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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.