Co-op Grocers Unite When Disaster Strikes

Cooperative grocers take pride in the fact that they’ve supported local, sustainable farmers for more than three decades-long before it was the trendy thing to do. They didn’t jump on the “local” bandwagon; they helped to create it.

Ensuring that shoppers get fresh, healthy, local food has been a point of pride and differentiation for food co-ops. Our commitment to doing so has forged strong bonds with the farmers who help supply our produce aisles and meat and dairy cases with food produced locally.

Taking action amidst rising floodwaters

Cooperative support for local farmers becomes even more evident when disaster strikes. Cases in point: the August floods in the upper Midwest and the recent December flooding in southwestern Washington.

In both instances, the floodwaters raged in a very short period of time, wreaking havoc upon local producers whom the co-ops in both regions have come to rely on. Farmers lost produce, livestock, finished product, equipment-and in many cases their homes and livelihood-in a matter of a few hours or days. In both cases, co-ops jumped in, even before the floodwaters receded, to help orchestrate collaborative relief efforts.

August in Midwest organic heartland

In the Midwest, Barth Anderson from the Wedge Co-op was on the phone the day after the flooding with producers in Minnesota and Wisconsin to assess the severity of the damage.

“It was really bad. Some farmers were totally washed out,” he recalls. “Others were able to salvage a portion of their crops, but would incur substantial financial losses, and some simply had to wait and see.”

Avalanche Organics, Harmony Valley, Featherstone Farm, and Driftless Organics lost thousands of dollars in harvest-ready crops and property as did others, including Hoiland Mills Farm in Rushford, Minn., which lost its entire stock of turkeys, a refrigeration truck full of product, personal possessions, as well as considerable damage to the family home and outbuildings.

Just a year earlier, the Wedge and the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) had created the Sow the Seeds Fund to help support sustainable farming and protect the environment. The “floods of a century,” refocused the fund’s emphasis to providing monetary relief to family farmers.

Anderson mobilized his Midwest co-op colleagues to undertake a fund-raising effort, working in tandem with the IATP. Within a matter of days, collateral and downloadable signs were available for individual co-ops to use, urging shoppers to donate at registers, through a website, or by check. Press releases were created and distributed to the media announcing the collaborative fundraising efforts.

The result? In just four months, co-ops, businesses, nonprofits and restaurants throughout the Midwest and as far away as Texas raised more than $380,000 for the Sow the Seeds Fund, which distributed the entire amount to 31 flood-stricken farmers who applied for financial assistance. Nearly $125,000 of that total amount was raised by co-ops, their shoppers, National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA), and NCGA suppliers.

These funds-disbursed to small, family organic farmers in a time of extreme need-are a testament to the power of united consumer efforts to support our local economies.

This year, the Sow the Seeds Fund will launch a campaign to help sustainable and organic farmers in the Midwest strengthen their infrastructure and extend their growing season. Find out more at www.sowtheseedsfund.org.

Waters rise in Northwest, co-ops raise funds

Less than four months after the floodwaters subsided in the Midwest, they were rising at record speed in southwestern Washington, particularly along the banks of the Chehalis River.

Several local organic and dairy farmers were devastated. Black Sheep Creamery lost 75 percent of its flock. Rising River and Boistfort Valley Farms lost equipment, crops, homes and personal belongings under as much as 10 feet of mud.

Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets donated $10,000 to the Art Wedig Disaster Relief Fund, to support Organic Valley member-owner farmers who lost livestock and farmland in Lewis County, Wash. The PCC donation was immediately distributed among seven dairy farmers most seriously affected by the flooding.

They weren’t alone. Olympia Food Co-op initiated a flood relief donation drive at their registers. Other co-ops quickly joined in, including Community Food Co-op in Bellingham-deli workers also contributed their tips-Madison Market in Seattle, The Food Co-op in Port Townsend, Skagit Valley Food Co-op in Mount Vernon, Sno-Isle Natural Foods in Everett, and three New Mexico-based La Montanita Co-op stores.

To date, more than $30,000 has been raised via that collective initiative, which Olympia Food Co-op has disbursed to affected sustainable farmers. And the donations continue to come in.

At Organic Valley (CROPP Cooperative), the Art Wedig Fund was established as a memorial by the family of a former board member of Organic Valley. Since its inception in 2003, the Fund has assisted farmers after floods, tornadoes, fires, storms, and on-farm accidents, with funds donated by farmers, employees, and friends.

Co-ops working together to help those in need is not a new concept. It has happened before in the wake of tornadoes, drought and other catastrophes in all parts of the country. After all, concern for community is one of the key principles that sets co-ops apart from other businesses. And one we can all take pride in.

Help flood-stricken farmers in Washington.

Send checks payable to the Olympia Food Co-op Farm Relief Fund to:
Olympia Food Co-op, 3111 Pacific Ave. S.E., Olympia, WA 98501

Find out more on Organic Valley flood relief efforts.
Contact Joe Pedretti, farmer relations manager at 888/444-6455 ext. 3279 or [email protected]

See other articles from this issue: #135 March - April - 2008