On Saturday October 11, Friends & Farmers Cooperative held its Inaugural Member Meeting at the State College Area High School. Notes of the meeting follow. Please click on the Prezi to view the graphics while reading the notes.
After showing a video about the Lexington Food Co-op, Interim Board President Sarah Potter calls the meeting to order at 3 p.m.
“You are the co-op,” she told the members. “You are the folks who make this what it is.”
Before the newly elected board is announced, the interim board is recognized. Interim board members include Sarah Potter, Elizabeth Crisfield, Carolyne Meehan, Jim Eisenstein, Christine Least, Mark Maloney, Catie Rasmussen, Sara Carlson, Michele Marchetti, and Katherine Watt.
The newly elected board includes: Sarah Potter, Jim Eisenstein, Sara Carlson, Michele Marchetti, Joshua Brock, Meagan Tuttle, Vic Russo, Dustin Betz and Devin Mathias.
History & Mission
Sarah gives a brief recap of the cooperative’s history, explaining that the idea sprang from a Spring Creek Homesteading potluck, which challenged attendees to think of initiatives that would improve the community. One of the ideas was to start a food cooperative.
Over the course of a year, the mission formed:
* To support the local economy by giving local producers a priority on store shelves
* To offer convenient, health and delicious locally prepared foods
* Inspire healthy eating habits through education and transparent labeling
* Draw the community together in an inviting atmosphere
The cooperative incorporated in March 2013, and has spent this past year focused on outreach through events and education programs. We held three “Local on the Menu” fundraising events at Whiskers, Spats Café and Elk Creek Café + Aleworks. The cooperative hosted the inaugural Crop Mob, planting 9,000 garlic bulbs. Crop mobs offer community members a chance to go out to a farm to help farmers and producers with an overwhelming task that would otherwise take them days.State College Crop Mobs has now become its own organization.
Friends & Farmers took a big step in March 2014, launching its membership campaign with a kickoff party at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Centre County. We were blown away by the initial support, amassing a large amount of members in the first three months of our membership campaign.
“It’s been hard to keep that momentum. But membership is the cornerstone and foundation of how we’re going to open a store.”
Other ways we’ve branched out to the community include partnering with 40 businesses in the Local Loyalty program, which gives exclusive discounts to members. Our Local Loyalty program may be the strongest in the country! One member recently remarked on Facebook that her family had earned back half of its investment in savings offered through the Local Loyalty program.
Business planning a big part of what we do behind the scenes. We’ve been relying on professionals in our community and across the nation to help in this venture as we work to create a feasible business. Locally we have utilized SPE Federal Credit Union, also a cooperative; Penn State Small Business Development Center; and Penn State Law’s Rural Economic Development Clinic.
Keystone Development Center created our feasibility study and CDS Consulting Co-op, a national group that consults with cooperatives, is working on our Pro Forma, a financial projection that tells us what we need to have in place to make this a viable operation.
Over last year, we have spent about $12,000—the largest portion of that on professional services, events, marketing and the software to run the Online Farmers Market. When we have those large costs, we let members know. The online store is a larger output of our money, and that was a decision of the cooperative membership through the survey the cooperative conducted this past August.
Fundraising has offset most of our expenses. We have limited the amount of member equity spent to a small amount and we’re proud of that. We currently have assets of $63,527.
We’re successfully organized, and are still working on feasibility. Things that need to get us to full feasibility are realizing the full costs of opening a store between 6,000 and 8,000 square feet. We can adjust the costs, but it all needs to be done through member equity, loan and guarantees and a lot of hard work!
We’ll likely incur loans and will have to get guarantees from places like USDA. It’s a lengthy process, so the sooner we can get to those membership milestone, the closer we get to opening a store.
Membership is Everything
Elizabeth Crisfield, outgoing board member who will continue to serve on the membership committee:
In terms of our member numbers, we are just entering the “Feasibility phase.” (Here, Crisfield is referencing the “Milestone Graphic.”) However, we started our membership drive relatively late in the game, and the board has completed most of the Feasibility work and is moving into the Planning phase. We need to catch up so that we will be poised to hire a General Manager and become more active with site selection – somewhere around 800-900 members.
The Diffusion of Innovation theory explains how ideas (like the co-op) are adopted. The current members represent the “early adopters” of the co-op. “We are the crazy people that put Farmers Markets on our calendars and read all the labels in the grocery store. But WE can’t open a co-op grocery store alone.”
We are working our way into the “early majority” – these are folks in our community who are keen food shoppers and love the idea of a co-op, but don’t realize that now is the time to join to make this vision a reality. These people are our members’ best friends.
The “late majority” are probably intermittent farmers market shoppers, but they aren’t sure what more a co-op could do for them or the community. The “laggards” are people that will not join the co-op until we’re hanging the sign on the front of the building and starting to stack carts on the front sidewalk.
The Diffusion of Innovation graph is labeled with the cumulative number of members at each phase. To put these numbers in perspective, Willy Street Co-op in Madison, Wisconsin, which is home to University of Wisconsin and a community of about 243,000 people, has 31,000 members!!! “Surely we can hit 1,300 in State College!”
Getting the “early majority” to buy into this revolutionary vision will require member-to-member recruitment. In our surveys, the reasons people gave for not having joined yet was cost and that they were waiting until later in the process. “Well, it is later in the process. It is time. And it is our job to convince our friends of that.”
If all the current members recruited one more member, just one, we would have 560 members. If some of us brought in 2 members, we’d top this bell curve by November. “If we double ourselves to 560, and then those people help us double again? Boom—1,100 people – we’re into the Laggards and we’re ready for store shelves.”
We are ready to apply for government guarantees and bank loans, to find a suitable site, and to get the finances in place to renovate it. But we can’t start those processes until we have the membership numbers to prove that this project will succeed and the membership capital to take to the bank.
“Tell your friends that this co-op is poised to take the next time…it’s time for them to join. Use text, Facebook, Twitter and any listserves you can access—we’re going to collectively blast central PA.”
Filling a niche in the community
Question from the audience: How will the co-op affect other sources of local food like Nature’s Pantry? Is there a distinction? A difference in inventory?
The main answer is that the co-op believes that with an increased, more convenient market, the demand will increase so that the total market share will go up and each one of the existing outlets will be either unchanged or benefit from the increase in buzz about local produce.
While we haven’t made decisions about the inventory—that will ultimately be up to the membership—we do want to be a one-stop shop. Nature’s Pantry has a tremendous range of supplements and knowledge about supplements, so that’s not something for which there’s a need. So while the co-op may carry Vitamin C for convenience, we’re not going to run the whole gamut. We’re really focused on a needed niche in the community.
Update on the Online Farmer’s Market
Jim Eisenstein, Board member and coordinator of Online Market Task Force:
Earlier this year we become aware a number of cooperatives operating online farmers markets, some of which are 10 years old. Why don’t we start one here, we pondered. We discovered a number of click-to-brick online markets run by co-ops that do not have a store, but want to start with the online market as a stepping-stone to the physical store.
We approached this decision very carefully, and had excellent board discussions about pros and cons. We also sent out a survey to the community, which found that 68 percent of respondents supported or strongly supported the online market. Only seven percent of respondents opposed the idea.
We believe the online market is going to help open the store, and be a huge boost to membership. The OLM will provide another significant tangible benefit of membership: access to the same type of products available at farmers markets from many of the same vendors, but with the convenience of online ordering and out-of-season access to local products—at a lower price than for non-members customers of the OLM.
Clicks to Bricks
We spoke to Jean Davenport, Market Manager for the Macomb Food Cooperative online market, who explained the value of the clicks-to-bricks development model:
“Having the online market gave us more credibility with our owners and with the community. We now have a local-foods business…we have made many partnerships with producers as well as with customers. We have learned a lot about marketing, packaging, and pricing. We have worked with the Health Department and know the regulations we need to operate a food business. We feel this makes it much easier for us to transition to a store.”
She also told us “she knows she’d be stuck at 300 members if we didn’t have an online farmers market.”
This will go a long way in building these relationships with local producers. It will help us increase visibility of F&F to non-members as the online market develops.
The online market will help to achieve some of our most important goals. We want our community to be a place where farmers can survive and grow. We want to expand the market share for local producers, providing more convenient access to local food and a reliable market to farmers. That’s exactly what the OLM can do.
Building the Online Market’s Foundation
What have we done so far? We’ve looked at other models, surveyed the community’s interest, and voted in August to open the OLM. We have resolved questions our board members had, and allocated $6,000 for the first year to operate it. We have contacted 20 local producers, some of whom are at this meeting. They are enthusiastic about the market and possibilities.
We set a target date for accepting orders on November 21, although that may change.
We’re looking at places to assemble orders and distribute them to customers. We’re working out the OLM procedures. There are lots of different models out there.
Another need is volunteers. All the OLMs that exist rely on volunteers. If you’re interested in joining the volunteer list or serving as a test customer, e-mail Jim Eisenstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Members Get Online Market Benefits
While you don’t have to be a member of the cooperative to participate in the online market, we want members to have certain advantages, for example discounted prices. There has to be a benefit for members who have made the commitment already on the online market, and maybe that will be an incentive to get people to join.
The Co-op is Hiring!
Friends & Farmers is filling two part-time positions: an Outreach Coordinator, someone who can dedicate their time and energy into recruiting new members, and an Online Market Manager.
Local Loyalty Basket Giveaway
The cooperative organized a Local Loyalty Giveaway, awarding a basket of goodies to Robert and Jennifer Nicholas, who joined during the month of September. Anyone who joined in September, as well as any current member who referred someone who joined, was entered in the drawing.
Thanks to Animal Kingdom, Contempo Jewelers, Gemelli Bakers, Good Seed Bakery, Enchanted Kitchen, Jabebo Earrings, Nittany Valley Organics, Tait Farm Foods, and Village Eatinghouse for donating the items in the basket!
Closing Remarks from Sarah Potter
“I feel proud to be part of this movement,” Sarah said. “I’m also incredibly hopeful, and I hope you leave with that same hope and pride.”