AD-VO-CATE: verb: publicly recommend or support
The Co-op is not like any other grocery store. Our business is guided by seven basic principles first articulated in the mid-19th century; we have a mission statement, bylaws and a product selection philosophy, developed over 40 years by our Owners that publicly state what we stand for and how we will operate. Our democratically elected Board of Directors and thousands of Owners help us thrive as an ethically based cooperative business.
Cooperative, organic, local, and sustainable are words that appear prominently in our guiding statements. This article presents a small sampling of organizations, primarily in Wisconsin, that advocate for these principles.
Organic and Sustainable Foods
The Cornucopia Institute
The Cornucopia Institute, with a home address in Cornucopia, Wisconsin, is a non-profit organization that engages in a variety of activities to promote and protect family farming and the integrity of organic products. Member donations, foundation grants and commercial members from the organic food industry fund them. Their stated mission is:
“The Cornucopia Institute, through research and investigations on agricultural and food issues, provides needed information to family farmers, consumers and other stakeholders in the good food movement and to the media. We support economic justice for the family-scale farming community—partnered with consumers—backing ecologically produced local, organic and authentic food.” (cornucopia.org)
A recent fund-raising letter explains the group’s focus in a somewhat less formal tone:
“The Cornucopia Institute is working to protect sustainable, organic, local and CSA agriculture from the scofflaws and scam artists greedy for their slice of the good food pie. We are challenging corporate shenanigans undermining the reputation of the organic label with factory farms and by including dubious, if not dangerous, synthetic additives while employing hazardous food processing inputs. And we are unmasking the purveyors of GMO food ingredients hiding behind the alleged ‘natural’ label.” (Email, 28 Dec 2013.)
Co-founders Mark Kastel and Will Fante hail from policy backgrounds with time spent in the private agribusiness and alternative energy technology sectors, respectively. The two men carry out the Institute’s mission with a remarkable staff of six people spread across four states, a volunteer Board of Directors, and five Policy Advisors. According to Kastel, “Our goal is to—from a research and educational perspective—empower consumers and wholesale buyers so that they can make good and discerning choices in the market place.” In addition to marketplace activism, the Institute conducts lobbying campaigns and, if necessary, will use the legal system to meet its goals.
The Cornucopia Institute has been at the forefront of the movement to keep organic foods, produced by small and family farmers, truly organic. To meet the goal of empowering consumers, they have investigated and issued a series of reports and scorecards rating organic dairy products, eggs, soy products, and “natural” and organic cereals, with respect to criteria such as brand ownership, e.g., corporate vs. producer-owned, and operating practices, e.g., provision of truly humane living environments for farm animals and commitment to healthy ingredients. They have also produced guides to DHA algal oil and carrageen in organic brands, additives that are allowed in organics but have known health implications for people, and the use of hexane treated soy in “natural” energy/nutrition bars and meat substitutes.
The Institute’s investigations have led to legal action in the past against food brands that failed to adhere to organic standards. They maintain a lobbying campaign towards the USDA and other government agencies to prevent a watering down of organic standards. More recently they have sought to protect small and organic farmer interests threatened by proposed rules implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act.
The Institute staff doesn’t work alone, of course. They send out action alerts to Cornucopia members (9,000 strong) and interested newsletter subscribers when Washington needs to hear the voices of the people. Some 5,000 people responded in 2013 to their call for proxy letters to the FDA on proposed Food Safety rules.
Everything the Institute has produced is available free online, and anyone can sign up to receive action alerts and the quarterly eNewsletter, The Cultivator. The website is www.cornucopia.org, or find them on social media.
Family Farm Defenders
“A family farm is not defined by size, but rather by the fact that the family provides the vast majority of the labor and management decisions.” Family Farm Defenders, familyfarmer.org
The Family Farm Defenders (FFD), based in Madison, was organized in 1994 in response to a pair of “national grass-roots campaigns: demanding a national referendum to end the mandatory check-off on raw milk that funds the lobby and propaganda efforts of the corporate dairy industry; and to defend consumer “right to know” in response to the stealth introduction of recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) into the nation’s milk supply.” FFD supports programs that enhance social and economic justice for consumers and farmers, including sustainable agriculture, farm worker rights, animal welfare, consumer safety, fair trade, and food sovereignty. They are a self-described “activist organization seeking ways to bring fair prices back to farmers and insure safe and sustainable produced food for consumers.”
FFD founder and current Co-President John Kinsman was profiled in The Progressive magazine in May 2012. His history as an activist predates FFD, but since the ’90s he and FFD colleagues have traveled the world to support and speak out for family farmers and farm workers in numerous marches, demonstrations and protests; to exhort legislators and administrators, in person and through petitions, on a range of issues of interest to the group, and to recognize and award outstanding new family farmers in Wisconsin. FFD has also participated in legal challenges, most recently against the Wisconsin DNR, and created a limited direct marketing vehicle for Wisconsin cheese and other food items. They publish an impressive quarterly newsletter; the website contains authoritative policy papers and issue statements. In 2010 FFD was awarded the Food Sovereignty Prize from the national organization Community Food Security Coalition, in recognition of their years of food sovereignty work.
FFD leadership includes Wisconsinites Joel Greeno, Co-President, and John Peck, Executive Director. (Mr. Peck is also an economics professor at Madison College.) The Executive Board, Farmer and Consumer Directors include national members. The organization is a member of the National Family Farm Coalition.
Mr. Kinsman, according to The Progressive, says that activism is work, but “it helps if you can laugh and have fun.” To wit, “Kinsman and John Peck, his colleague at Family Farm Defenders, dress up in cow suits when they conduct their yearly picket at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. They charge that the privately run exchange has allowed Kraft Foods and the Dairy Farmers of America to fix the prices that farmers receive for their milk and cheese.”
Like the Cornucopia Institute, FFD is a tax deductible, member-supported non-profit organization.
[Editor’s note: As we went to press we learned that John Kinsman passed away peacefully at his home. John was a grassroots pioneer of organic sustainable agriculture and globe-trotting advocate of food sovereignty. He will be sorely missed.]
Michael Fields Agricultural Institute (MFAI)
Another Wisconsin organization, the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute is “a non-profit organization with the mission to nurture the ecological, social and economic resiliency of food and farming systems through education, research, policy, and market development.” The MFAI is headquartered in East Troy and has an office in Madison. They’ve been in operation since 1984, when the focus was on biodynamic farming, but they’ve since substantially broadened and expanded their programs.
Their education programs include interactive, classroom and hands-on instruction in sustainable farming methods. A two-acre farm, called Stella Gardens, in East Troy is the site of classes and workshops for all interested growers, including children, farmers who want to learn or convert to sustainable farming methods, interns, and future market growers.
MFAI does long term university-level research on cover crops and crop rotation, collectively referred to as “farming systems” by research agronomist John Hall, and high protein corn breeding. A 2011 article in the Janesville Gazette highlighted the Institute’s research projects: gazettextra.com/news/2011/jun/12/institute-promtoes-sustainable-agriculture/
MFAI’s public policy advocacy program seeks “to use democratic processes to direct government resources to support sustainable agriculture’s many objectives.” They do this using staff to press government officials, and by educating and empowering citizens to effectively petition the government. For example, MFAI and the Wisconsin Heart Association co-led a broad coalition effort that led to the passage of the Wisconsin Farm to School bill in April 2010, and MFAI works to secure ongoing funding for the program. MFAI, like many farm advocacy organizations, recently conducted educational workshops and facilitated public comment campaigns on the proposed Food Safety and Modernization Act rules. MFAI holds grant writing workshops and webinars to help farmers, and community groups and non-profits negotiate government agency programs and access federal and state programs’ assistance resources. MFAI has a designated policy staff member, Margaret Krome, based here in Madison. (Ms. Krome also writes a biweekly opinion column for the Capitol Times on a variety of issues.)
Dane Buy Local
The Co-op is firmly committed to the local economy; we give preference to locally produced products, businesses and suppliers in our daily operations, and depend on the support of those who think likewise! It would be hard to ignore the impact of the 10-year-old non-profit, Dane Buy Local (DBL), on promoting and keeping the issue of buying local in the public eye. Dane Buy Local “creates a sustainable, vital local economy through education, collaboration, and promotion, as a non-profit member organization.” DBL is a business services/marketing organization best known for its public marketing campaigns, local business directory, and networking events for members. The Co-op is a member of Dane Buy Local.
At 700 members, DBL is one of the largest local-initiative groups in the nation. DBL is also a member of the national Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), a venue for many small local organizations to come together to create a “bigger voice” for their cause. The only “–ism” espoused by either group is “localism.” BALLE says that localism is “about building communities that are more healthy and sustainable—backed by local economies that are stronger and more resilient. It starts with expanding and diversifying local ownership, import substitution, and business cooperation in a particular place, and results in more wealth and jobs per capita, and in greater personal accountability for the health of the natural and human communities of which we are a part.”
DBL tirelessly pursues all of the above with their events, guides, window stickers, public appearances by spokespersons, website, and co-sponsorship of the annual Isthmus Independent Business Awards, aka the Indies, honoring outstanding local businesses. A survey commissioned by DBL found that $73 of every $100 spent at a locally owned business remains in the local economy, versus $43 from a similar purchase at other businesses, one of many reasons for buying local that DBL will produce at any given opportunity. Members say that networking is the most important aspect of belonging to DBL.
Persistence in any campaign produces results. In 2012 Dane County became the first unit of government to join DBL. In 2013, with DBL’s support, Dane County strengthened its preferred purchasing ordinance that helps area businesses compete for county contracts, expanding the county’s overall efforts to buy local. Dane County Executive Joe Parisi signed the ordinance, saying, “By expanding our own efforts to buy local, Dane County continues to do its part to strengthen our vital small business economy. More dollars spent locally are returned locally—helping more of our neighbors prosper, create jobs, and give back to our communities.”
The Cooperative Business Model
National Cooperative Grocer’s Association
In almost every endeavor, there is strength in numbers. Being a cooperative business is no different; fortunately we begin with the inherent strength of the cooperative model. Willy Street’s “primary focus is to operate a grocery business providing nutritious food to the community at fair prices.” Our bylaws say we will operate on a sound financial basis and pursue growth and expansion of the business. We also operate in a competitive food market; we know our Owner and non-Owner consumers look at prices as a factor in their shopping choices, so we have to do all that we can to offer fair and attractive prices. Membership in the National Cooperative Grocer’s Association (NCGA) helps to further our business goals. Our membership in NCGA also satisfies Bylaw 2.2.7, the mandate to cooperate with cooperatives, including membership in national organizations.
The NCGA, founded in 1999, is a business services cooperative for U.S. retail food co-ops. NCGA helps unify food co-ops to optimize operational and marketing resources, strengthen purchasing power, and ultimately offer more value to natural food co-op owners and shoppers everywhere. NCGA has 136 member and associate co-ops who operate nearly 180 storefronts in 34 states, with combined annual sales over $1.5 billion and 1.3 consumer owners. That’s what I’d call strength in numbers!
Membership in the NCGA helps provide the buying and advocacy capacity of a market chain to a collection of local grocery co-ops—many that are much smaller than the Willy Street Co-op. In other words, the NCGA negotiates purchasing contracts with major natural food suppliers that allow us to sell products at a lower cost. Members also have access to: discounted operational needs such as packaging, store supplies, credit card processing and a gift card program; specialized business software and data sets; management and staff training programs and educational resources for staff and consumers; peer networking and interest group activities on a regional and national level.
You’ve probably seen the green co+op stronger together logo on packaging in the store, on coupon books, and in the middle of the Reader each month on the pages headed “co+op deals.” These are all components of a national marketing program called “stronger together,” available to our stores through our membership in NCGA. In addition to point of sale promotional items, the program includes the excellent website, strongertogether.coop, “a place for people to gather on their food journeys. It’s a place to find out more about what’s in your food, where it comes from, where to find great food, how to prepare it, and a whole lot more. It’s also a place to talk with others about food topics you’re exploring, are passionate about, and even want to get involved in.” (strongertogether.coop) The website unabashedly promotes food co-ops, and good food, which we love! It’s also where you’ll find information on the important advocacy work the NCGA does on behalf of all co-ops.
As an organization that “embodies the aspirations of its members,” NCGA has supplied money and voice to programs and initiatives that promote organic foods, labeling of GMO foods, and environmental restoration. Most recently NCGA affiliates spearheaded I-522, the GMO labeling initiative in Washington State. NCGA has long supported the national Just Label It campaign. And, in a unique effort to support sustainability goals, NCGA has funded planting of native trees in Peru to offset carbon associated with staff air travel. Read about this and other advocacy projects at strongertogether.coop/voices-from-the-field/advocacy/.
University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives
A quiet cheerleader and helpmate for cooperatives in and beyond the Badger state is UW Madison’s Center for Cooperatives (UWCC), a unit within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Established in 1962, the Center seeks to “increase understanding and encourage critical thinking about cooperatives by fostering scholarship and mutual learning among academics, the cooperative community, policy makers and the public.” It is one of only a handful of academic units in the U.S. focused on cooperatives.
The Center is a source of research-based case studies, facts and figures about cooperatives of all kinds, including important findings on the economic impacts of cooperatives nationwide (2011), the only research of its breadth to date on the topic. The Center houses the Torgerson Cooperative Library, one of the largest cooperative collections in the world. The Center’s website, www.uwcc.wisc.edu, is a primer on the history and impacts of cooperatives, as well as the fundamentals of starting and running a cooperative in today’s world.
All of this research and knowledge is taken outside the university through a variety of outreach efforts. Conferences reach hundreds of people involved with cooperatives. In 2014 the UWCC will host the 17th annual two-day Farmer Cooperative Conference for cooperative directors, managers, and those doing business with agricultural cooperatives. In 2012, they co-hosted an event with the City of Madison, attended by 150 participants, called the Madison Cooperative Business Conference. The conference explored the question, “what role can cooperatives play in creating and sustaining economically healthy communities?”
UWCC outreach specialists provide technical assistance and counsel to existing co-ops and potential cooperatives in the upper Midwest. Regionally, for example, they have facilitated the formation of the Spring Rose Growers Cooperative in Dane County, the Allied Wellness Center in Madison, and the conversion of a private grocery store in Plain to the Honey Creek Market cooperative.
UWCC also funds graduate students’ research and internships with cooperative enterprises, helping train future cooperative founders, managers, employees and advocates.
Among the Center’s many informative reports and articles is one I highly recommend: “Case Study: Willy St. Grocery Cooperative” by Courtney Berner, Cooperative Development Specialist. September 2011. You can find it here: www.uwcc.wisc.edu/pubs/Publications/CaseStudies/.
Message in a…box?
by Martha Claassen
Brief, pithy, and persuasive describe a “tract,” by definition a short piece of writing, often on political or religious subjects, intended for general distribution to influence opinion. In days of yore the printed tract was passed from person to person to fire up revolutionary fervor, and marked the careers of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine; in 20th century wars, all sides dumped propaganda leaflets by the millions across the countrysides of Europe. Street corner evangelists, protestors and politicians still pass out bits of paper, with abandon, espousing their beliefs and positions.
As ubiquitous as opinion tracts are, the inside of a box of produce is not where you’d expect to regularly encounter a well-written editorial on contemporary topics related to food policy, agriculture, ecology and world events. But Tom Willey, a small California organic farmer with a national reputation, sends out his musings, titled “Farther Afield,” in the boxes of carrots, eggplants, and other fine Mediterranean vegetables we receive from the farm he runs with his wife, Deneece. Sometimes the pages are soggy, ripped and wrinkled, but the ink never runs and they provide a few minutes of fascinating and highly informative reading. The little tracts are printed double-sided on quarter sheets of letter paper. Who is this eloquent man with a desire to communicate with a relatively small audience, the retail staff that stock produce, in this singular fashion?
The Willeys have been farming 75 acres of prime California Central Valley land since 1980, transitioning to organic in 1987. Mark Bittman, author and food columnist for the New York Times, sought out the Willey’s farm on a trip he made in 2012 to learn more about California agriculture. In a subsequent column he wrote, “The Willeys are pioneers in the organic (and fair) farm movement, and Tom is as articulate and committed a representative of it as I’ve found. He’s unshakable in his belief in organic farming, though ‘we’re all pioneers,” he reminded me. ‘For 95 percent of history, we were hunter-gatherers. There’s no reason to assume that agriculture of any kind will be successful in the long run.’”
Willey has a Wisconsin connection as a Policy Advisor to the Cornucopia Institute, and he’s been a presenter and guest on numerous radio programs and other media. The farm’s website, tdwilleyfarms.com, is a forum for his passionate advocacy of organic food production, to wit:
“People constantly ask, ‘Why is organic produce so expensive?’ People rarely ask, ‘Why is conventional produce so cheap?’ The answers to these two questions explain the dilemma we face in our food system today, as well as the choice you must make daily in the supermarket. The dollar you spend is a ‘vote’ for the food system you want.
“Industrial production of farm produce using toxic chemistry has delivered vast quantities of cosmetically appealing fruits and vegetables in all seasons at very low prices. This system has also delivered the demise of the family farm, serious environmental pollution, soil erosion, and produce that may contain toxic residue. We enjoy cheap food today and defer into the future the unpaid costs of remediation.
“When you purchase an organic product at a higher price, you are buying what you hope to be a more nutritious, better tasting and residue free fruit or vegetable. You are also paying to protect the health of farmers and farm workers. You are paying up front at the check stand for protecting the water you drink, the air you breathe and the soil in which your food is grown.” (tdwilleyfarms.com)
I can’t always extract the latest tracts from the TD Willey boxes because other folks work here too, and the inserts usually end up recycled or in the trash (after a quick read)! But, I have in hand the year 2013 “Farther Afield” tracts 34, 37, 39 and 40, which date from last summer. They deal with the Yosemite Rim fire and the management of the Sierra watershed in a time of climate change; an account of his delight at finding “Jaime Oliver’s Food Revolution Big Rig Kitchen” hawking good nutrition to children at the Fresno, California County Fair; the increasingly serious threat of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections in humans and the failure of the government to adequately regulate antibiotic use in livestock production; and his role in facilitating the Cornucopia Institute’s recent critical report and comments on the Food and Drug Administration’s Proposed Rules for Produce Safety.
Happily, we don’t actually have to dumpster dive to obtain the wisdom of Tom Willey’s “Farther Afield” writings, because it’s online! I’ve learned that “Farther Afield” is a weekly segment of the CSA newsletter that TD Willey farms delivers with their boxes, and is archived here: www.tdwilleyfarms.com/csa/frcsa.html. I heartily recommend spending a few minutes perusing Tom’s columns for an enlightening exposure to current issues in organic agriculture, and beyond!