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