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  Co-ops: For the people, by the people

11:50 am October 19th, 2012

By Louise Carson

Contributing writer

This is the International Year of the Cooperative, designated by the United Nations back in 2009. It’s not such a long way from that to the Eatonville community as it might seem.

A cooperative, often called simply co-op, is a different business model framed around seven principles, including voluntary, open membership with members participating economically and often with “sweat equity.” Concern for community and education, training and information-sharing are other values. These principles come from the founding of the first modern co-op in Rochdale, England in 1844.

Just about anything can be formed along a cooperative basis, including credit unions and manufacturing groups; Organic Valley is a nationwide dairy cooperative. However, they are often formed around more or less essential services and goods in which a non-profit model has the potential for a stronger basis without a profit going to shareholders or individuals. That doesn’t mean no profit, but a reinvestment of profit for the good of all member/owners.

For example, Ohop Mutual Light, a local rural utility, incorporated in 1921 and serving over 4,200 members, offered a completely free duct sealing program this past summer. About 400 members took advantage of the $500/household conservation and money-saving program. One member said that two dedicated workers were at her house from 9 a.m. until after 1 p.m. sealing, repairing and replacing sections of duct work, and she should notice a sizeable difference in costs this winter. This was at no cost to members.

Isabella Deditch, general manager of Ohop Mutual, is proud of Ohop’s successful conservation effort. While they can’t afford to take on the more showy projects in conservation, the duct sealing project had many members truly amazed that it was indeed free.

Deditch has been with Ohop since 1985 and says they always “have the best interests of members at heart.” She has been nicknamed “Mother Ohop” for her interest in her employees (four in office and eight in the field), repeatedly making sure they take full advantage of 401k programs. With total line miles of 420, Ohop Mutual needs to pay very close attention to its expenses in its 100-square-miles area; less density makes for more expenses, and Deditch is ever aware that her watchful eye can stop waste and help keep rates as low as possible.

Katie Moeller has been the teacher for over 10 years at Eatonville Cooperative Nursery School in the log cabin across from Glacier Park. Its modern life started in 1975 as a unique setting for early-childhood education and was affiliated with Pierce College. Funding issues changed that, and now it is independent but still has parent involvement. With kids from ages 3 to 5, Moeller said the three classes with 14 students each are always full, and with classes focusing on cooperation and problem solving and monthly field trips, parent involvment is a required part of the program.

Moeller has a degree in early-childhood education, worked with Head Start programs years ago, and remembers her own two children, now teenagers, participating in the the local preschool program. Some parents bringing their kids to the old log cabin were brought their by their parents years ago.

The nursery school has a major fund-raiser each year, a successful auction in the fall. It’s big, well-organized and complete with dinner. This year it will be on Nov. 10.

Now in its seventh year as a storefront natural-food store, Mountain Community Co-op started as a buying club years before. It’s a small store well-stocked with a diversity of items, from basic bulk foods such as grains to fresh organic produce and natural shampoos and soaps. Margaret Franich has been a driving force behind it all along but is the first to say, “It all hinges on participation by many people.” The prices marked in the store are the prices paid by regular shoppers; members in certain categories receive a discount, and working members receive a larger discount.

One of the principles of cooperative enterprises is concern for community; the co-op has offered seminars in beekeeping, garlic planting and a Vitamin D workshop over the past several years. This year, the big push has been the Mountain Community Garden on Center Street East in Eatonville. Even in its first year, it adorns the town for visitors with a show of flowers and raised bed gardens for citizens to use. There is also space for planting food to be donated to the local food bank. Donations have come from many sources, but volunteers have been the driving force. And where there was an empty space earlier this year where the Yard Place once stood, there is now an abundance of new growth, beautiful and edible, with more to come. It’s also a learning experience for many; the plots will not be sprayed with toxic materials, and composting will be emphasized. Cooperation (that word again) from landowner, town and others made this happen, and it’s for the good of all, including visitors simply passing through. Better to look at flowers and growing plants that an empty space.

A major fund-raiser for the co-op and also a community event, the Garden Tour of 2012 was the biggest since its start in 2008. This year, the town had its Visitors Center alive with numerous vendor booths selling garden-related items. The committee organizing the event is comprised of other community individuals, as well as several co-op members.

During October, the co-op – which has 281 members and is always adding more – will celebrate this special year and the National Co-op Month with 8 percent discounts to all shoppers and a 13 percent discount to members showing their cards.

It might be the spirit of cooperation that guides all the above groups, but the hard work, vision and business sense must go hand in hand. Totaling 135 years between them, the above organizations might offer that it takes all of that and more.

 

Louise Carson is a member of the Mountain Community Co-op Board of Directors.

Mountain Community Co-op workers include (from left) Lucy Baranski, Frank Cooms and Margaret Franich. The natural-food stores’s success “hinges on participation by many people,” says Franich. (Jim Bryant/The Dispatch)

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