.  Over the last decade, however, it has come to be a crapshoot to expect a harvest beyond mid-August.  For Real Pickles, that means pickling all of our cucumbers for the entire year (60,000 pounds in 2013) within a single six-week period.

What's steadily squeezing out our local cucumber season?  It's a disease called cucurbit downy mildew, which blows in from the southern states each summer and, just about overnight, wipes out the cucumber crop.  These days it's showing up much earlier than it used to, a trend that is likely to continue as the climate warms.  As UMass Extension vegetable specialist, Ruth Hazzard, explained to me recently, human attempts to breed cucumber plants resistant to it have been failing to keep up with downy mildew's rapid evolution via genetic mutation and natural selection.  In the future, cucumbers could become a much less reliable local crop.  And yet, as downy mildew does not typically reach all parts of the Northeast (check out these maps illustrating its recent impact), it may still be a reliable regional crop.    

Differences in weather (and its effects) from one locale to another point us in a similar direction.  Tropical Storm Irene barreled through the Northeast in August 2011 and brought epic amounts of rainfall.  Small rivers flooded immediately, and within a few days, major rivers started overflowing their banks – leading to crops losses for numerous farms located along riverbanks (where the best soil is).  Three of the six farms that regularly supply Real Pickles had flooded fields and ruined vegetable crops.  It was a disastrous event for many farmers – though not for all farmers in the region.  For one thing, Pioneer Valley farms located on higher ground tended to fare better during Irene.  Looking regionally, the storm was a disaster for farms in such places as Vermont, the Hudson River Valley, and western Massachusetts.  But, farms in many other parts of the Northeast – further from the track of the storm – emerged relatively unscathed.

Last season, farms in our area had to contend with one of the rainiest months of June in memory.  About ten inches of rain fell here in the Pioneer Valley that month, adversely affecting our local food system in a variety of ways.  The direct effect on Real Pickles was that 20,000 pounds of summer cabbage that we had planned to buy from one of our local farms rotted in the sopping fields.  While our local farms had all experienced similar weather, farms in some other parts of the Northeast had not.  The same week that we got the local cabbage news, we received a call from our friends at a farmers co-op in Pennsylvania and learned that organic farmers down there had produced a bumper crop of summer cabbage.  We bought enough to fill up a tractor trailer – making the transport as energy efficient as possible – and were able to make the batches of sauerkraut and kimchi that we needed.

These examples all drive home the same point:  While a global industrialized food system is clearly not a resilient one, neither is an entirely local one.  If we are to build a better food system, resiliency must be among its central features.  The inevitable conclusion, then, is that we need to make a shift toward regional scale.  We must move away from the hopelessly unhealthy, inefficient, and insecure reality offered by our current global food system.  And we also need to properly account for the impacts of weather, pests, and climate change – and do our best to ensure that everyone can be reliably fed.

Local and Regional

The work of building the new food system that we need involves a wide array of priorities – like reducing corporate dominance, expanding organic production, and shifting to healthy, minimally processed foods.  Cutting back dramatically on long-distance food transport is another top priority.  Here, we need to engage in food system development on two scales: local and regional.

How do we do this?  CISA recently put out a fantastic guide, Eat Up and Take Action for Local Food, outlining all the many ways one can help build up our local food economies.  Buy locally-grown food, support access to it for low-income folks, become a local foods entrepreneur, invest in a local foods business.  There is plenty of important work to be done.

On the regional level, a key task is to build up the regional connections between farms, processors, distributors, retailers, and eaters.  At Real Pickles, we enjoy working with and supporting three family-owned distributors – Angello's, Regional Access, and Associated Buyers – all of whom do a great and efficient job of connecting Northeast family farms and producers with retailers throughout the region.  (I mention "efficient" because regional food distribution can, in many cases, outcompete local food distribution when it comes to minimizing energy consumption, a key consideration.)  We also make a point of keeping in touch with Northeast farms outside the Connecticut River Valley, so that we are prepared whenever those inevitable weather challenges arise.  We primarily buy our vegetables from local farms, but we can turn to Pete's Greens in Vermont or Tuscarora Organic Growers in Pennsylvania if we need to. 

Encouraging retailers and eaters to support local and regional products is important, too.  For years now, "buy local" marketing campaigns have been successfully raising awareness about the benefits of supporting local farms.  It may be time for "buy regional" campaigns, as well.  At Real Pickles, we honor our original commitments to buy our vegetables only from Northeast family farms and sell our products only within the Northeast.  This is our way of publicly promoting the idea of regional food systems.  We would love to see many more food businesses making similar commitments!

If we want a better food system, then we must be sourcing our food much closer to home.  The food system is complex, however, and simple prescriptions will only take us so far.  Responding to the reality of global food transport with the call to "buy local" is extremely important.  If, however, we are to truly to change the food system – the whole system, not just the margins of it – we must also develop a regional perspective.  By doing so, we will help to ensure that our food system can be healthy, secure, and sustainable.  And that it can be so for everyone!

NOTE:  If you're interested in learning more about regional food systems, I recommend checking out the work of Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (NESAWG).  In particular, you'll find excellent in-depth papers on the topic here and here.  For a number of years now, NESAWG has also been helping to build a Northeast regional food system through their annual conference, It Takes a Region.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Why 8 hours of pickle tasting rocked my world…

Some of the delicious pickle entries for GFA 2014
Last weekend, Dan and I participated in the fourth annual Good Food Awards' judging event - in the pickle category.  We were psyched for this!  Not only did we get to travel to San Francisco and taste LOTS of incredible pickles - we also got to meet new pickle people and connect with pickle friends we’ve made at previous GFA events.  It was a fantastic experience.

The event was much larger than we expected, almost as big as the GFA ceremony itself.  For each of the 10 categories (pickles, preserves, cheese, beer, chocolate, coffee, spirits, confections, oils, charcuterie) there were 20 or so judges ready to taste the nearly 1,500 total GFA entries for 2014, including ~120 pickle entries.  In the morning, the pickle judges split into small groups focused on regions (I was South; Dan was West), and each group selected 10 pickles to recommend to the larger group based on flavor, balance, texture, and appearance, among other criteria.  After lunch, the pickle judges tasted the 50 pickles selected in the morning and gave them numerical scores.  We won’t know until the awards ceremony which pickles won, but I have my guesses…

Dan's group took pickle tasting very seriously
I loved tasting SO many different kinds of pickles - vinegar, fermented, krauts, fruit, onions, beets, and relishes.  The fermented black bean and garlic paste was a highlight for me - its spicy kick was significant and enduring!  I also loved the turmeric-yellow kraut packed with ginger, yum.  Dan's day was made by the vinegar pickled sea beans (the what?) - an aquatic plant neither of us had heard of, harvested from salt marshes.  And those pickled cherries - nicely flavored with a little cinnamon and clove - came in handy immediately following the jar of cucumber pickles full of halved habanero peppers.

Chilly Dilly
Among the judges were experienced pickle-tasters, pickle-writers, and pickle-makers, and it was fun to talk details of sugar-sour balance, degree of fermentation, slicing techniques, and vegetable texture.  The selection of entries were beautifully displayed - it was lovely to see the variety of veggies, colors, textures, and jars.

The pickle category was expertly coordinated by Chris Forbes from Sour Puss Pickles in Brooklyn, NY and Todd Champagne from Happy Girl Kitchen Co in Monterey, CA.   While Chris masterminded the organization of all those pickles, Todd kept up our spirits by making an appearance as “Chilly Dilly”, a cucurbit that is “...kind of a Big Dill”.  They kept us in pickles all day long, PLUS a parade of palate cleansers to keep our taste buds primed – the highlights included some very special GFA entries from the chocolate and cheese categories once their judges were done tasting from them.  Oh, and some nice selections left over from the spirits and beer categories, too. 

Fermentation crocks from
Counter Culture Pottery
It was a wonderful place to meet and re-connect with a variety of pickle folks.  It put us in a reminiscent mood, too.  When we started Real Pickles in 2001, there were only a handful of businesses around the country making fermented pickles and sauerkraut.  Now there are companies sprouting up all over the place!!  Dan and I really appreciate meeting new companies who are perfecting the art of the pickle, and to talk techniques, recipes, and business models. We had a great time connecting with Mara from Zuk√© and learning about her new-ish pickle business in Boulder, CO.  We also got to meet Jennifer Harris who organizes Sonoma County’s wildly popular Farm to Fermentation Festival, and Sarah Kersten of Counter Culture Pottery, who makes elegant fermentation crocks. 

Dan and Linda Z.
When Real Pickles was getting its start, there were also only a handful of books about fermented pickles, or role models in the world of fermentation (think: pre-Sandor Katz's Wild Fermentation!).  Two of those early authors were Sally Fallon (Nourishing Traditions) and Linda Ziedrich (Joy of Pickling).  We count ourselves very lucky that, this past weekend, we were able to meet and judge pickles alongside one of our early inspirations and teachers, Linda Ziedrich.

When Real Pickles was getting its start (is there an echo in here?), fermented vegetables were a food of the past, a fringe-hippie-food, only found in backwoods natural foods stores and in the pantries of homesteaders.  A mere dozen years later, it is at the height of food-trendiness, the focus of many festivals (see this, this, and this), and the mark of the hippest hipster (any hipster worth his or her hand-harvested unrefined sea salt, anyway). 

The timing of this trend is uncanny (pun intended), as this food revival is gaining recognition from the science community, as well.  In just the last few years, scientists have been recognizing the amazing benefits of fermented foods to our overall health - benefits that our ancestors enjoyed and came to depend on for thousands of years, but that we have unwittingly excluded in our transition to more processed and industrialized foods.  In his newest book, Cooked, Michael Pollan enumerates dozens of recent scientific articles relating the importance of beneficial bacteria in protecting our intestinal health, promoting our immune defense, and maintaining our mental well-being.  Scientists are also recognizing that our recent deficiency in fermented foods teeming with live cultures may be part of the reason for some of our generation’s most serious health problems, such as allergies, obesity, seasonal colds and flus, and some cancers.  Pickle, anyone?

Tasting break.
But back to the Good Food Awards… needless to say, there was plenty of enthusiasm among the pickle judges and aficionados we spent the weekend with. One of the best things about the Good Food Awards is that it is not just a contest, where your product is pitted against those of your peers and competitors.  So much of it is about connecting food producers, inspiring conversation, trading ideas and methods, and giving each other a pat on the back.  Being a food producer can be isolating, especially when regionally-focused, so it can be SO inspiring to talk to other people with similar experiences.  Really, in the world of fermented pickling, we are not competitors.  The more producers there are, the more we are recognized as a legitimate food category.  Participating in the Good Food Awards has given us a real sense for our larger community of fermenters and fellow picklers, and we are so happy to be a part of it!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Real Pickles and the Path to a Co-operative Economy

We are excited to share a few words written by Erbin Crowell, Executive Director of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA) and local expert on cooperative business.  Erbin was a huge help to the Real Pickles Co-op founding group as we forged ahead with our transition to a cooperative structure.  He earned his Master of Management: Co-op & Credit Unions from St. Mary’s University in Nova Scotia and serves on the boards of the National Co-operative Business Association and the New England Farmers Union. He lives in Buckland, MA, with his partner Kristin Howard and their son Elias, and may be contacted at erbin@nfca.coop.

By Erbin Crowell, Executive Director, Neighboring Food Co-op Association

The United Nations International Year of
Cooperatives was celebrated in 2012.
It’s been about five years since I first sat down with Real Pickles’ cofounder Dan Rosenberg at his home in Montague, MA.  As he considered the future of his company, Dan was interested in knowing more about the co-operative business model and its potential for preserving Real Pickles’ unique mission over time.  For my part, I wanted to better understand the perspectives of entrepreneurs like Dan who were uncomfortable with the traditional paths of business succession.  Could co-ops offer a viable alternative for business owners who see success as defined more broadly than just the bottom line? 

My partner Kristin Howard – now Real Pickles' sales manager and a founding worker-owner – and I had recently left Equal Exchange, a worker co-op and pioneer in fairly traded products, where we had been member-owners for a combined two decades.  My experience developing new initiatives within a rapidly growing co-op had been profound on a personal level.  It had also demonstrated to me how co-ops could have a dramatic impact on the economy by working together across the food system.  I wanted to be part of making the experience available to more people, and growing the wider co-operative economy.  This path had led me to studies in co-operative management and work with organizations including the Co-operative Fund of New England, the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-ops, and finally the Neighboring Food Co-op Association.

A basic challenge for the co-operative movement is that it has been largely overlooked by universities, economic development organizations, and local governments. It is easy to go through one’s academic career without learning anything about this business model, despite the global impact of co-ops. When young entrepreneurs seek out support for starting or growing a business, the co-operative model is rarely offered as an option.  Basic legal and financial support is weak at best.

And yet, co-operatives have succeeded.  For example, more than a billion people around the world are co-op members — more than directly own stock in publicly traded corporations.  Co-ops also employ more people than multinationals.  And in the quest for food security, co-operatives have been recognized as lifeline for small farmers and consumers in the developing world. 

In recent years, co-ops have been recognized for their performance during the global recession that began in 2008 and continues to cause massive unemployment, dramatic shifts in wealth and austerity.  Co-ops have proven extraordinarily resilient during this period, preserving jobs, wealth and community infrastructure. And their global contribution to human development, poverty reduction and sustainability led the United Nations to declare 2012 the International Year of Co-ops.

In addition to being driven by a distinct set of values and principles, the co-operative legal structure prioritizes social needs and goals above the accumulation of profit.  Based on the principle of one member, one vote, co-ops are very real examples of the kind of economic democracy that people are clamoring for in the wake of this global recession.

Food co-ops in our region are an illustration of the potential of this model.  For the past three years, I have served as executive director of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA), a network of over 35 food co-ops and start-ups across New England.  These are community businesses, locally owned by more than 80,000 people.  Success is not measured by investor dividends, but by factors such as environmental impact, benefits to members, and employment. Because they are not focused on maximization of profit, co-ops have been innovators in the food system and pioneers in healthy foods, organic products and Fair Trade. 

Food co-ops have also been leaders in the re-localization of economies, illustrated by the fact that the members of the NFCA purchase over $30 million in local products each year.  In communities across our region, food co-ops serve as anchors for local producers and as places to experiment with new products.

However, a central challenge for food co-ops, and for the “buy local” movement in general, is that the purchasing power we invest in the local economy does not always stay in the community.  For example, our members and customers have invested millions of their consumer dollars in socially responsible businesses, only to see them bought out by large multinational corporations.  In this sense, local economies often serve as a testing ground for the investor-driven economy. Entrepreneurs create new products and services and those businesses that demonstrate sufficient potential to generate profits for investors are absorbed into this market economy through investor buy-outs, initial public offerings (IPOs) or purchase by a larger corporation.  As a result, the capital, creativity and infrastructure created by local entrepreneurs are extracted from local communities, and the stakeholders who helped create that market value are left behind.

Another challenge for the local movement is business succession.  What happens when an entrepreneur decides to retire or simply move on to something new?  As we invest our consumer dollars in local businesses, are there ways to ensure that those businesses don’t fade away or get sold to corporate interests?  Is there a way to engage other stakeholders — workers, producers, consumers and the wider community — in the mission and long-term success of local enterprises so that they are more sustainable and accountable to the people who depend on them?

This question has been at the root of the co-operative movement since its beginnings.  In response to the concentration of wealth and control that characterized the Industrial Revolution, community activists created a democratic business model, rooted in social values, and oriented toward the meeting of human needs rather than accumulation of profit.  For the first food co-ops, the goal was food security and rooting a source of healthy, affordable food in the community.  For farmers, it was pooling resources to invest in the shared infrastructure needed to compete with larger growers and corporations.  And for workers, it was gaining more control over our work-lives so that a company couldn’t just up and leave in search of higher profits.

Certainly, these goals speak to many entrepreneurs today for whom the ideals of economic democracy, sustainability and human fulfillment are integral to their vision of success.  What has been missing is a roadmap for succession that provides an alternative to the traditional corporate buyout.  Real Pickles founders, Dan and Addie Rose, may have part of the answer.  Five years after we sat down to talk co-ops, their company is on the cutting edge of a trend toward a new way of thinking about the basic purpose and priorities of local business.  For an emerging group of entrepreneurs, conversion to a co-operative structure may be driven by the desire to root their business in the community, to safeguard their mission, or simply to share ownership, risk and reward with their co-workers.  For others, “co-operation” was always what they had in mind – they just needed a formal business structure for it.

This is not to say that there is not an important role for outside investors in this effort.  What is needed is a new way of thinking about this role.  Some have used the term “social investor,” and “slow” or “patient” capital.  Tom Webb, former manager of the Master of Management, Co-operatives and Credit Unions Program at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Canada, has called for something a little more specific: “co-operative capital.”  For Webb, the financial crisis of 2008 and the accompanying global recession has demonstrated the problems of an economic system built on maximization of profit.  “We need capital that is socially constructive rather than destructive and more stabilizing rather than destabilizing,” he writes.  “We need capital that is restrained, limited and controlled and directed to meeting human need rather than human greed.”

In fact, some of the most successful contemporary co-ops have relied on this kind of capital to grow their businesses.  Equal Exchange and Organic Valley, for example, offer investment opportunities for non-member individuals and organizations.  This capital is constructive in that it is driven by social and environmental impacts as opposed to maximization of return; it is restrained because investment shares are non-voting, with control remaining with the membership; and it is stabilizing in that share value is based on cash value rather than the theoretical market valuation employed by the stock market and employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs), rooting wealth in the community.  Over time, many have insisted that investors would not accept these limitations on their influence and returns.  And yet, year after year these co-ops have had little trouble attracting sufficient capital to support their growth.

What is particularly exciting about Real Pickles is that they have demonstrated a model in which people can invest in the conversion of a privately held business into a co-operative enterprise.  Essentially, investors are using their financial resources to secure a business within the local co-operative economy, as opposed to the market economy.  This represents a compelling shift in our conception of what is possible. 

Over the years, food co-ops across the Northeast have invested substantial purchasing power in the success of local businesses like Real Pickles.  And I am proud that the Neighboring Food Co-op Association has been able to play a small part in the transition of the company, becoming an investor in Real Pickles as part of our vision of “a more healthy, just and sustainable food system, and a vibrant community of co-operative enterprise.” 

On a personal level, it has been inspiring to work with the member-owners of this new co-op in this process.  In my role as the first staff person for the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-ops, I began to see the importance of co-op led development and the potential of peer-to-peer collaboration in supporting the success of co-operative enterprises.  While my primary work is now with the NFCA, there is a clear overlap in the vision of our food co-ops and that of companies like Real Pickles.  Moving forward, my hope is that co-ops and local entrepreneurs will be able to see the potential in this kind of collaboration in growing the co-operative movement in our region.

Dan Rosenberg and Addie Rose Holland have not only chosen an inspiring path for Real Pickles.  They, along with the other founding member-owners of the Real Pickles Co-op, have laid a path for local business succession and the transformation of individual entrepreneurship into what would be more accurately described as co-opreneurship: creative economic development with the goal of strengthening economic democracy, sustainability, and community wealth.

Monday, April 8, 2013

A Community Perspective: Investing in a Better Food System!

We are honored to feature this guest post from the leadership team of the Pioneer Valley Slow Money chapter.  The burgeoning Slow Money movement is about "investing as if food, farms and fertility mattered."  We at Real Pickles are excited to be offering a local investment opportunity of this kind as we work to transition our business to a worker-owned cooperative.  And, we are thankful to our local Slow Money chapter for its support!

by Paul DiLeo, Joe Grafton, Kyra Kristof, Spirit Joseph, Jeff Rosen, Sam Stegeman, and Tom Willits

"As long as money accelerates around the planet, divorced from where we live, our
 befuddlement will continue. As long as the way we invest is divorced from how we
 live and how we consume, our befuddlement will worsen. As long as the way we invest
 uproots companies, putting them in the hands of a broad, shallow pool of absentee
 shareholders whose primary goal is the endless growth of their financial capital, our
befuddlement at the depletion of our social and natural capital will only deepen."
 -Woody Tasch, Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money

The leadership team of the Pioneer Valley Slow Money Chapter has been working diligently to support Real Pickles in its efforts to raise capital through its community investment campaign.  When Dan and Addie asked us to share our reasoning behind these efforts, we responded with equal zeal.  So, here goes:

Photo credit: Paul Wagtouicz
Living where we do, in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, nestled within the regional community of New England, we are participants in an exciting movement.  Over the past several decades, we have seen an increase in the number of farms and farmers in the region, reversing decades of decline.  Many of us have ample opportunity to join a local CSA and to shop at one of the many new farmer’s markets that are now part of our daily economic life.  Both producers and consumers are driving positive changes in the food system, as more producers build businesses with a deep commitment to their local food system and more consumers shift their buying patterns in support of local food.

And, while we are all pleased with the positive trends, few, if any of us, feel satisfied with that pace, or the current scale of the local food economy in our region.  So, what’s slowing us down?

As Woody Tasch suggests above, there is a missing piece to this economic equation.  We are missing the investors in our local food system.  Slow Money, as a movement, is growing alongside of the local food movement, designed to help that movement obtain the type of investment capital it needs.  Many of us have been engaged in heated conversations, where we decry our inability to move a portion of IRAs or other investments out of the traditional investment world and into our local economy.  There is a lag, a logjam of intent, when it comes to finding a way to match our consumer commitment to local food with an equally straightforward investor commitment.
But, as people who have been engaged in this space have learned, it’s not easy to match our mission zeal up to investment opportunities.  For one thing, there are not many opportunities.  For another, as movement leaders, we are asking for our businesses to be mission-focused in a way that supports a local (food) economy.  We want them to treat their suppliers and employees well, use best ecological practices, and maintain a long-term commitment to local ownership and place.  Yet, such mission requirements do not typically provide investors with the kinds of returns they seek, or a quick way to get their money back.

Slow Money seeks to provide patient investment dollars that can finance businesses.  These dollars would not pressure them to sell out on their mission commitment.  The Slow Money movement rests on a thesis that there are good, viable businesses that can scale up to the size of the local economy which houses them.  The movement seeks businesses who can demonstrate the principles we all seek, who really need this new kind of patient, or “nurture” capital.

The Pioneer Valley Slow Money Chapter – operating as a working group within the PVGrows network – is pleased to be working with Real Pickles to assist them in meeting their finance challenge.  Real Pickles has demonstrated commitment and business competence in light of the mission elements we all seek.  They buy from local/regional family farmers, paying them fair prices.  Their transition to a worker cooperative continues a tradition of fair and equitable treatment for its employees.  Real Pickles is committed to organic agriculture in the field, and energy efficiency and solar power at its facility.  And long-term commitment to local ownership and place is what their co-op transition deal is all about.
The team at Slow Money is excited to support Real Pickles because they are the real deal.  Their commitment to principled business makes it hard for them to offer investors the kind of return they are accustomed to seeing in the world of Fast Money.  But, they embody the change we seek, and offer supporters of local food an opportunity to invest in a way that is consistent with their consumer commitment.  Real Pickles has worked hard to make this offer viable and available.  We are proud to help them get the word out.

For more information about Real Pickles' co-op investment campaign, visit www.realpickles.com/invest

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Community Perspective: Keeping It Local!

Margaret Christie is a rock star.  Especially when it comes to our local food system here in western Massachusetts.  As executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) in the late 1990s, she oversaw the launch of the hugely successful “Be a Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown” marketing campaign.  In her on-going work as CISA's special projects director, Margaret plays an essential role as researcher, thinker, and organizer in the effort to build a better food system – locally and beyond.  Here, Margaret offers her perspective on the social benefit of Real Pickles' decision to go co-op.  Thanks, Margaret, for your kind and insightful words!  

by Margaret Christie, Special Projects Director, CISA

Why is Real Pickles’ decision to go worker co-op good for the rest of us?  If they keep making good dill pickles, ginger carrots, and sauerkraut, do we care who owns them and how that ownership is structured?  Yes, we do—not only because of the impact this business will have, but because the folks at Real Pickles are showing us how we can be involved in building a better food system.

The change in Real Pickles’ ownership provides a number of collateral community benefits, but most important may be the model of business success they offer.  As we work together to create a network of farm and food businesses that provide more of the food we eat every day here in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts (and the surrounding region), we often focus on business start-ups, not on what follows success.  But what happens to a business that starts with a commitment to sourcing regionally or sustainably grown ingredients as the business matures?  When the owners are ready to do something else—or just to shoulder a little bit less of the burden of keeping the business going—how can their commitment to regional sourcing be maintained?  Real Pickles’ decision to form a worker co-op models one answer to this important question. 

Every month, I attend meetings of the PVGrows Loan Fund as CISA’s representative.  When local farm and food businesses apply to us for financing, we review a list of criteria that represent our mission of “enhancing the ecological and economic sustainability and vitality of the Pioneer Valley food system.”  Among our concerns is long-term commitment to the Pioneer Valley.  If we finance a new business, will they continue to source from local farmers in the long run, or will they decide that it’s less expensive to find their ingredients in the global marketplace?  Or might they move altogether, finding both cheaper ingredients and cheaper labor?  When evaluating loan applicants, we often have no way to assess the owners’ long-term commitment to our region. 

Real Pickles’ new ownership structure, in contrast, provides two clear answers to this question.  First, the business will now have multiple owners, all relying on its success for their employment, and unlikely to choose to ship their jobs someplace else.  Second, they’ve codified their commitment to regional sourcing and regional sales in their bylaws, and made those bylaws very difficult to change.  Rather than getting big and getting bought out by a larger corporation with, perhaps, a stronger commitment to their shareholders' profits than to our local economy, Real Pickles has strengthened their commitment to our region while restructuring their ownership. 

Real Pickles’ action reminds me of a courageous step taken by another Franklin County business more than a decade ago.  In 1998, a group of Franklin County dairy farmers decided to form a co-op and market their own milk to local consumers, becoming Our Family Farms.  They introduced the milk by giving out lots of free samples, explaining that it came from their own farms, right down the road.  There wasn’t much fanfare then about locally grown food, but the response was clear: the milk was delicious, and local residents understood that supporting businesses in their own communities benefitted the local economy.  Many farmers and farm advocates in the region took notice.  At CISA, when we started the Be a Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown campaign the following year, Our Family Farms’ success gave us confidence that the campaign would resonate here in the Pioneer Valley.  CISA is now celebrating our 20th anniversary, and the founding of Our Family Farms was a critical milestone on the road to the Local Hero campaign and the explosion of interest in local food and farms. 

I expect that Real Pickles’ decision to form a worker co-op—and the campaign for investors which will finance the shift in ownership—will play a similarly important role in the growth of our local food system.  Growth and success can lead to a renewed commitment to our region and the health of its farms, workers, and local economy.  And as residents of this region, some of us can do more than applaud and eat pickles:  we can finance this growth from within our own community.

For more information about Real Pickles' co-op investment campaign, visit www.realpickles.com/invest.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

“We don’t want no climate drama!”

Who does?  Dan and I traveled down to Washington D.C. this past weekend to be part of Forward on Climate, the biggest climate rally in U.S. history.  We joined over 40,000 people on the Mall near the Washington Monument, and then marched to the White House to make sure that our message was heard.  Our message was serious, but we had a great time conveying it.

Dan & Addie Rose
The Sierra Club, 350.org, and 160+ other organizations sponsored the event, and Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip-Hop Caucus emceed the show.  We heard from author and activist Bill McKibben, tribal leaders from British Columbia, Alberta, and Oklahoma, and even a member of the 1% (a billionaire investor) who came out to let us know that he saw the Keystone XL pipeline as a very bad investment.  All spoke out strongly against the pipeline that is proposed for transporting oil from Alberta's tar sands to the Gulf Coast for refining and exporting.  The quantity of oil estimated to be locked up in the tar sands is equal to all the oil that humanity has ever yet used - and if burned would raise the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere from an already dangerous 400 ppm to a frightening 600 ppm.

“You are the antibodies kicking in as the planet starts to fight its fever,” Bill McKibben told the crowd as we gathered on the Mall.  Many people referenced Dr. Martin Luther King’s visit to the Mall 50 years ago and the crowds of people who came to fight for human equality.  The difference, Rev. Yearwood noted, is that now "we are fighting for existence."  Indeed, climate change is already picking up steam – as recent extreme weather events keep reminding us – and the stakes are high.  The opportunity to convince President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline is an opportunity to impede the burning of that dirty Alberta oil – and to give us time to get on track reducing our energy consumption and switching to renewables.  Dr. King's famous words ring true today: "We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now." 

Climate change is a big deal to us at Real Pickles.  Our work here is to strive to create a business that is sustainable and energy efficient, one that helps to build a strong and healthy community.  Many of the principles on which we base our decisions are principles that also define the climate movement.  Climate change is also central to the work I do outside of Real Pickles: managing communications and outreach for the Northeast Climate Science Center (NE CSC) based at UMass Amherst.  The center is a federal-academic partnership that works to provide tools to natural resource managers as they plan for a future of changing climate.  My two workplaces – Real Pickles and the NE CSC – span a broad spectrum between big picture and community scale action.  In both, I think about the issues surrounding climate change on a daily basis and hope that our government will take action to prevent the worst, even as many citizens prepare for it.  For these reasons, I was thrilled to join the 40,000+ protesters in Washington on Sunday.

The march begins

“Hey Obama! We don’t want no climate drama!” - chant from the crowd

We felt very inspired by the attendance and the vibe at the rally.  People traveled from all over the country to participate and show their support for a low-carbon future.  Together, we shouted and we shook our fists.  We danced to the drum line and the brass band.  And we danced extra hard to keep warm – did I mention that it was a crisp 25 degrees with a brisk wind?

There were signs declaring that "fossil fuels are SO last century" and stickers against hydrofracking ("No fracking way!").  The tribal leaders spoke of the incredible pollution risk posed by the Keystone XL pipeline: "Oil always spills.  It is not a question of if, but a question of when."  And there were numerous chants in favor of solar and wind power, with Dan and I occasionally adding in a good word for conservation as priority #1.

Turnout for the event far exceeded expectations, and we left feeling particularly proud of the Western Mass contingent: we heard that 5 or 6 full buses traveled to the rally from the Pioneer Valley, yeah!  We took a bus down from Greenfield and were serenaded in the parking lot by activists unable to join us – with songs like CSN's "Long Time Comin'" – before we boarded the bus and set on our way.  Amidst the enormous crowd, we didn’t run into many Western Mass folks but did see our neighbor Alden, owner of the People’s Pint, toward the end of the rally.  We were hoping he would have 2 pints of his Farmer Brown and a couple of pulled pork sandwiches to offer us, but alas - we’ll have to wait until we get back to Greenfield.

We’re including a few photos from our trip – we hope that you enjoy!
Addie tells Obama that she "don't want no climate drama".
Dr. King's words ring true today,
"We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now."
The polar bears show up to the rally to advocate for their future existence.
A brilliant policy solution that could make a profound difference.
(Carbon Tax Center is a good clearinghouse for info on a revenue-neutral carbon fee.)

The Occupy movement lives on!
It's time, indeed...

The final word.
Gotta put the brakes on.