Our Past As Present: Reconsidering Food Co-ops

At a time when there is growing concern about the safety of our food supply and the often hazardous means to produce it, home-grown organic suppliers can fill the need to supply families with nutritional food at reasonable costs.  

Though still around today, farmers markets were more commonplace and visited routinely when I was growing up in the 1950’s


There’s a movement afoot that is reminiscent of an earlier time for me and the entire baby boom generation as children in the late 1940‘s and 1950‘s.  Though we always idealize our past there are those real aspects of it that elicit fond recollections of things simple in nature that encompass family and a smaller community.

One of those experiences was buying our food at grocery markets where the produce, meats and dairy products were processed by local farmers and ranchers.  There was also the regular visits to the farmers market with parents and grandparents in downtown Dallas.  Before there were Safeways and Krogers there was Jerry’s Meat Market and Kettle’s Food Store.

It was a community of people that we were dependent on for basic needs and who we shared certain values with.  In today’s global markets this perception is imbued in many of the advertisements for products bought and sold but in reality, much of what we purchase in markets today no longer originates within those finite boundaries we consider local.  Today, the nostalgia of small, local food co-ops is seeing a rebirth in many areas across the country.

The post-WWII baby-boom generation is perhaps the last generation that fully realized a time when most of your food needs were met with purchases from a local mom and pop operation whose food supply was from local farmers.  If you wanted prescriptions, toiletries and greeting cards you went to Skillern’s Drug Store.  There was no such thing as a latte but if you wanted a cup of coffee you could only get that at places like Norma’s cafe.  Pretty much everything else you needed could be purchased at Sears, Roebuck & Co.

The corporate supermarkets that have emerged since the 1960’s changed this, providing the consumer with the convenience of one-stop shopping.  My generation saw this as a good thing at the time because it was new and exciting; not something old-fashioned that our parents and grandparents were accustomed to.  But in our acceptance of this future transition I think we were emotionally robbed of the personable interaction once found dealing with an independently owned business operated by people who lived in your area.  Many businesses today are national or International, run by managers for some corporate ownership far away.

Co-ops are regaining popularity again, perhaps by those who want to regain that lost sense of the past but mostly as a local source of nutritional food you won’t necessarily find in the supermarket chains.  Not only do the larger, modern supermarkets tend to diminish a sense of community but they leave a larger carbon foot print in order to stock their stores with the vast array of goods they provide consumers with today.  My home town of Denton, Texas is lucky enough to have a food co-op but it is struggling to find a bigger consumer base and sufficient suppliers to compete with the commercial giants.


The Cross Timbers Food Co-op (CTFC), run by a small group of people, is working to re-establish a system to purchase food products from local producers, keeping our money here while also providing sources of income for these people along with job opportunities for future growth.  Buying local home-grown products gives consumers fresher food and it reduces the carbon-foot print created by transporting such goods over long miles from other states and countries.  Less energy for storage and packaging is also required since your food gets from the farm or ranch to your table quicker.

How Safe Is the Food You Purchase?  Over 40 percent of all fresh fruit consumed in the U.S. comes from Mexico, Chile, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and other foreign countries, traveling hundreds, even thousands, of miles to reach our grocery-store shelves.  Eating food grown elsewhere in the world means depending on the soil, water, and sanitation conditions in those places and on the way their workers farm, harvest, process, and transport the products.   According to the CDC, each year in the United States 76 million people suffer from foodborne disease; 325,000 of them are hospitalized and 5,000 die.   SOURCE

These co-ops provide produce, dairy and meat products from suppliers who use organic techniques that avoid the use of synthetic chemicals and antibiotics to enhance production.  These chemicals can pose health hazards for consumers if safety measures are not regulated and monitored.   They also use measures for growing that strengthen soils and avoid industrial agriculture practices that continue to damage and deplete this valuable natural resource.

While intensive plowing and monocrop agriculture systems have caused nutrient depletion and wide-scale soil erosion, over-application of fertilizers and pesticides have contaminated our soils and polluted our waterways  –  Sustainable Table 

Current purchaser membership in CTFC stands at 339 active accounts but only a fraction of those use the co-op on any kind on a regular basis.  Approximately 53 members have ordered more than one time over the years the co-op has been in existence.  Memberships cost a one-time, refundable $50 fee.  There is also a small service fee added to each order that is based on the amount of your purchases.

CTFC uses Hilltop Montessori School at 1014 N. Elm in Denton to distribute its food every other Saturday between 1:30 and 3:30pm.  The Montessori school is owned by CTFC member Julie Winnette who made the facility available after the food co-op lost their previous delivery site located a couple of blocks off of Denton’s town square.  Orders are placed on-line during the week preceding the delivery date, allowing suppliers time to process the orders and have them ready a week after all orders have been submitted.  There is no delivery so all items are picked up by each consumer.

Wylie Harris is usually in place to hand out orders on distribution days and has been doing this since August, 2006; several months after he and some others first incorporated the co-op. He lives the organic way of life.  “I got interested in starting a co-op like this after seeing what Bob Waldrop had done in Oklahoma after I was assigned to interview him about it for my ‘formal-sector’ job”, Wylie explains. “The Peace Action Denton group was hosting a conference intended to spark efforts toward local sustainability not long after that, and I managed to get Waldrop included on the slate of speakers. He stuck around ’til the evening of that conference to come to the first co-op organizing meeting.”

When not contributing his time to CTFC he works out of his home in Sant Jo writing web and newsletter content for the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture (KCSA) in Poteau, Oklahoma,  “an award-winning non-profit educational foundation [that has] committed its resources and programs to the goals of ‘sustainable’ agriculture.”  Then there is the time that Wylie and his wife Ozlem spend with their own farm where they tend to the cattle, chicken and vegetables that primarily serve their personal needs.

Along with building up CTFC’s membership Wylie would also like to see a larger supplier base.  The ultimate goal for the Cross Timbers Co-op is to increase the number of delivery locations and expand down into the metroplex.

There’s always a kind of chicken-or-egg dynamic going on in that nobody wants to buy if there’s not a good product diversity”, Mr. Travis tell me,“ and nobody wants to sell if there aren’t enough customers to make it happen. At the moment I feel like we’ve hit a pretty good product mix, and now need to advertise the co-op to a wider audience to increase sales to make it worth the existing producers’ while. The organizing group envisioned the co-op serving a wider area – Sherman to Wichita Falls to D/FW – and I’d like to see progress toward that goal, however incremental. Our core customer group to date has always been solidly based in Denton proper.”  

Wylie Harris checks supplier list at CTFC’s distribution location

 

CTFC lists some thirteen suppliers currently who provide products ranging from chicken and beef to an assortment of vegetables and spices.  There are also suppliers who provide soaps, coffee beans, eggs, baked sweets and goat cheeses.  About half of those provide their product on a seasonal basis.

Rose Creek Farm supplier Pamela Johnson with Wylie Travis preparing orders for another Saturday distribution

The current and only chicken supplier, Rose Creek Farms, is owned by Pamela Johnson and her husband Ronnie.  On a visit to Rose Creek Farms in mid-June I met up with Pam and Ronnie to see just how invested they are in supplying healthy, organically raised chickens.  They’re raised in mobile pens so they can be shifted to areas on the Johnson’s 30 acre farm that will provide a continuous supply of sun, grass, insects, and left over veggies from their own garden.  Besides these natural food sources for the chickens the Johnsons grow some of the feed for them and supplement it with a Certified Non-GMO product.

The Johnsons also serve as the primary supplier of vegetables and spices for CTFC.  Below are just a sample of the vegetables they grow on about 3 acres that are fertilized with an organic “tea compost” that runs through a system of soaker hoses running parallel with the plant rows.  It is a mixture of water and compost they have composed with some molasses and alfalfa to enhance the microbial life to feed their plants.   Their soils are mainly sandy so they use a wood chip compost to stabilize this growing medium, allowing it to retain moisture longer.

 

 

From top to bottom:  Beets, cherry and yellow pear tomatoes, Armenian cucumber and green beans

 


Rose Creek Farms is located on CR 2788 just outside of Alvord, Texas which sits about 10 miles north of Decatur in Wise county.

Prior to getting into the organic farm business Pamela was a civil engineer, building bridges and other infrastructure items for Isbell Engineering Group out of Sanger,Texas.  Her husband Ronnie began framing houses when he was fifteen and eventually started building homes, which he did for years in the North Texas area before buying their farm in 2007.

Though Ronnie and Pamela are a primary source of produce for CTFC they are also part of the grass-roots organization, Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) that originated out of Poughkeepsie, New York.  Their first obligation is to supply a local customer base that pay an annual $30 fee per family for the privilege of ordering in advance freshly grown produce directly from Rose Creek Farms.  Pamela feels the CNG approach better accommodates the needs of small farmers with lower fees and insuring the organic quality of members

CNG’s approach is called a Participatory Guarantee System. PGS is employed by tens of thousands of farmers worldwide. These programs minimize paperwork and certification fees and employ a peer-inspection process built on local networks. They’re typically a better fit for small-scale producers who sell locally.   SOURCE   

Rose Creek Farm owners Ronnie and Pam Johnson

 

Small organic farms like Rose Creek are a challenge, economically and physically.  It requires a devotion from people like the Johnson’s to supply healthy foods to consumers who want to know not only where their food comes from but what’s in it.  Buying from a local food co-op like CTFC not only gives this assurance to consumers but allows them to make healthy choices that protect their families against potentially harmful additives and minimizes the carbon foot print that large-scale operations require.

Having a single distribution point and paying prices that are slightly higher than you find at supermarkets may seem a disadvantage for many who would like to make this healthy choice but there are advantages that outweigh these considerations.  The time and drive are often not any more than most people incur shopping at Kroger’s, Safeway or Tom Thumb’s.  There’ no fighting crowds are standing in lines shopping in the store because your selections have already been made on-line.  And though organic foods are a bit higher because of the time and effort involved to produce them, the health benefits offset such cost by keeping you out of the doctor’s office and away from pharmaceuticals often needed to correct physical ailments that result from deficient diets.

 

FACTOID: Just how big is each individual’s carbon foot print with the conventional means of supplying food in today’s markets?  In the United States, 400 gallons of oil equivalents are expended annually to feed each American.  SOURCE

 

For further information about the Cross Timbers Food Co-Op and their organic food suppliers, contact Wylie Harris on the CTFC website at crosstimberscoop.org/

Eating healthy foods avoids contracting many of the illnesses society pays for in high medical costs

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10 responses to “Our Past As Present: Reconsidering Food Co-ops

  1. I think food co-ops are finding strength again. Not everyone can grow all their own produce and the co-ops make sense for both our pocketbooks and our health. I have noticed their comeback in our neck of the woods too.

    • We are seeing more and more food co-ops Donna. For every gallon of trucking fuel we prevent from burning, we prevent 10 lbs. of C02 from entering the atmosphere. One way to reduce this is to reduce transporting food stuff that we can grow ourselves. These co-ops serve that purpose.

  2. Food co-ops and farmers markets are big here in my part of so. California. But there’s nothing better than growing your own!

  3. Funny, I asked the produce guy at the supermarket today, where they got their veggies. They are so much better than I had been getting in Iowa. They are not that local unfortunately–he said the stuff comes from AZ, CA, CO, and Mexico, with plenty coming from other points. I have not yet had time to search for a food co-op here. I sure would be interested in looking into it. Next year we will have some raised beds and grow our own tomatoes and peppers at least, and as much else as we can. thanks for such an enlightening article.

    • What kind of soils have you got out there to grow in Sherry? You may want to get a compost pile started right away to help nourish what garden beds you’re going to create.

      After about 3 years of working with these clay soils here in Denton I think I finally got it right. Take a look at my ‘maters on myFB page I recently picked from my garden.

    • I thought the softer colors had more appeal for some readers. We’ll see if I’m wrong. I’m having Jean from Snoring Dog Studios make another personal header for me for this theme so I hope to keep this one a while.

      Got your e-mail about the soils you grow in and it looks like either your tomato seeds may have not been top quality or time is still on your side. Let me know how they develop. As for that other “goddess of all herbs” plant, I wish I could be so lucky to legally grow that.

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