This week I’m honored to turn over this space to Rebecca White, Manager of the Produce Department at our Hanover store. Rebecca is a staunch advocate for local agriculture and small family farms. This week I’ve asked her to share with us her recent experience in Washington, D.C. My thanks to Rebecca for taking the time to tell us more about it. —ed
In the Produce Department, my team and I work to bring food from farms to our customers. Throughout the growing season we keep the line of communication open and celebrate our connections with local and regional farmers. We embrace the abundance and adapt to changes and bridge the gaps. We believe that food stores and markets should support farmers, and that relationships build the infrastructure of a safe food system. Our business structure allows us to make sourcing decisions guided by our cooperative principles—weighing social, financial, and environmental impacts of our decisions equally.
In farming, as in food retail, bigger isn’t always better. We are the Co-op Food Stores, we serve our customers inside our store today and work for a better tomorrow. At our Co-op, we strive to be thoughtful and flexible. Instead of always working within the existing structure of systems, we have the influence to shape them. Together we do $75 million of sales every year, we’ve created 400 jobs, and we have a conscience. We help create a secure and sustainable foodshed through using our buying power, consumer education, and advocacy to strengthen farms and systems around us, reaching far beyond our doors.
I learned of the National Farmers Union Fly-In through their E-Newsletter. When a curious blue tin sign that reads “Farmers Union Member” appeared in our back room one afternoon, I began investigating the NFU. The first paragraph in their “About Us” page of their website got me hooked:
NFU was founded by ten family farmers in 1902 as the Farmers Educational Cooperative Union of America in Point, Texas. After its founding, NFU advocated for increased co-operative rights, fair market access for farmers, direct election of senators and voting rights for women.
I reached out to our Education Department to learn more about what kind of work we do with the NFU, and signed up for their newsletter to keep myself and my team up to date regarding agriculture legislature and government happenings. When I saw that the NFU was hosting a Fly-in (a term I googled) with the USDA and constituents’ elected representatives, I got dreamy eyed thinking about learning from farmers and experienced lobbyists on the how to create effective and sustainable change in our food system. Before I could overthink it, I sent an email to Allan Reetz asking him if he was going to attend—hoping that I could meet with him when he got back.
In less than a month, I would be in D.C. Supported by group calls with the New England Farmer’s Union members, my own research, and speaking with the farmers that came through our receiving door, I did my best to understand what shapes the agriculture and food businesses around us. Once I was in D.C. I met with my New England Farmers Union counterparts, sat in on the NFU board meeting, and prepared for the coming appointments. The NFU is a practice neutral organization, meaning it does not weigh in on best farming practices. From thousand-acre farms in the Midwest to two-acre farms on the East Coast, all farms would benefit from the streamlined talking points they created: improvements to the farm safety net, origin of livestock labeling, growth management for the dairy market, and opt-in programs to reward carbon sequestering practices.
After my first few meetings on the trip, it became increasingly clear to me that most issues farms are facing flow from the fundamental issue that we, Americans, don’t know where our food comes from. The best remedy I have seen for this is scaling things back. Reclaiming the purchasing power from cumbersome corporate entities and putting it in the hands of people who have opinions and action on their side. This is what successful co-ops do—we model democratic culture, our influence is bolstered by the diversity and involvement of our members. Rink Dickerson, co-founder of Equal Exchange wrote:
For democracy to function there has to be community engagement, dialogue, risk, learning, and some ability to learn from failure and success. There has to be participation, communication, and respect. The mix of risk, learning, failure, success, and starting that process over again is very fragile. The process and the results have to be considered fair and meaningful to the participants.
In conversation with NFU members and law makers, it was only natural for me to bring the cooperative business model into the mix as a piece of the solution. Each conversation I had, I highlighted how we are able to build relationships with local farms and producers and bring those connections to our customers. The Main Street Employee Ownership Act from the SBA improves access to capital and technical assistance to assist businesses transitioning to employee ownership. Additionally, I was happy to bring attention to the danger of consolidation, and bring support for the proposed Moratorium on Food and Agribusiness Mergers, which would act practically and as a message bill to bring the focus back to creating successful and sustainable food systems.
My experience at the Fly-In has inspired me to continue working to understand and speak on the issues at hand. I am grateful to work with a wonderful team, and to be a part of an organization whose influence is much greater than our footprint. Our work is both practical and outside the box. It is essential that we continue to educate ourselves and take a seat at the table to discuss what matters.
Rebecca White is the manager of the Produce Department at the Hanover Co-op.
NOURISH. CULTIVATE. COOPERATE.