Until next week,
In today's share we have our last head of lettuce, filet beans, leeks, peppers, and potatoes. The Rosencrantz lettuce variety is one of my favorites here on the farm--it has a great crisp to it while also being tender, flavorful, and beautiful. These heads are a bit small but tis' the end of lettuce season, from here on out it will be heartier greens. The filet beans are the same you received a couple weeks ago. Most of you will get a King Crimson bell pepper although some may get a Stocky Red Roaster instead. Both are great peppers--delicious fresh, roasted or sautéed. Last but not least we have potatoes and a leek. Farmers Gareth and Louis both love our German Butterball potatoes, exclaiming "it's in the name!" Also, be sure to check out Mallory's pizza recipe from the CSA reminder e-mail for kitchen inspiration.
Until next week,
In my last post I shared some of the reasoning behind why Our Table is a cooperative; we wanted all the people involved in growing, raising, processing, distributing, cooking, and eating food to have an equal voice and ownership of their food. We had workers, we had producers, and we had eaters; we wanted them all to come together to the proverbial table to solve a common problem. The structure we came up with is called a multi-stakeholder cooperative: a worker cooperative, producer cooperative, and consumer cooperative combined into one. In this post, I would like to focus on the first of these three stakeholder groups – workers. The following posts will cover producers and consumers.
Workers are employees of the Cooperative. The people who literally keep the place running and who, along with their fellow members from the other two stakeholder groups, own and control the organization. Our Table currently has fourteen full-time and two part-time employees. Our Bylaws stipulate that all new employees must undergo a one-year “dating” period after which they must decide if they wish to become member-owners or not. If they do wish to become members, they submit a formal application and the current members vote on whether to accept this application or not. Once accepted for membership, the employee pays a $5,000 fee to purchase a worker-member share and legally becomes a member-owner of the Cooperative. If the application is denied or if the employee chooses not to become a member, they cannot work at Our Table any more – a sometimes harsh reality but one we feel is necessary in order to prevent the inadvertent formation of a “caste” system that benefits members at the cost of non-members. As you can imagine, this is a tough decision and one that we all take very seriously. As of today, there are nine worker members of the cooperative. The remainder of our employees have been with us for less than a year so we are still dating!
The heart of Our Table is our farm but our soul is our community and our food. The food’s journey from the soil to our bellies involves a number of people working collaboratively: from the farmers who cultivate the soil and tend the animals, to the people who sell, market, cook, and deliver the food, to the people who keep the books, perform numerous administrative functions, and maintain the facilities and equipment. It truly takes a village! All of these functions are of equal importance and inextricably tied to one another – a true interdependence. It is impossible to say that one function is more or less important than another and this realization is at the core of how we think about our cooperative – we are all at the table together. All of us who work here are not only co-workers but, in the case of the member-owners, also business partners. We co-own this business and jointly share in its management and operation.
Sadly, our society does not place a great deal of value on the people involved in producing our food. According to the Oregon Department of Labor Statistics, the majority of the lowest paid occupations in our state are in agriculture and food production. On the flip side, the majority of the highest paid occupations in our state are in healthcare. This calculus seems to ignore the simple fact that the food we put into our bodies has a major impact on our health! Our struggles as a society with increasingly debilitating diseases that are directly linked to the food we eat are embodied in the way we devalue the critically important people who nourish us. With the average age of the American farmer at 57 years and climbing, it is estimated that our nation needs at least 2 million new farmers over the next 20 years. Like entrepreneurs in any start-up business, new farmers cannot usually afford to pay themselves much of a wage during the early years. Due to the fact that farming is a very risky business with razor thin margins, many of these new farmers can never get off the treadmill of poverty and financial stress. There are no easy solutions to these problems, but, at Our Table, we aim for something quite radical – to pay all our employees a living wage! This sounds great in principle but is quite complex to achieve in practice. Firstly, there is the question of how to define a living wage. We use the MIT Living Wage Calculator as our baseline but realize that the levels it suggests are barely adequate. Although all our employees earn the baseline “living” wage specified by this calculator, we have a long way to go before everyone is paid what we would consider a truly living wage. As we build and grow Our Table, we are hopeful that we will one day be able to pay ourselves more appropriately while meeting the needs of all the stakeholders in our Cooperative and our community.
The supreme irony of our business is that most of our workers cannot afford to purchase the food we produce. This is not because our food is over-priced. On the contrary, over 70% of our costs go towards payroll -- at wage levels that are too low for comfort. The real reason most of us cannot afford our own food is because in our society, food is grossly underpriced. The true cost of production is not reflected in the majority of what we eat today. A large percentage of this cost is offset in space and/or time. We import much of our food from faraway places where labor is cheap and, at home, we rely on migrant labor often working in near slavery conditions. At the same time, our farming practices destroy the soil, pollute our water, sicken our farmers, and decimate rural communities. Much of the true cost of these destructive practices is borne by people whom we never see but much of it will be borne by our own grandchildren. As much as each of us may, at an individual level, abhor these practices and their effects, we all bear a collective responsibility for them – it is our cultural values that create the system that results in these behaviors. We can change them but we have to agree on a different set of values first. In contrast, at Our Table we make every attempt to price our food at what it truly costs to produce right here in our community -- in a sustainable and closed-loop way. Of course, all of this does not change the fact that too many people in our society, including our own workers, find it difficult to purchase properly priced food. The solution to this is not to make food cheaper by hiding costs but to change the value system at the foundation of modern society. Obviously, none of us can undertake this herculean task alone. Certainly, none of us have all the answers. However, our society is a human invention and if we act collectively, there is nothing to stop us from imagining and creating something different.
Although we definitely have our moments of disagreement, I can honestly say that I love all the people who work at Our Table. It is an honor and a privilege to be surrounded by such talent and passion. All of us truly care about each other, the food we produce, and the soil that makes it possible. We have faith in the abundance of nature and in the abundance of the human spirit. It is with this sense of abundance that we embrace each other, our lives and our work. As someone said to me today, it’s not ego – just we-go!
Co-founder, Our Table Cooperative
Can't believe we are a third of the way through fall CSA already! We're nearing the end of our summer crops while slowly moving into more fall/winter crops and I'm super stoked to be able to include both tomatoes and peppers in this week's share! We also have a Samantha Red Oakleaf lettuce, Red Venture celery, and Spigarello.
Spigarello: This Italian green is actually a type of broccoli that can be harvested for its leaves or grown to maturity for its broccoli-like heads. An heirloom variety considered the parent of broccoli raab, Spigarello has a taste similar to broccoli (go figure) but is more like kale by nature. I like to use it much like you would kale in a stir fry, soup, baked dish or even on pizza (really I just like to put most anything on pizza). One way to prepare Spigarello...cut the stemmy parts into small bits, reserving the leaves. Put the stems in a pan with some olive oil, crushed garlic, and maybe a little water. When the stems have slightly softened, roughly chop the leaves and add them to the pan. Cook until done to your liking. In Italy, they might then toss with sausage and some red chili flakes and perhaps add it all to pasta.
Red Venture celery: Deep red stems and dark green leaves. Real celery flavor and much more tender and juicy than other red varieties. Yum!
A nice, cool morning for CSA harvest--the fog is always a welcome calm over the fields. Last week we harvested all of our winter squash and culinary pumpkins, and soon we will bring leeks in from the field on the regular and chicories will start making more and more of an appearance. The pumpkin patch will be opening soon, and our dry bean and corn harvest is about to happen. I think we all feel like fall is actually here! On the farmer front, we are happy to have Lou rejoin our team again after his leave when his son was born. Karen is back with the crew as her flower harvests have begun to wane. We are all very excited to start planning for next year.
In your share this week is my favorite variety of lettuce we grow--Carmona. She is a beaut and tasty too. We also have Tavera French filet beans, Cipollini onions, Stocky Red Roaster peppers, and Amarosa potatoes. The Amarosa potatoes have smooth bright red skin, and deep red flesh throughout. These sweet and creamy nutritious fingerlings are ideal for baking, roasting, and grilling. They also make mouth-watering, intensely colorful potato chips as they retain their sweetness and uniform bright red color. Cipollinis are an Italian variety and their name literally means “little onion” in Italian! Cipollinis are about the size of a golf ball with a slightly flattened appearance. They’re thin-skinned and have translucent white flesh with more residual sugar than your average yellow or white onion, which makes them incredible for roasting or caramelizing. Roasted whole in the oven or cooked in a little butter on the stove top, Cipollinis become soft and practically melt in your mouth. Those residual sugars caramelize and concentrate, leaving behind none of the astringent raw onion flavor.
Until next week!
There are over 29,000 cooperatives in the U.S. and, since the 1930s, cooperatives have come together every October to celebrate the spirit of cooperation in what's called National Co-op Month. In this vein, I’d like to take this opportunity to share some of the history of Our Table and the reasons why we decided to become a cooperative.
In systems design, you start with values. You then build structures that embody these values with the result being that the entire system behaves in a way that is consistent with, and an expression of the values. When we started to think about Our Table, we too started with values – a set of stories, our mythology: the health and wellbeing of people and the land, interdependent relationships, strong communities, and a worldview that sees humans as an integral and important part of the natural world.
Once we had a set of values, we needed to create structures that would embody these values. We knew that we wanted to be a for-profit business. Profit was not our only goal but it was, and remains, a critical one. We wanted to figure out how small-scale community based agriculture can be economically and ecologically self-sufficient.
Cooperatives are legal business structures just like corporations, limited liability companies, or partnerships. In most business structures, ownership and control are directly proportional to the level of capital investment, and profits are returned to investor-owners based on the amount of their investment. By contrast, a cooperative business is owned and democratically controlled by its member patrons. A cooperative exists for the benefit of its members, and profits are distributed in proportion to each member’s relative use or “patronage” of the cooperative’s services. Such a structure seemed more aligned with our values.
For centuries, farmers have found cooperatives to be fruitful arrangements for sharing the inherent risks and rewards of their profession. In agriculture, the risks tend to be large and out of our control – the so-called vagaries of nature. On the flip side, rewards tend to be relatively small so the benefits of sharing the risks generally outweigh any downsides of sharing the profits. Most cooperatives started by farmers are “producers” cooperatives – a group of producers coming together to start a business that addresses some common need. Think Tillamook cheese or Organic Valley dairy. The owners of a producer cooperative are its member farmers.
The cooperatives that most people are familiar with are consumer cooperatives like REI or People’s Food Co-op. These are organizations formed by groups of consumers coming together to pool their purchasing power and get the products they want to buy. Such cooperatives are owned by their member shoppers. Another kind of cooperative is a workers cooperative – a company where the workers or employees are the member-owners.
We wanted all the people involved in growing, raising, processing, distributing, cooking, and eating food to have an equal voice and ownership of their food. A model community owned food system based on a closed loop in which the farmers feed the community and the community feeds the farmers. We had workers, we had producers, and we had consumers; we wanted them all to come together to the proverbial table to solve a common problem. The structure we came up with is called a multi-stakeholder cooperative: a worker cooperative, producer cooperative, and consumer cooperative combined into one.
Incorporated in February 2013, Our Table is one of a handful of multi-stakeholder cooperatives in the country. We have three distinct but interdependent membership groups or classes – workers, regional producers, and consumers. Workers includes everyone who works on the cooperative’s farm and oversees operations for the organization--from farmers to bookkeepers to delivery drivers. Producers are independent farmers and food artisans who grow and produce all the things that we want to eat but cannot or do not grow on our own farm. Consumers are the people who eat the food, which includes all of us in the community. All the members of these three groups become owners of the cooperative when they purchase a membership share. The cost of a membership share is different for each group but, collectively, the members own and control the business and all profits are shared amongst them. Our Board of directors is composed of and elected by the membership.
In our society, this arrangement where members and not investors are the “owners” of a business, is quite rare. This is not to say that investors are not important – capital serves a very important purpose in all economic activity. At Our Table, we issue preferred stock (called Capital Stock) for investors. Capital stock is “preferred” in the sense that it pays dividends (limited to no more than 8% per year) and these dividends are paid before any profits are distributed to members. However, like in all cooperatives, capital is subordinate to members in that capital stock holders have no voting rights on day-to-day operations of the company. In other words, capital is rewarded with monetary returns ahead of members, but it is members who run the business.
The subordination of capital investors to members often makes cooperatives unattractive to fast money investors like venture funds. Such investors are used to their money buying them control of a company as well as the lion’s share of the profits. By contrast, at Our Table, we ask our investors to join with us in a collective effort. We ask investors to share the risk with us and to trust the members, who are at the ground level on a daily basis, to operate the business.
Farmers intuitively understand that when stewarded with love and care, nature produces a bounty and abundance that epitomizes the concept of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. They also understand that each of us is a part of a larger whole, and coming together to collectively address common problems is a defining feature of what it means to be human. As Pope Francis said on his recent visit to the US: “we human beings are part of the environment. We live in communion with it”. It is in this spirit of communion and collective effort that we have come together at Our Table – workers, producers, consumers, and investors--the entire community--to own our food.
- Narendra Varma
Co-founder, Our Table Cooperative
Another beautiful day to harvest for Fall CSA! I'm going to keep this short and sweet right now and write something more a little later. With Lou out with his beautiful baby boy and our amazing part-time crew moving on to different work for the winter your farmers are all running around like crazy.
A side not -- if you got radishes instead of carrots last week have no fear, the same thing will happen in a couple weeks except reversed!
This is it for Sarah's Eat Local Challenge at OTC Grocery! We've come to the end of the month, which means her last post is up on Will Run for Pasta. What a glorious 30 days it's been together--we've gotten to know each other, we've shared meals, and now we're fellow business owners. This is what the co-op experience is all about. Thank you, Sarah! It brings us joy to share our love of food with you and so many others. Read Sarah's sign-off to the month here.
A REGIONAL COOPERATIVE CREATING HANDCRAFTED, THOUGHTFUL AND DELICIOUS FOOD
© Our Table Cooperative, 2016