Keep food market's mission in mind

The vision was for a consumer-owned co-op; that goal shouldn't get lost in quest for funding

A year ago the effort to open a food co-op in Medford appeared doomed. But backers kept it alive and then found new momentum for it. They established a new board of directors, pledged better communication and began floating more ideas around the community.

It's all good, as they say. All, that is, except the most recent idea to come out of the group: that it organize not as a consumer-owned co-op but as a producer-owned co-op.

Why? Such a group, owned by producers such as farmers rather than by consumers, would qualify for a Small Business Administration loan, and securing an SBA loan would remove the effort's biggest hurdle, financing. Because it's an idea that might make a co-op reality, it's worth discussion.

But it's not necessarily the right direction for the market, and we hope the co-op organizers don't lose sight of supporters' vision for the market in the process of discussing it.

The co-op idea gained momentum originally and attracted more than 1,000 community members who paid $100 each to get it going because they wanted Medford to have its own member-owned store rather than sending co-op shoppers to Ashland.

Producer-owned co-ops often bring together farmers, which could provide a benefit for shoppers seeking fresh, local produce. But if farmers and other product makers owned the store, they would inevitably run it to make the money they feel they need. That is a basic and deep difference between the approach consumers would take if they owned it.

A producer-owned store would have some of the feel of a farmers' market. Farmers' markets are great, but the Rogue Valley already has successful farmers' markets for shoppers in several towns. A producer-owned co-op would bring local farmers new overhead in the form of building rent and new employee expense because it presumably would be open more often than farmers' markets are now.

Depending on how it was organized, it very likely would have a narrower selection than what could be available through a customer-owned store.

A lot of this discussion should be about control and who has it when decision-making time comes. If the market were producer-owned, board president John Statler said recently, consumer ownership would have to remain under 20 percent.

"It's possible in five years for the consumers to buy out the producers," Statler said in a recent Mail Tribune story. "It could be part of the agreement."

It's more good outside-the-box thinking, but we also wonder how much consumer support the effort would have after five years in operation.

The 1,000-plus people who bought into the proposed store have a vision, now. They obviously didn't provide all the money the group needs to open and run a store, but their support is the reason the effort has come as far as it has.

Turning the effort on its head and opening a producer-owned store might be the way this deal has to go, but we suspect more outside-the-box thinking is in order instead.

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