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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Why I Want to be a Worker-Owner...Again

When I first starting working with Dan and Addie at Real Pickles four years ago, I was impressed by their delicious fermented vegetables and commitment to family farms here in the Pioneer Valley.  I was also intrigued by how they thoughtfully rejected the conventional wisdom that success for a natural foods business means getting national distribution, scaling up and selling out.  What kind of organic food business would limit sales to the northeastern US when there was clear demand across the country?  Who would decline sales to big food distributors in favor of local companies and direct deliveries?

This approach has been very successful for Real Pickles over the past eleven years. And these unconventional ideas about how to run a business are not just ideological.  They are sound decisions for owners whose concern is not maximizing profit, but creating a stable business that contributes to a vibrant regional, organic, and values-based food system.

Based on these priorities, Dan and Addie have decided that the best path for them is to convert their business to a co-op.  As member-owned enterprises, co-operatives are designed to meet human needs and aspirations before maximizing profit.  Because of this, co-ops tend to focus on long-term goals beyond the quarterly balance sheet. Dating back to the 1800s, the co-operative movement offers a democratic economic alternative that roots wealth in local communities. When the United Nations declared 2012 the International Year of Co-ops, the goal was to shine a light on a business model that now includes over a billion members worldwide –  more people than directly own stock in publicly traded corporations.

For me personally, Real Pickles’ transition to a co-op is an exciting opportunity.  Before joining the business, I spent a decade as a member of Equal Exchange, a Fair Trade Organization committed to working with small farmer co-ops throughout the world.  Through this work, I was able to see how co-operatives enable people to change their lives and communities — often in the context of geographical isolation, governmental neglect and poverty — and meet their needs, together.

In Darjeeling, India, I visited a community living on an abandoned tea plantation that had formed a co-op and were slowly bringing the tea bushes back into production so that they could diversify their incomes beyond local cash crops. In Chiapas, Mexico, I saw how coffee co-ops are essential tools for the independence of Zapatista Autonomous Communities, where indigenous communities provide themselves with essential services.

Kristin having morning coffee with the
Castellon family, Miraflor Co-op, Nicaragua, 2002

Most meaningful to me were the co-operative communities I met in Nicaragua.  Like many coffee-growing countries, Nicaragua is a stunningly beautiful place.  But the beauty of the countryside contrasts with the lack of opportunity faced by much of the population, a result of decades of dictatorship starting in 1937, an earthquake that devastated the capital in 1972 and a brutal civil war in the 1980s.  Coffee co-ops, however, are a bright spot in rural Nicaragua.  During my visits to these communities, I met teenagers from farming communities who give passionate tours of the local rainforest as part of eco-tourism programs created by their co-op, women who run co-op-sponsored outreach programs on domestic violence, and young co-op staff people who are trained experts in coffee quality.  Through their co-ops, thousands of coffee farmers in Nicaragua have shared ownership of highly efficient coffee processing and export facilities.  The farmers, co-op staff people, and community activists I met in Nicaragua during my time at Equal Exchange have persisted through political conflict and open warfare, and inspired me to continue to work for justice and community ownership in the food system.

To me, it is important that Equal Exchange is itself organized as a co-operative, living the values of democracy that it values in its suppliers.  As a former worker-owner, I – along with my fellow members – elected the board of directors and participated in core business decisions. It was the worker-owners who decided to expand beyond coffee into tea and chocolate, to create a policy that limited our highest salary to four times the lowest, to buy a building, and to set up our own roasting facility. These weren’t always easy decisions and we did not always agree.  But democratic ownership means that we are accountable for own work lives and the success of the business that we share.

During my time at Equal Exchange, I watched a series of socially responsible businesses in the northeast transition from small, committed companies to “brands” purchased and managed by multinational corporations: Stonyfield Farm (Danone), Fresh Samantha Juice (Odwalla and later Coca-Cola), Organic Cow of Vermont (Dean Foods) and Tom’s Toothpaste (Colgate).  While some of these businesses have been able to keep some portion of their mission intact, their bottom line is to generate profit for the parent company and enhance its reputation.  Over time, commitment to the values that drew consumers to these companies seems, inevitably, to fade.

I admire Dan and Addie’s commitment to their vision.  Real Pickles as a co-operative is a logical extension of this commitment and I am impressed by their decision to follow this path. Looking forward, my day-to-day job at Real Pickles Co-operative will look about the same — I’ll still work on new product ideas, make sales calls, and, in a pinch, forklift cases of sauerkraut and kimchi onto delivery trucks.  But becoming part of the co-op will provide a deeper sense of ownership of the business and commitment to sustaining our mission. Together with my fellow co-op members, I am looking forward to being a worker-owner… again.

We are excited to announce the latest step in our plan to go co-op: An opportunity to invest in Real Pickles!  Offered to MA & VT residents, this is an excellent way to support our transition to a co-operative structure as well as our continuing work in helping to build a vibrant, regional, organic food system.  Read more:  www.realpickles.com/invest

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