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GM REPORT: The Power of Investment PDF Print E-mail

February 2017
by Sabine Rhyne, General Manager

In the words of the International Cooperative Alliance (established in 1895), “Cooperatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity.” If there were ever a moment for reflection on, and the expression of, those deep and impactful values, now would be one of those moments.

So, to review, still in the words of the ICA: co-ops in general, and our Co-op in particular, were created “by associations of individuals to meet their common

economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically controlled enterprise.” Yes, you and I, and the families and staff who persevered in developing our Co-op over 41 years, are part of a living, breathing creation built on common investment. A creation that today is vastly intertwined with our community, both local and global. Internationally, we support other associations of individuals, farmer co-ops, by buying and selling fairly traded goods, often from tropical parts of the world devastated by profiteering countries and corporations. Although often reduced to the murmur of a fair-trade certification logo on a package or bulk bin, the effects of prioritizing this path for our dollars are real and measurable in the well-being of those collaborative economic enterprises. We choose to invest in as small a way as our chocolate purchase, and that matters. 

Locally, we devote lots of shelf space, marketing dollars, and energy to the large numbers of producers and farmers who work so hard to make a living in 21st century New England. In a year when overall store sales growth was just under 2%, local sales grew over 9% more than the prior year, with over 450 local vendors in all categories. Although we continue to push ourselves to do better, nearly $4 million in commerce to local producers is not chump change, at least not to us. This is an investment that matters in so many ways, from working with schoolchildren to value local food and nutrition, to supporting a wide variety of farmers and producers, all committed to economic, social, and cultural betterment, just like Brattleboro Food Co-op shareholder owners and founders.
I mentioned in a recent column that we had noticed a significant uptick in the number of people who were signing up to be shareholder-owners of our Co-op. Since July, our average number of new shareholders is up 40% per month as compared to the previous two years. These people, some of whom are new to the area and recognize that the Co-op is a community hub and a way or place to meet their neighbors, and others who have shopped in the Co-op for years but only recently decided to invest in our community enterprise. I am thrilled and hopeful about this, as I am convinced that we represent community in a very real way to these new member-owners. This is investment that matters to those of us working to improve and extend your community marketplace further into our social, economic, and cultural world. It also matters to those who have not yet seen fit to invest. They may see or hear about this trend and be curious about what we are doing here, on lower Main Street. They may look around at what is happening in our world, and heed the call to be actively engaged in their community. They see that the Co-op may hold a key to something special, something vital, something worth their investment, whether it’s time, money, or thoughtful curiosity.

For the last two Januarys, I have held a series of meetings for our Co-op’s steadfast and patient shareholder lenders. We have asked that group, who represent some of our number who live their values by literally investing in their community cooperative, to stand by and wait for us to reach the level of performance where we can reasonably return their investment without endangering our fragile financial progress. I am humbled by their generosity and extraordinary forbearance, time and time again. Ken, our Finance and IT Manager, and I present our data, with our prognostication of repayment, and answer questions of all kinds about our business and what we have observed. We inevitably get lots of ideas and suggestions about ways to address some of the challenges that we face, usually good-humoredly and thoughtfully. This year, I was able to speak with a few folks after the meetings who told me their “Co-op story,” how they became involved with our Co-op, and how they utilize it now. One couple, who drive two hours to shop here, told me about their long-standing tradition of “Co-op Date Night,” where they come to Brattleboro several times a year for a meal, fill up two shopping carts with their groceries, and head back home. Others admitted being in the Co-op four or five times a week over the holiday period, shopping for their various family units coming to visit. “We’re doing our part,” they chuckle. And yes, they certainly are, well aware that this support and commitment can only mean good things for their community and their cooperative.
Being part of your cooperative is an opportunity for you to “be your best self,” to quote a dear board member. This is a creative enterprise, involved in the details of food production, relationships with community organizations, individual education and empowerment, and more. In short, this is a radically different way to be involved with food production in our society. You can achieve that by doing little more than prioritizing your purchases in our market, but also by getting involved, as deeply or as lightly as you wish. Investment takes many forms, and we welcome them all.