Celebrate Co-op Month!
Did you know October is National Co-op Month? River Valley Co-op is a consumer-owned retail cooperative with over 11,500 co-op owners, a community of hundreds of local farmers and food producers, over 160 employees earning livable wages, with an average of over 1,000 daily customers. We all work together to grow good things in our community through our co-op's everyday operations. Each October, we join together with 40,000 co-ops and credit unions across the United States to celebrate Co-op Month (observed nationally since 1964).
A co-op is a business that is democratically owned and governed by its members to meet economic, social and/or cultural needs. From farm co-ops, housing co-ops, energy and other utility co-ops to artisan co-ops, and from worker-owned to producer-owned to consumer-owned co-ops: cooperative businesses thrive across the U.S. economy, where one in three people are members of at least one co-op or credit union. Nationwide, cooperatives create 2.1 million jobs and generate more than $650 billion in sales and other revenue annually. Because they are member-owned, co-ops are driven by serving the needs of the people who own the cooperative. This is radically different from publicly held corporations, which are required by law to operate to maximize profits for shareholders.
Co-op Month is a good time to reflect on not only our own cooperative but also on the larger cooperative movement made up of many co-ops of all kinds. Cooperatives share a principle of "cooperation among cooperatives." This means cooperative businesses extend the concept of working together for mutual support in our own cooperative to working together with other cooperatives for mutual support.
You might notice products from other cooperatives in our store. Purchasing from other cooperatives is one way we support other co-ops. Here are some of the co-op products you'll see in our store:
Support Your Local Cooperative Businesses!
Equal Exchange — West Bridgewater, MA
Available Products: Fairly-traded Coffees, Teas, Nuts, Bananas, Avocados and Chocolate
Equal Exchange Co-op was founded on the principle of “Fairness to Farmers,” a vision that their three founders held dearly in hopes of transforming the relationship between food producers and the general public. They got together on a weekly basis for three years, assembling and debating potential ideas for changing the ways food is grown, bought and sold everywhere. These discussions culminated in the creation of Equal Exchange, a social change organization that would return economic control to farmers and their families, educate consumers about trade issues affecting farms, provide nourishing, high-quality foods and be controlled democratically by the people who worked there. The founders were eventually influenced by their travels to Europe and began marketing fairly traded specialty coffee, followed by teas soon after, grown by small-scale farmers and not on large plantations. Within a few years, Equal Exchange had established itself as a Fair Trade certified coffee company offering a store bin system with a full line of whole coffee beans, decaf, specialty roasts and flavored coffees. They also offer fair trade chocolate bars sourced from ethical farms around the world producing cocoa, sugar and other ingredients. Today, Equal Exchange is a shining example of how cooperatives work with their owners to accomplish great things for the benefit of their communities—from making exciting and sustainably produced products to advocating social initiatives that reduce poverty among small-scale farmers, and much more. Their 30 years of achievements prove anything is possible when motivated by a collective desire to bring people together and do right by our world.
Equal Exchange works hard to ensure that small farmers around the world get an equal playing field. Watch this fantastic video highlighting how they've worked closely with farming cooperatives in Latin America to bring ethically grown bananas to the U.S. market:
Cabot Creamery Cooperative — Cabot, VT
Available Products: Cheese, Butter and Other Dairy Products
Over 100 years ago, 94 farming families in the rural upstate New York and Vermont areas got together to discuss how to handle surplus dairy, leading them to form one of the world’s first dairy cooperatives. Knowing they were stronger together, each farmer pitched in to purchase a small village creamery where they could turn their surplus milk into butter and cheese. These pioneering family farms would then go on to market their new dairy products throughout New England under the Cabot name; a decision that would ensure the livelihood of their co-op’s families and descendants for generations to come. Since then, Cabot’s “Original 94” has grown to include more than 800 participating families, with over 1,000 employees spread out across four dairy plants in three Northeastern states. By the mid-nineties, the co-op’s cheeses were winning major awards in taste—a remarkable run that continued for a number of years. Cabot’s secret to success is really no secret: it’s what the cooperative movement is all about! Since being founded, Cabot has taken pride in producing the world’s finest cheeses and other dairy products.
Riojana — La Riojana, Argentina
Available Products: Fair Trade Certified Red, White and Sparkling Wines
La Riojana is Argentina’s third-largest wine exporter by volume, as well as one of the country’s largest cooperatives! For their growers and the communities they engage with, La Riojana is much more than just the company that buys their grapes. Together, they share a rich history and similar backgrounds that date back generations. From its humble beginnings as a single, small bodega buying grapes to turn into wine, La Riojana slowly grew into a cooperative network of vineyard families planting and harvesting their own grapes in the Argentinian region of the same name. Hundreds of families have since followed in these footsteps, working together to become the acclaimed wine co-op you’ll find featured today in our Wine & Cheese Department at River Valley Co-op. United by a shared history, and with many more coming from families who have been with the cooperative since the beginning, La Riojana’s 500 member-owners produce over four million cases of wine a year from vines grown across more than 4,000 hectares of land. Over 80% of these partnered wine producers work on a small scale, with the vast majority owning less than three hectares of vineyards in total. La Riojana shares the same fundamental cooperative principles that allow the business model to be so highly successful worldwide. Not only do they pay above-market prices for grapes, but also each individual member is guaranteed one vote for matters pertaining to the future of their co-op. They also provide support for those experiencing financial hardships or unexpected life events, as well as technical and agricultural advice. Since receiving Fair Trade Certification in 2006, one of La Riojana's most significant programs has been the Fairtrade Premium. Their cooperative members, workers and communities have benefitted greatly from projects related to this effort, some of which include the Tilimuqui Water Project and the Tilimuqui School Project. As of 2020, their co-op has invested about 15 million Argentinean pesos to over 30 different community projects. Most recently, they have begun constructing a health clinic that will bring high-quality healthcare to approximately 10,000 people living in the villages of Tilimuqui, Malliagasta and surrounding areas in La Riojana.
Check out the following video to see how La Riojana supports its growers by building infrastructure systems—such as running water—to help their small, rural farming communities to grow and thrive.
Real Pickles — Greenfield, MA
Available Products: Organic Fermented Foods
Real Pickles’ founder Dan Rosenberg began making his own pickles in 1999 after learning of the importance of organic, locally grown foods, as well as how the raw diets of indigenous peoples could provide an exceptionally high degree of health that was unknown to most people at the time. Within just a few years, Dan had perfected his craft and launched it into a business designed not around making profits, but rather making a positive impact on the region’s food system. From their very first purchase of 1,000 pounds of organic pickling cucumbers from Chamutka Farm (Whatley, MA), Real Pickles committed to purchasing vegetables only from organic farmers in the Northeast and selling their finished pickled products only to local communities within those same regions. This ambitious effort served to strengthen the local economy while providing new economic opportunities for rural farmers. In 2009, the business moved to its permanent home in Greenfield, MA—a solar-powered, energy-efficient organic pickling plant, which allowed staff to triple purchases from local farms. In 2013, Dan decided to give up control of the business and handed it to his workers, restructuring Real Pickles into a worker-owned cooperative that would thoroughly fulfill their commitment to build a socially responsible and ethically sound business. Today, they are a CISA Local Hero Farm working to maintain a just and diverse local food system.
Just in time for Co-op Month, check out our Local Vendor Spotlight feature on Real Pickles below!
Artisan Beverage Cooperative — Greenfield, MA
Available Products: Beer, Ginger Libation and Kombucha
In 2013, the owners of Katalyst Kombucha and Green River Ambrosia merged their businesses into the Artisan Beverage Cooperative, a worker-owned co-op on a dedicated mission to promote environmental stewardship, democratic governance, sustainable agriculture, a strong local economy and of course, delicious and refreshing beverages that could be sold locally. Recognizing that they were stronger together than apart, their business structure was built with a lasting foundation that would allow them to operate more efficiently and grow alongside their core values of social and agricultural responsibility. They trade directly with local farmers whenever possible while only purchasing ingredients from democratically-owned small farming cooperatives throughout the rest of the world, paying producers fair prices and providing them with stable income. Through their experience building a cooperatively run workplace, they were able to translate the same types of investments into causes that reinvigorate local communities while promoting sustainability. Through their success, Artisan Beverage Cooperative has demonstrated the potential of worker-owned cooperatives and fairly traded products to grow their local economies and make a positive impact on the communities they serve.
Watch the following video for an inside peek at Artisan Beverage Cooperative and their highly-praised beverage selections like Ginger Libation:
Wellspring Cooperative — Springfield, MA
Available Products: Lettuce, Herbs and Fresh Greens
Wellspring Harvest Cooperative was opened as the very first commercial hydroponic greenhouse in the Greater Springfield area. Completed in April 2018, their seven employee-owners grow a variety of greens from lettuce to herbs, producing about 250,000 plants annually. They’re a small cooperative that’s doing big things, like providing healthy and affordable, locally grown produce to area schools and hospitals, as well as selling to local businesses like our own food co-op, which helps respective communities reach their public health goals for maintaining healthy lifestyles. Their reach extends beyond the greenhouse too, thanks to Wellspring’s active engagement in community advocacy, and education for topics like urban agriculture, hydroponics and sustainability. They also contribute to social and environmental needs in their surrounding communities, such as creating much-needed stable employment opportunities for low-income Springfield residents. The greenhouse is also making strides in building regional food security and independence by providing fresh, local greens that can be grown year-round. Wellspring Cooperative is doing their part to leave a lasting, positive impact on population health that will continue to benefit local communities and inspire others to create a more cooperative world where social and economic progress can be shared and experienced by everyone.
Take a look at how Wellspring Cooperative is funding job creation in Springfield to help residents start their own businesses and find new economic opportunities:
Our Family Farms — Greenfield, MA
Available Products: Milk and Dairy Products
Our Family Farms, a cooperative of independent food producers located across Massachusetts, was founded in 1997 with the intention of keeping small family farms operating in an economically viable way, allowing them to stand strong against farming industry consolidation. Their family-owned farms include Sunbrite Farm in Bernardston, Bree-Z-Knoll Farm in Leyden, Mapledge Farm and Gould Maple Farm in Shelburne and The Farm School in Orange. The farms produce dairy from pasture-raised and free-grazing Hostein, Jersey, Brown Swiss, Milking Shorthorn, Ayrshire and Normandy cows, which is then provided to local food markets and businesses around the Northeast. Their milk is 100% rBST free and always guaranteed to have the very best taste and texture possible. The farms are all managed using sustainable agricultural practices that protect natural resources and preserve open spaces. Our Family Farms’ hope is to preserve the rural New England economy with stable jobs, quality goods and community-oriented services that will benefit and nourish local families for years to come.
Participating in Monte's March to combat hunger in the Pioneer Valley is just one of the many ways Our Family Farms engages with their communities to raise awareness about important issues:
Frontier Co-op - Norway, IA
Available Products: Spices, Teas and Herbal Blends
Opened amidst the 1970s “co-op movement,” Frontier Co-op is owned by the stores and organizations that buy and resell its products. They began as a two-person business selling herbs and spices out of a small river cabin in Iowa before expanding to making essential oils and eventually selling natural products from other businesses who share their convictions. The meaningful relationship between Frontier and its owners has been key to shaping and defining its success, with members participating as customers to provide capital for the business moving forward. In return, this co-op has always placed special emphasis on the shared interests of its members that extends far beyond monetary profits. These foundations are rooted in the hope and pursuit of a better future; one with universal access to nourishing and natural foods, mutual respect for the environment and a shared commitment to social justice and equality for all. Frontier’s owners are also leaders in prioritizing the quality and safety of its products, developing sustainable operations, sourcing from organic producers and participating in the healthy growth and renewal of communities around the world. Their “Giving Back” campaign embodies these values with community projects such as Well Earth Partnerships for maintaining healthy ecosystems, as well as through support for organizations like Table to Table who feed the hungry. Frontier’s natural products are sold in co-ops far and wide under the Frontier Co-op, Simply Organic and Aura Cacia brand names… including right here at River Valley Co-op!
Here's an inside look at how Frontier Co-op grew to become a leader in organic, Fair Trade products like herbs, spices, teas and wellness products:
Aura Cacia - Norway, IA
Available Products: Aromatherapy and Essential Oils
There are many players in the world of essential oils and aromatherapy, but it’s often hard to distinguish which brands are well-established and known for producing oils with safe and natural ingredients. Enter Aura Cacia: a unique cooperative renowned for creating 100% pure, high-quality oils from organically grown botanicals, all ethically sourced from native lands with the exception of endangered species. Their founders began extracting oils using cold press and steam distillation methods in 1982 before joining Frontier Co-op in 1993 and continuing to pursue sustainable growth and community revitalization. At present, they are one of the most well-known and highly trusted essential oil brands thanks to their efforts to spread positive change through the Positive Change Project, an annual grant program supporting organizations that help women and girls transform their lives in meaningful ways (more on this here). As a co-op, ownership is split between Aura Cacia’s distributors, all of whom strongly advocate for sustainable business practices and investment in underdeveloped communities around the world. Click here to dive into the endless possibilities for how to use their aromatherapy products!
Aura Cacia gives back to the communities they collaborate with to source their botanicals. Watch this inspiring video about how they constructed a school in Madagascar:
Simply Organic - Norway, IA
Available Products: Spices, Herbs and Seasonings
Soon after the demand for organic foods began to increase sharply in the late nineties, the owners at Frontier Co-op realized that a fundamental aspect of food preparation had gone largely unnoticed within the organics industry. While there were many options available for organic produce, dairy and other categories of food, seasonings and flavorings had been largely left out. That all changed in 2001 when Frontier Co-op launched Simply Organic based on the understanding that access to organic herbs and spices was just as important as any other ingredient. For the nearly two decades that followed, their staff worked hard to develop honest and authentic relationships with growers who shared their passion for healthy, nutritious foods--even those eaten in moderation. By paying growers fairly and directly to produce organic herbs and spices, the brand was able to start offering a wide selection of products like seasoning mixes, raw spices, dried herbs and other basic ingredients for cooking and baking. Today, their products are all grown and processed both ethically and responsibly thanks to their sustainable sourcing program, Well Earth. Additionally, in order to help nourish underserved families, the Simply Organic Giving Fund grant program was started in 2018 to address the critical issue of food insecurity and to help nourish underserved and less fortunate communities with healthy and organic food options (learn more about their grant projects here). Through these efforts, they’ve been able to make strides in providing greater overall access to organic foods, including here at our own co-op!
Take a look at this unique way to highlight the tastes of the fall season with Simply Organic Spices:
Organic Valley -- La Farge, WI
Available Products: Dairy-Based Foods
In the late eighties, farming families in the American Midwest were under a constant threat for survival. Industrial, profit-driven factory farms had quickly become the norm, and increasing numbers of small family farms were either being bought out or put out of business entirely due to the unmediated consolidation of the industry. Eventually, a group of independent farmers fed up with this system banded together to discuss a brighter path forward; a path of survival that would strengthen their resolve and empower them to survive without sacrificing their closely held values, sustainable agricultural practices and organic production methods. Together, they organized themselves into the Organic Valley Cooperative, becoming a network of farms that together would be able to stand up to the profit driven industrial farms casting a shadow over the region. This enabled them to continue farming the way they always had while safeguarding their lands, animals, local economies and the health of families who purchased their products. This newly formed cooperative would go on to find great success, earning the trust of consumers everywhere. They achieved this by holding themselves to strictly the highest production standards: standards that would eventually go on to serve as the framework for the USDA’s organic certification rules and inspire people everywhere to change the way they think about food. Today, Organic Valley is widely celebrated as a leading producer of organic dairy, produce, soy and egg-based products thanks to their continued mission to provide economic security for small farmers while feeding families only the healthiest and most responsibly produced foods possible.
There are so many great reasons to purchase food and other products from farming cooperatives like Organic Valley... happier animals with plenty of space to graze and play is just one!
Cooperation Among Cooperatives
Another way co-ops cooperate with other cooperatives is to invest in other co-ops. Other cooperatives invested in the startup of our own cooperative in 2008, including 50 individual food co-ops from near (like Franklin Community Co-op) and far (such as Davis Food Co-op in Davis, CA), as well as the Twin Pines Cooperative Foundation, the National Cooperative Bank and the Cooperative Fund of New England. In addition, we had organizing, development and technical support from the Food Co-op Initiative, Columinate Consulting Co-op, National Co-op Grocers and the Cooperative Development Institute.
River Valley Co-op pays it forward for this co-op support by investing in other food co-op startups, including Common Share Co-op in Amherst, East Aurora Food Co-op in New York and the New Orleans Food Co-op. We also joined in to support individual food co-ops in times of financial need, including The Brattleboro Food Co-op and Sevananda Food Co-op in Atlanta, GA. We contribute funds for scholarships to regional startups to attend the annual Up and Coming conference for food startup co-ops, and our dues to NFCA provide support for the participation of startup co-ops in that regional food co-op association.
We made donations to support the launching of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center Immigrant-Owned Cooperative Farm. We have invested in Real Pickles and the Wellspring Cooperative's hydroponic greenhouse, Wellspring Harvest. These are all worker-owned cooperatives that now supply our co-op with great quality local products.
In years that have resulted in a net profit for our store operations, River Valley Co-op has distributed year-end patronage dividend rebates to our owners based on their annual purchases. In a co-op, dividends are paid to our owners based on the profits made on their own purchases, not on profits made on purchases by others—one more way cooperatives are radically different from corporations that pay dividends to investors based on profits from other people's purchases. In years that we pay these patronage-based dividends to our owners, many choose to donate their shares to the nonprofits selected by our Board of Directors. Collectively, our co-op owners have contributed over $138,000 of their patronage rebates to two nonprofits that support co-op development: the Food Co-op Initiative and the River Valley Co-op Community Fund.
The Food Co-op Initiative is a nonprofit that provides grants and startup organizing support to help launch new food co-ops. In the 30 years prior to River Valley Co-op opening in 2008, only a handful of new food cooperatives had opened. Since we've opened, over 100 new food co-ops have started and opened their doors with the support of the Food Co-op Initiative. Supporting this nonprofit is one key reason for the amazing success and growth of new food co-ops over the last decade and beyond.
The River Valley Co-op Community Fund is a nonprofit endowment fund, administered by the Twin Pines Cooperative Foundation, that supports a diversity of cooperative development projects in the Northeast, including food co-ops as well as other types of cooperatives. Some of these projects have recently included the conversion of mobile home parks into mobile home cooperatives, the formation of home health care workers' cooperatives, agricultural composting cooperatives, a green burial cooperative and more. Our collective investments in this fund earn dividends annually, which in turn are used to support small grants to local nonprofits in our community. Last year, 16 local nonprofits applied to receive one of six $1,000 grants.
This system of mutual support among a diverse range of cooperative businesses is how we join together with others in building a cooperative economic system. The goal of the cooperative movement is to build an economic system that helps empower people and communities around the world to support themselves and our planet both equitably and sustainably.
River Valley Co-op Cooperative Connections
River Valley Co-op is a founding co-op owner of Co-op Power, which has worked to build and open a biodiesel plant in Greenfield, as well as offer a variety of services for energy efficiency and green energy. Co-op Power is working with us to make our Easthampton store parking lot shaded by solar power-generating panels!
River Valley is also a founding co-op owner of the National Cooperative Grocers (NCG), which is a purchasing co-op as well as an association that provides technical support, education and advocacy. NCG is cooperatively owned by more than 150 food co-ops across the country. This co-op enables River Valley Co-op to secure pricing from national distributors with the combined contract pricing power of its over 150 co-op member stores, as well as supporting co-op staff with skill and knowledge development programs, technical support and representation of food co-ops on issues of national policy related to co-ops, food, consumer and agricultural issues. Joining together to form secondary cooperatives for mutual services is another form of cooperation among cooperatives.
NCG partnered with PUR, a cooperative owned by indigenous people in Peru to restore a deforested region. NCG did this as a strategy to help offset the carbon footprint of their own operations and opened it up to their participating food co-op members. River Valley Co-op has funded the planting of 600 trees over the last two years, adding to the over 1,400,000 trees contributed by NCG since the program started in 2014. This is another example of cooperation among cooperatives.
Our Co-op is also a founding member of NFCA, a regional association of food co-ops which provides support to many regional food co-op startups as well as established food co-ops. We meet twice a year with food co-ops throughout our region to help build relationships between co-ops and to seek opportunities for collaboration.
UMASSFive Credit Union membership is open to River Valley Co-op owners and employees. Credit unions are banking co-ops owned and used by their consumer members and they offer many consumer-friendly programs as a result. One program we offer at the store through this cooperative relationship is Buzz Points, UMASSFive's debit card rewards program, designed to reward you for shopping local (to learn more about Buzz Points, click here).
Several years ago, we partnered with Pedal People to install a bike fix-it station at the co-op. Pedal People is a local worker co-op regularly seen in all weather conditions picking up home curbside recycling by bicycle. Our store produces more volume than Pedal People is equipped to pick up, but we do use Pedal People for our office location's recycling and compost.
Collective Copies is a local worker co-op print shop with locations in Florence and Amherst. We have had a long partnership with them for our printing needs.
PV-squared, or Pioneer Valley PhotoVoltaics, is a worker-owned co-op that installed the solar panels on our Northampton store in 2008 and will be installing panels on our Easthampton store before we open there, too.
The Massachusetts Woodlands Cooperative, a producer-owned co-op, provided locally grown and sustainably harvested timbers to build our front entrance to the Northampton store, as well as for our sign by the entrance.
The Oxbow Design Build Cooperative in Easthampton is a worker-owned company that is providing many of our built-in wooden fixtures and millwork throughout our Easthampton store.
These are just some of the many co-ops that are part of River Valley Co-op's community near and far. We are very lucky to work with so many great co-ops.