Growing Locally: Can small food co-op sprout into downtown centerpiece?

The Recorder, September 2, 2013. By Linda Enerson

ORANGE — Carol Hillman of New Salem Preserves sells more of her heirloom apples, cider vinegar and jellies and apple butter from her 153-tree orchard at the Garlic and Arts Festival than she does on any other two days throughout the year.

She’s not alone. According to organizers, many local farmers and craftspeople selling at the festival haul in a major portion of, if not the majority of, their business income that weekend.

That’s why a group of festival organizers and other residents want to expand the North Quabbin Community Cooperative as a year-round venue for local producers.

The project is an integral part of the plan of moving the town “from Orange to green,” by encouraging the growth of small, environmentally friendly businesses in the downtown area.

According to co-op board member Rachel Scherer, the group is negotiating to buy the old Workers’ Credit Union building at 12 North Main St. across from Town Hall. Scherer said the landlord of that building, which has stood vacant for the past eight years, “is very supportive of what we’re trying to do.”

She said it will take about $100,000 to fully fund the project. Organizers are hoping to raise about a third of that locally, and already have about $15,000.

The group expects sweat equity and material donations will account for another third. They plan to borrow the rest.

The cooperative is currently housed in a 250-square-foot corner of the Orange Innovation Center, east of town.

Plans for the expansion include building out the entire first floor of the credit union (1,500 square feet) to house a full line of groceries and produce, including locally grown fruits and vegetables, organic and natural foods, dairy foods, local cheeses and frozen meats.

“We’ll be right in the heart of downtown … we can help build a cultural center that will help other small businesses make a go of it here,” said Scherer.

Community Development Director Kevin Kennedy agreed a cooperative located downtown will support the eco- and cultural tourism he hopes to bring in through a variety of economic development projects.

He envisions people coming in to town for a moonlit canoe trip up the Millers River or shopping for pottery might want to stop in for a sandwich or a cup of soup made from local cheese and vegetables. Kennedy has also talked about eventually building a network of trails that connect the well-traveled Monadnock-Metacomet Trail into downtown Orange as a destination for weary, hungry hikers.

“Our vision is to reclaim the vacant building and grow it as a place where locally grown food is available all year round and education is provided on what good food is all about,” said Scherer’s husband, Bruce, who is another of the project organizers.

“We recognize that we’re in a low-income community,” Bruce Scherer added. “The cooperative is committed to making wholesome, locally grown food available to all parts of the community, all year round … We want to create excitement about local farming that’s happening right here in town.”

The Scherers are in process of licensing their goat dairy. While they plan to sell raw milk only on their farm, they hope to sell yogurt and kefir in the expanded cooperative.

Bruce Scherer also helps local farmers reclaim their land and control invasive plant species. He also implements an ecologically friendly low-spray program at Hillman’s orchard.

Like the Garlic and Arts Festival, the cooperative will also be a venue for local artists and craftsmen to sell their handmade creations. Mr. Scherer said project organizers envision the new cooperative as a community center, supporting an indoor farmers market, and cultural activities such as music and children’s story hours.

“There are a lot of people involved in this project … everybody has a lot of ideas,” he said.

Rachel Scherer said that while anyone can buy groceries at the cooperative, it is largely patronized, at this point, by 200 co-op members and a small group of local customers.

She said the cooperative is engaged in a campaign to expand membership by 50 percent.

By paying a one-time fee of $120, members purchase a share of the cooperative, and are able to take part in bulk-buying programs and can purchase weekly shares of produce.

“And our members own the business directly,” which she added is a very different business model than a regular grocery store.

In addition to supporting local farmers and artisans, she said, the expanded store will create jobs, further stimulating the local economy.

When asked whether she would be interested in marketing her products through the expanded cooperative, Hillman said, “I’d be very happy to sell our apples in Orange. It’s a community that needs as much help as it can get.”

“Anytime we’ve talked about the economy in Orange, it’s always been something dismal,” said Rachel Scherer. “It’s nice to have something positive to talk about in terms of economic development in town.”