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BerkShares Business of the Month: Berkshire Co-op Market

Owned and governed by the people who shop there, the Co-op can adapt to community needs.

Great Barrington — “The idea that a group of people can control a business by exercising the democratic process is a very powerful one,” says Daniel Esko, general manager at Berkshire Co-op Market. And in Great Barrington, that power, aligned with a common demand for high-quality food, has led the Co-op to evolve significantly from its “humble roots on Rosseter Street” where it was incorporated by 160 families in 1981.

Owned and governed by the people who shop there, the Co-op can adapt to community needs. It was originally founded to provide pantry essentials at affordable prices but it quickly started to do more. In the mid-1980s, the Co-op even served as a pick-up point for vegetable shares from Indian Line Farm’s pioneering community-supported agriculture operation. At its current location at 42 Bridge St., the Co-op is a full-service marketplace with produce, meat, fish, cheese, grocery, wellness products, and more. There are now over 3,000 member-owners and the business does $8 million in annual sales.

Despite expansion, Berkshire Co-op Market’s purpose has remained clear. “A commitment to high-quality, organic, and natural food has always been there, from inception to today,” says Esko, who took the helm of the Co-op in February of this year. He notes also that the cooperative legal structure enhances the Co-op’s ability to stay true to itself and fulfill its mission.

Seven principles guide all cooperatives worldwide, regardless of whether they are consumer-owned (like the Berkshire Co-op Market), worker-owned (like Equal Exchange), or producer-owned (like Organic Valley). The theme that runs through all the principles, Esko noted, is one of “democratic economy:” Each member-owner owns an equal part of the business and has an equal vote, so equality and solidarity are inherent in the structure of the business.

This kind of community ownership, Esko said, allows people to “maintain control over shared resources” in the face of “conglomerate corporations that are growing their control over the supply chain.” The Co-op, in other words, gives everyday people a certain amount of equity in the food system.

And though there is equity to be had (membership costs $150 or BerkShares and is open to all), the Co-op is also serious about building community wealth. To that end, the Co-op recently decided to accept BerkShares for 100 percent of any purchase instead of only 50 percent. “It was a values decision,” said Esko. The Co-op’s commitment to community has already been apparent in its educational programs and 1 percent Wednesdays, when the Co-op donates 1 percent of sales to a local nonprofit. Its new BerkShares policy pushes it a step further.

Esko imagines a “BerkShares feedback loop” where money can remain exclusively in local hands. Already the produce department stocks up to 90 percent local produce in the summer. Now the Co-op will be working with its vendors to spend BerkShares back through the local economy. “We want to build on this sense of a sustainable community that keeps wealth flowing freely between local businesses. Berkshire Co-op Market offers a huge opportunity to connect and make an impact.”

The seven cooperative principles: (1) voluntary, open membership, (2) democratic member control, (3) member economic participation, (4) autonomy and independence, (5) education, training and information for members and community, (6) cooperation amongst cooperatives, and (7) concern for community.

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