Random Harvest... a cooperative adventure

Random Harvest when we purchased it in 2015

September 28th, 2016

I begin my writing on a grey September day in Hillsdale NY when the first autumn wind is blowing needles off the Tamarac tree. There is a growing excitement for myself, the rest of the Random Harvest team, and our community about this moment that we’re in. We are a collective of four women who are re-opening the local Random Harvest farm store as a cooperatively owned market and community space. Random Harvest has existed as a market, post office, soda fountain, gas station, and general store at different times for well over a hundred years. The most recent owners ran it as a farm store for over thirty years, selling produce that they grew on their organic farm in the back. Our team has been working on the project steadily for over a year now and are aiming to open in the spring as a market offering local produce, basic provisions, and delicious, nourishing food to the community. We have been under construction for several months, renovating the late 1800’s building along with it’s 5 additions, giving it the upgrades it needs to be a 21st century market while preserving the history and beauty of the space. Recently our efforts have been ramping up across the board, as we started construction again, our business plan and cooperative by-laws are nearly complete, and we just added a new member to our team. 

My team mate Robin Mullaney standing in front of McCuskers Market in Shelburne Falls, MA

I also just began my final semester of school at Goddard college in VT, where I’m focusing on the business as my senior project. Goddard is a low-residency college where students are only on-campus for one weeklong residency per semester. My residency began two weeks ago and my teammates Robin and Claire drove up to Vermont with me so that we could visit other cooperative markets along the way. We first met with Suzette Snow-Cobb from the Franklin Community Coop in Greenfield, MA, to talk with her about their Shelburne Falls location, which is similar in size to our building and has a homey, nostalgic feel to it that we appreciate.  

Suzette shared some great resources with us, including the Neighboring Food Coop Association which is a network of over 35 food co-ops and start-up initiatives across New England working together to help create a just and sustainable food system. We are looking forward to reaching out to some of the businesses in that network, particularly ones which are structured as worker-owned cooperatives, which is what we will be. 

We also learned about the ways that the Greenfield Market is working to make food more affordable to a wide range of people, including giving a ten percent discount to customers using SNAP or WIC benefits and those who are on SSI. They also have a collaboration with Just Roots farm who offers CSA (community supported agriculture) pickups at the market which are discounted for SNAP members. We are looking to institute similar programs at our market and it’s inspiring to see what is out there that’s already working. 

Our teammate Claire Wolf LOVES her carrots! We had a delicious picnic lunch next to the creek by the Plainfield Coop. 

After that we drove up to Plainfield, VT, where Goddard college is located, along with the tiny Plainfield Coop which has been in operation for over 40 years. We met with one of the managers Karen Starr, who answered our questions about staffing structure and Point of Sale Systems. She warned us about becoming “hipster,” a term used colloquially to describe the trendy “foodie" movement which can be seen as elitist and can alienate folks from different backgrounds. This speaks to one of the key issues we’re concerned with, which is how to create an inclusive, affordable market that is welcoming to everybody while also providing sustainably sourced food that is healthy for the environment and our bodies. Who has the ability to eat healthy in our country and who doesn’t is one of the key social issues of our time, and has a lot to do with income inequality and structural racism in our food system. The organic and cooperative food movements have mainly been associated with and accessible to privileged white folks and addressing how to help create a more equitable and inclusive food system is one of our main concerns.

We ended our little road trip at the Buffalo Mountain Coop in Hardwick, VT where we talked with Kate Arnold and Barry Baldwin about their volunteer program, their management structure, the history of the coop, and their motto- “Food For People, Not For Profit” (amen to that!). We were impressed with the thriving feeling of the space and the generosity with which people were willing to share their time and resources with us.

Back at home this week our team met with Sophie Wedd, a graphic artist here in the Hudson Valley who is helping us with our logo design. It was really fun seeing what she’d come up with so far after our initial meeting over a month ago. We talked about how to preserve the original feel of the logo while giving it a fresh look and how to weave architectural elements of the building into our graphic design. 

Barry Baldwin, Hardwick NY

We also went over to the land behind the market with our friend Emerson Martin, a perennial farmer, to discuss readying some beds this fall to put in a community garden next spring. While we were scoping out the garden plot, our next door neighbors were scoping us out from behind the clothes line so we went over and said hi. They have lived in the area for a long time and told us some bits of history that we didn’t know. We found out that there had been an inn next door which burned to the ground in the early 1900’s. He gave us a photo of the rubble with the side of our building behind it. We plan to go visit more of the neighbors soon, introducing ourselves and giving them a chance to tell us what they’d like to see at the market. I’m looking forward to making more friends and making Random Harvest a place for the whole community. 

We will be rotating different members of the team writing this blog every week so stay tuned to hear from a new team member next week. 

Until next time!
Hillary