THE P6 COOPERATIVE TRADE MOVEMENT
REGENERATIVE QUALITIES OF THE P6 COOPERATIVE TRADE MOVEMENT
Empowered Participation / Robust Circulation / Honors Community & Place
Empowered Participation / Robust Circulation / Honors Community & Place
“Cooperatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the cooperative movement by working together through local, national, regional, and international structures.”
-Sixth Principle of the International Cooperative Alliance
As we follow the evolution of the Regenerative Economy, it is exciting to observe the emergence of more and more vibrant and intricate knowledge networks, spanning many geographies, that nurture place-based enterprises, empowered participation, shared-value, and experiments in alternative ownership models.
The Principle 6 Cooperative Trade Movement is one such growing network. A group of retail and producer food cooperatives that is exploring creative ways to support a just and healthy food system and to encourage conversations around it, P6 members are now based in the Midwest, South, and Northeast: Bloomingfoods in Bloomington, Indiana: Eastside Food Coop and Seward Community Coop in Minneapolis, Equal Exchange in Worcester, Massachusetts: Maple Valley Cooperative in Cashton, Wisconsin; Viroqua Food Coop in Viroqua, Wisconsin; Ozark Natural Foods in Fayetteville, Arkansas and Three Rivers Market in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Menomonie Market Food Co-op based in Menomonie,Wisconsin, and Roanoke Natural Foods based in Roanoke, Virginia, are P6's newest members.
The Field Guide recently spoke with Aaron Reser, P6’s national director, about the network’s near and long-term ambitions, including a branding strategy that is enabling consumers to identify the food purchases that will strengthen the supply chain of small, local, and cooperative farmers and producers in the US and globally.
Now based out of the Seward Cooperative in Minneapolis, P6 began in 2008 as a conversation among the producer coop Equal Exchange and a group of consumer retail coops across the country that were interested in developing a program focused on supporting all small producers—both local farmers as well as international small farmers producing crops like coffee and cacao. P6 began with a shared desire to build a strong international supply chain for small-scale producers that would serve the larger purpose of building a just and healthy food system. The conversation revolved around a reflection on what had happened in the fair trade and local food movements in the past 20 years. The group then began to explore what more needed to be done.
“It was a big picture conversation about how they could work together to support small producers,” Aaron explains. “And they narrowed it down to three criteria: small, local, and cooperative.”
P6 was created to use those criteria to filter for, and promote, shared value in the food supply chain.
The P6 marketing branding campaign was initiated by some of the early members of P6 in 2010, with attractive labels on the store shelves identifying which products met one of these three criteria. “The stores went through this huge process to see which of their products met the values small, local, and cooperative,” Aaron reports. “There was and continues to be important work that happens behind the scenes to make that happen—staff training, changing purchasing policies, graphic design—using all the tools the coop has to increase that market share for the small local cooperatives.”
While the majority of small producers who receive the P6 branding are not cooperatives, actual membership in P6 is limited to retail coops and producer coops, and P6 is itself a cooperative. Aaron reports that it is heartening to see how many small retail coops are starting up around the country, and that some of them are also worker cooperatives. Although currently all P6 retail members are consumer cooperatives, worker retail co-ops have also recently expressed interest in P6.
Aaron anticipates growth in P6 membership, but through experience, expects a natural winnowing process among those who express initial interest. “About 50 cooperatives are showing interest and we are about to see which of them will take the step of joining,” Aaron reports.
The P6 board filters to determine who will be a good P6 member, not only looking for a strong alignment with the P6 vision among key decision makers, but also a demonstration that all coop staff are prepared to flex their participatory muscles.
“P6 is by design a very participatory program so for it to work well it really requires a lot of staff engagement,” says Aaron. “A store needs to be able to pull off a fully integrated program in a way that really empowers all stakeholders.”
Some changes in purchasing habits begin to happen quickly when new P6 members sign on to the branding program; others take more time. In some cases new suppliers can be picked up quickly and there are a lot of examples where stores have really been able to increase P6 sales dramatically by changing purchasing polices and working closely with buyers. But, Aaron explains, “some of the work we are doing is long-term and involves slow steps towards shifting to the cooperative economy.”
In addition to the branding strategy, P6 continually seeks ways to nurture a vibrant sharing network among its members. While P6 does not provide direct financing in support of supply chain development, it sees its role as providing a knowledge network of members who can develop such financial supports, a network where one coop can learn from another’s experiences or participate in another’s funding program. P6 member co-ops have developed ways to capitalize cooperative supply chains and small local producer businesses. For example, the Viroqua Food Coop is sharing information with other P6 members about the success of its producer micro-lending initiative. A number of P6 members are also participating in Equal Exchange’s Grow Together Fund, which supports a cashew producer cooperative in El Salvador through direct loans. The Grow Together Fund is also partially funded through an allocation of a percent of the customer cashew purchases at participating stores. “It becomes a way at the point of sale to educate the consumer in what it takes to build those supply chains,” says Aaron. “While products like coffee and chocolate and bananas have a cooperative supply chain, for those international commodities where they don’t exist, for dried fruits and nuts, for example, this was a way to get the retail coops and their customers to be galvanized to act.”
P6 members often actively seek out new P6 producers in their local region. For example, when one of Seward Cooperatives’ main meat producers was retiring, a staff member worked with that producer to identify alternative local suppliers so that the coop could continue to provide local meat to its customers and the local meat processing plant could be kept in business with a new customer.
The search for local producers tends to be easier in fresh departments because there are more producers, but harder in the grocery department where local products are less widely available because of economies of scale challenges. “Grocery product development can be much more capital intensive, in terms of need to buy the equipment and the facility to do a value-added food product, compared to growing produce and selling directly to the store,” Aaron explains. Micolending programs like Viroqua’s can help with that challenge.
“One of the most valuable roles P6 plays is to connect our members so they are talking to each other and sharing ideas,” says Aaron. “It is people making it up as they go along, recreating local and regional food systems that maybe once were there but don’t exist right now."
"It’s being able to call a peer in Arkansas who has dealt with a similar thing," she reports, "and chat with them about what worked for them.”
P6 holds annual meetings—this year the Ozark Natural Food Cooperative will host—where members meet face to face and can observe first hand what the P6 branding campaign looks like in another member’s store environment. “Ozark works very closely with its local producers. so they are excited about taking P6 members on a farm tour and to get us out to their community and show off the work they are doing,” Aaron reports. P6 also holds monthly virtual marketing committee meetings to spark ideas and energize the membership on a continual basis. P6 members are generous about sharing their skills with one another. For example, those with larger marketing and design departments often share expertise with smaller coops.
We asked Aaron what happens when a local food producer grows to the extent that it may no longer fit into the definition of a local producer? Her answer illuminates a core P6 value—nurturing the growth of and the number of cooperatives as part of the broader vision to grow the shared value economy. “The role of a growing regional food system is something P6 is deeply interested in,” she explains. “Several of our members are in the Midwest and to the extent we can share producers and create more market share for our producers we are happy to do that.”
However, she notes, there have been instances where P6 producers started small and grew their business to the point where they were bought out by a larger entity that didn't fit the P6 ethos and was no longer considered eligible for P6 branding.
“Because P6 is rooted in the coop model it promotes that model as a way to achieve scale and growth and still remain values-based,” says Aaron.
The latest P6 coop member, Maple Valley, based in Wisconsin, is a multi-stakeholder cooperative of regional maple syrup producers, customers, investors and employees. “The cooperative answers to its owners,” says Aaron. “Maple Valley is distributing nationally to all of the P6 stores and P6 is a tool that can be used to champion their cooperative structure and grow their business in the retail co-op marketplace. But throughout that growth the, benefit and ownership and control is still lying with the small producers.”
Aaron says the members of P6 work together toward a shared vision of the larger impacts they can have on the food system as they grow the network: “What if P6 could become a motivator in creating P6 supply chains?” she asks. “What if we had so many coops here that we instantly had a market for an international product like cashews? Or what if we had so many P6 members regionally in the Midwest that we could start working more closely with other producer coops to get their products into all of these stores at once? “ She cites, for example, a coop of small organic Canadian grain producers who have been looking for ways to create a new shipping route to the Midwestern US. They are now talking with P6 coops as a foot in the door to the larger coop retail market.
“When P6 is at a scale where we can provide that larger market share I think there are some really exciting things that can happen at a bigger systems level and at the supply chain level, at the same time that we are doing all that great community work with local producers,” says Aaron.
“I think there is a huge gap in food systems with aggregation and distribution at that Ag of the Middle scale. As P6 grows we would like to be a real player in those conversations.”
VIROQUA FOOD COOP