What Maine’s Crop of Co-ops are Doing to Stay Fresh, Survive

BROOKS, Maine — If the word “co-op” make you think hazily of the 1970s, Birkenstock sandals and bulk containers of carob, think again.

The burgeoning local food movement and the farming renaissance in Maine have helped usher in a new age of member-owned food cooperatives around the state. In 2014 alone, new co-ops opened their doors in Fort Kent, Brooks, Eastport, Portland and Houlton. And although these businesses share a focus on building stronger communities and providing good food, the new co-ops are not cut from the same cloth.

In fact, a couple of them already are facing major challenges, including the Market Street Co-op in Fort Kent, which is in danger of closing for good.

“Right now the co-op is going through a really big struggle,” Jodi Guy, who has served the Market Street Co-op in many capacities since it started, said this week. “There’s a really big chance it will have to close its doors, which is sad because it’s such a good place.”

What she and several others involved in the state’s new batch of co-ops have found is that while many people say they want to support this kind of business model in their town, those intentions do not always translate into action.

In Brooks, where the Marsh River Co-op is located in the old hardware store in the heart of town, most of the work is done by volunteers who keep the books, work the cash register and keep things on track. Although the board of directors has hired a part-time manager since it opened in 2014, more help and customers are needed, according to Kim Jacobs, the president of the board and a founding member of the co-op.

“It’s been well-received in the community across the board,” Jacobs said recently of the co-op, which grew out of a downtown farmers market. “But some of the people who came to the farmers market did not come to the co-op, and producers did not sell as much. And to get them to come in and work became difficult. … We’re really determined to keep it going, but it’s really a challenge. We need more people to help. We need more business.”

Some good news

The wide front porch of the Marsh River Co-op is bedecked with colorful signs and lush seedlings for sale. Inside, shoppers can wander through the spacious store and find local produce, crafts, meats, snacks, good coffee and more, but on a recent rainy Sunday afternoon, few people happened to come through the doors. That’s not atypical, Jacobs said, adding that there is a perception in the rural community that the store is too expensive for regular folks.

And there is competition, from the venerable Belfast Co-op located 12 miles away, from the new crop of farms in the area offering different types of community supported agriculture arrangements, and even from more mainstream supermarkets that in recent years have started carrying more bulk and organic foods.

“A few people do the majority of their shopping here,” Jacobs said. “But a lot of people are sort of afraid to come here because it’s too hippie-dippy.”

The new manager, Matthew McKillopp, has been working to get prices down, and the board decided to stock wine and beer in hopes of bringing in more shoppers. And although the co-op is continuing to struggle with getting the right mix of local produce to sell in a place where many people have gardens of their own and in finding volunteers to reliably take shifts, board members are noticing an improvement in the co-op’s bottom line.

“The good news is that people are coming in,” Jacobs said. “Financially, we’re doing a little bit better.”

Still, she and other board members said, the co-op wouldn’t be able to stay in business long if it had ordinary expenses to pay, such as rent and salaries. Izzy McKay, who purchased the vacant building a few years ago, when it was in foreclosure, did so in part with the idea of having a co-op there owned by producers and consumers. McKay, a farmer, was an incorporating member of the co-op and does not charge much in rent, Jacobs said.

“Right now, we couldn’t survive if we were paying the going rate,” she said.

Jacobs and others involved in keeping the co-op going have found that they spend a lot of time doing so. Burnout can be a problem among board members and volunteers, they said. But for many, the ultimate potential of the co-op is worth the work it is taking to get there.

“What you want to do is forge connections in your community and to build trust,” Jacobs said. “For me, that is a primary reason.”

Challenges and benefits

Way up north in the crown of Maine, the Market Street Co-op has added a lot to the community in Fort Kent, according to Guy and Rose Libby, who also has been involved in the enterprise in many different ways. It has provided a comfortable place for people to gather to listen to live music and enjoy a healthy, interesting meal, and a place for folks to purchase a variety of locally sourced food and crafts.

“The food in the cafe is amazing, and there’s really good coffee,” Guy said. “I don’t know that anyone else in town has an espresso machine. … It really is a unique place in Fort Kent specifically.”

Still, not enough people have stepped forward to become members or even shoppers, and Libby wondered whether Fort Kent’s 4,000-person population is big enough to sustain the co-op.

“What amount of people could possibly keep the co-op going?” she asked.

At 6:30 p.m. Saturday, July 23, the Market Street Co-op is holding a meeting to talk about whether and how it can survive. Participants will be asked to discuss why they want the community asset to stay open and what roles, if any, they could take to show their support.

“It’s very sad to see it come to this point,” Libby said. “We’re hoping that people can come and try to help save the co-op.”

But while these co-ops are facing challenges, some of the new Maine co-ops are thriving, including one of the smallest and most remote. The Eat Local Eastport Co-op, with 90 members, is located in a 180-square-foot downtown storefront. It’s been growing since its 2014 incorporation.

Manager Anne Hopkins said the co-op started about 10 years ago as a pre-order buying club by Tide Mill Organic Farm in Edmunds. Now, it sells only goods that have been produced in the state of Maine and strives to keep prices competitive with the local IGA supermarket.

“We’ve about doubled our inventory from last year, and we’re growing,” she said. “We’ve also expanded our hours. Our plan is to be open five days a week, year-round.”

But that’s not to say it has been easy in the smallest store in Washington County to offer raw honey, herbal tinctures, organic produce, a variety of seaweed and much more.

“When you’re talking about offering food at the true cost of food, in one of the poorest counties in the nation, it’s a big challenge,” Hopkins said. “It’s a community-owned business, and the community needs to support it being in existence. It’s a little bit different, in what I think is an exciting way.”

Published in Bangor Daily News Homestead


By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff

Posted July 15, 2016

Photo captions (from top):

Lauren Errickson of Brooks rings up some produce Friday for Meredith Toumayan of Jackson at the new Marsh River Co-op. "We opened the store without any kind of loans or investment," Errickson, a co-op board member said. "It was a few years of planning, discussion and meetings. It's wonderful to see it come into being."
The Marsh River Cooperative opened its doors in August after more than three years of planning. "It's kind of like a farmers market on steroids," Ed Hamel, the president of the board of the co-op, said. "It's a country store. You come in, you talk for a while." 
A crowd gathers outside the Eat Local Eastport Co-op on Thursday, July 14. The small co-op only stocks goods that are produced in the state of Maine.
Market Street Co-op manager Stacey Martin speaks at her shop in Fort Kent, Oct. 31, 2014. 


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