Guest Post: A Food Co-op in Pittsfield?!

Renaldo Del Gallo wrote the following article,“Exploring a Pittsfield Coop”, published this past Saturday in the Berkshire Eagle.  The first organizational meeting for the Pittsfield Food Co-op is tomorrow, Wednesday May 30th 6:30 pm at the Unitarian Church, 175 Wendell Ave, Pittsfield.  Please join us!

“Just off Main Street in Great Barrington is a funky grocery store with all types of organics, a great healthy bulk food section, whole foods where processed foods would be found in other stores, a produce section with a local focus bursting out in a rainbow of hues, sustainable seafood that does not endanger the ecosystem, grass-fed beef and free range chicken. It is peopled with younger dreadlock-donned granola-types and aging hippies who seem so damn happy to be there. It’s cool. It’s the “Berkshire Co-op Market.”

OK, that’s a slight exaggeration — there are a fair amount of soccer moms and regular folks, too, but you catch the drift. As soon as you walk in the store you say to yourself, “This place is sweet.” 
A cooperative, or “co-op” for short, has been defined as “a business owned by the people it serves,” although you don’t need to be a member to buy at the Berkshire Co-op as you would at BJ’s. Nor do you need to be a member to shop at Wild Oats Market, a co-op in Williamstown that focuses on local producers. But if you live in Pittsfield, you are out of luck. There is no food co-op here.

Dana St. Pierre, Daniel Esko and Amy Huebner plan to change all that. An organizational meeting has been set for Wednesday, May 30 at 6:30 p.m. at the Unitarian Church located at 175 Wendell Ave. in Pittsfield. The public is invited. According to Daniel Esko, “We need to see what sort of support there is out there for the general idea of a food co-op in Pittsfield, get people who are interested together in a room, and get a core group organized to move forward.”
I asked the trio, “How is a co-op different from a regular grocery store?” A food co-op looks like other businesses since it sells products just like any other grocery store, but differs behind the scenes. Unlike a BJ’s where being a “member” is really a fee to get in the front door, a co-op is actually owned by its members. The co-op exists solely to serve the needs of its members.  Unlike traditional corporations with traditional stockholders, the members are local members of the community that use the co-op. The governance is a democratic one, and co-op members elect their own board.
Co-ops distribute “surplus revenues” (profits really, or income above cost and reinvestment) in a highly unusual way. Rather than it going to shareholders based upon “shares” owned, profits are redistributed to members based on their use of the cooperative. Therefore, they are called “patronage dividends,” as opposed to the typical stockholder dividend, because the return is based upon how much business the member has done with the cooperative. 
A traditional corporation owned by non-local shareholders almost always results in a profit-driven purpose. Because owners are not local, the profits are usually spent outside the community. Sure, traditional corporations can be socially conscious, but mission number one is always profit and is their raison d’être.
To be sure, a co-op is a business just like the traditional corporation. It often has a corporate structure and has a corporate existence on file with the secretary of the commonwealth, or the local equivalent in whatever state it is located. The co-op must be economically sustainable like any other business if it hopes to be around. And it is a business — not a club or an association.

But the raison d’être of a co-op is to serve the needs and values of its members, not monetary profit. Since meeting the needs of its members is the sole purpose of the co-op, greater social goals and the benefit to the local community are placed ahead of profits.

According to Esko, “This translates into a commitment to operating an environmentally sustainable business, [and] purchasing goods and services from local farms, producers and contractors.” This also means “strengthening the community through donations, event sponsorship, education and outreach among others.”
In the end, notes Esko, “a Pittsfield co-op will be whatever its membership wants it to be.” The bottom line is that “a food co-op does not exist to make anyone wealthy, but exists to serve the needs of its owners/members.”

Dana St. Pierre notes that co-ops often engage in “things that are not necessarily profitable and therefore not much a part of a for-profit business; things like organizing community gardens, farmer’s markets, and all sorts of educational opportunities.”

Rachel Estrada, who works at the Berkshire Co-op, says, “Cooperatives are not only places that provide organic healthy food, they are also a strong heartbeat within a community.” She believes co-ops “bring people together who share similar interests, building bridges and creating community.”
For more information, go to facebook.com/PittsfieldFoodCo-op

Rinaldo Del Gallo is an occasional Eagle contributor.

Exciting Updates on Farming and Fire Cider

Dana and I met Jen Morse at the Handmade Holiday Festival last December.  She asked me about our Fire Cider and what our plans were.  It wasn’t long before we were talking about our farm dream and our search for affordable land in Berkshire County.  Jen immediately invited us to come out to the farm she and her husband own; a family horse farm that goes back several generations called Green Meads Farm.

The fence is finished, time to start planning the garden.

During our first visit to their farm, Jen and Jeff offered us some space in their garden, they were planning on expanding it anyway.  This is what I love about native Berkshireites, their generosity and understanding of real community.  We helped them put up the new fencing and as soon as that project was done we started in on the planting.  Well, first there was the weeding and raking and the laying out of beds and the manure hauling, shoveling and distributing and then the planting.  It was all very gratifying work that will eventually reward us with delicious healthy food.

Jen's chickens enjoying the leftover grain from Dana's last batch of homebrew.

Then there’s the old farm down the road.  Jeff mentioned one day in early spring that his neighbor was looking to sell his family farm and told us to stop by on our way back to Pittsfield.  We did, and now, two months later we are watching our first commercial crops coming up in one of their fields.  Dana and I are also in the process of working out a rent to own deal with the current owners.  We may be farm owners, with the help of our friends and family, as soon as this fall, so very exciting!

Last week Fire Cider was approved by the state health inspector and is officially a legal and safe product (but we already knew that!), ready for stores as soon as our newest batch matures.  We have two 55 gallon drums of organic apple cider vinegar and a pending order for a ton of produce from Albert’s Organics. We will be making an appearance at Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival Saturday June 25th in North Adams, so come out and see us at the open air market. We’ll be handing out free samples and selling bottles of Fire Cider!