What is a cooperative? Cooperatives are jointly owned enterprises controlled by consumers, producers or workers who create a collaborative business that meets their common needs.
Seven principles guide the cooperative movement: voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; member economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training and information; cooperation among cooperatives; and concern for community.
Cooperatives are an integral part of the community and a driving force in the local economy.
So what do cooperatives do for Maine, and how can you get started in your own community?
In Aroostook County, Julie Trudel and Stacy Martin had buyer’s clubs that they coordinated separately for many years. Both were passionate about seeing a member-owned storefront cooperative in Fort Kent, so they decided to merge their customer base and have deliveries in a central place in town with more visibility — a place they hope will become a future cooperative.
“Long term, we envision a bakery, indoor farmers market, local craftspeople and local musicians,” Trudel said. “Part of our current effort is to bring awareness and education to the local community about local and healthy foods, as well as locating producers that would be interested in providing produce, meat, milk, eggs, etcetera.”
At a recent tasting event, they opened the doors to the public to sample delicious Maine-made products and test public interest and support for a storefront cooperative.
A group of seven to 10 community members are working to build the combined Black Bear Buying Club into a new Market Street cooperative.
“At this point in time, we are waiting for the results of a grant-funded feasibility study to assess the interest and potential support of a co-op in Fort Kent,” Trudel said.
The new organization has roots in the agricultural history and culture of the region, and Trudel and her colleagues aim to revive interest and visibility for the cooperative model.
“Historically, there were agricultural co-ops up here, but most of the people I have talked to are not familiar with a food co-op,” Trudel said.
Jane Livingston, member of Cooperative Maine, has been working in cooperative development and promoting the cooperative economy for 18 years. She came to the movement after many years of advocating for fair trade, renewable energy and nuclear disarmament.
When asked how and why she got involved in cooperatives, Livingston said, “After years of fighting against things like nukes, war and NAFTA, here was something constructive to do.”
Livingston stresses the cooperative triple bottom line accounting system: environmental, social and financial health.
Why would someone want to start a cooperative rather than a sole proprietorship, partnership or corporation?
“You have to know what your real purpose is,” she said. “If you’re doing it because there’s a minimal amount of money you need to earn, then you might have a different answer.”
If your aim is to reduce waste in the environment, strengthen community and earn a living wage, a cooperative model may meet your goals.
Key resources for cooperative development in Maine and New England include the Cooperative Development Institute, or CDI, a member of the CooperationWorks! national network of cooperative development practitioners. CDI is the Northeast’s center for cooperative business education, training and technical assistance, supporting the creation and development of cooperatives in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York.
Other resources include the National Cooperative Business Association, a membership association based in Washington, D.C., that serves cooperatives from all sectors and industries with advocacy and online resources.
Funders are an important part of the cooperative movement, including the Cooperative Fund of New England, a community development loan fund that has made over 600 loans to cooperative businesses and community-oriented nonprofits.
Cooperative Maine, a volunteer-led association, provides a network of support in Maine, trainings on cooperative development, and a wealth of knowledge about best practices, resources and cooperative models.
Cooperatives leave a lasting impression in local communities and economies.
“A cooperative is a very stable form of business — it doesn’t relocate, get sold or fold when someone dies,” Livingston said.
Cooperatives stay put, and so does the money that consumers invest and spend in cooperative businesses. Moreover, cooperative decision-making creates strong, sustainable organizations.
To be successful, cooperative management needs to be patient, willing to listen to all sides, and flexible, said Stacy Martin, co-founder of Black Bear Buying Club.
“What doesn’t bend, breaks,” she said. “I think it takes longer and more energy to make group decisions, but in the long run you can broaden your perspective. You are forced to consider ideas and options you never would have.”
Can your community do better business together? If your business idea calls for community engagement, local economic investment and social and environmental values, you might be a good candidate to start a cooperative.
Erica Quin-Easter is Microenterprise Coordinator for Women, Work, and Community in Aroostook County, where she offers classes and one-on-one assistance to entrepreneurs from Sherman to Fort Kent. For information on classes and other resources, visit www.womenworkandcommunity.org, call 764-0050, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.