The Rapidian

West Michigan Cooperative expands offerings to members

The West Michigan Cooperative is expanding its offerings to classes and events as well as fresh produce, meats and handmade goods.
West Michigan Co-op picnic

West Michigan Co-op picnic /Rachel Potter

The Kent County String Band

The Kent County String Band /Rachel Potter


Picnic! /Rachel Potter

On Wednesday night, September 24, the West Michigan Cooperative held a fall harvest picnic for its members as part of its expansion of services and community building.  

Caryn Rasch, one of the co-op’s board members, was on site to help with the picnic, the first the co-op has hosted for its members. Dinner was cooked on site outdoors from produce and meats donated by the coop’s producers, and members were entertained by the Kent County String Band as they ate their picnic meal and picked up their orders. Rasch says this was one of the ways the Cooperative planned to expand its offerings. Its previous location on Godfrey did not allow for gatherings, classes or other added value events the cooperative’s leadership had wanted to host. Cooperative classes began this summer, and on the schedule for fall are classes in a food preserving series, which will highlight the processes of fermenting, canning, and dehydrating.

The West Michigan Cooperative is now located at 1475 Michigan Street behind the New Beginnings restaurant. It operates as an online farmers market. Members are invited to place orders from Cooperative vendors during an open shopping cycle early in the month. These vendors then deliver the orders on a Wednesday night later in the month.

The number of farmers markets in Michigan has more than doubled in the last decade, but while traditional farmers markets offer fresh and nutritious produce direct from the farmer, Michigan has a relatively short growing season, which limits the utility of this business model. It’s wonderful to be able to go and browse for fresh cut flowers, handmade soaps, potted herb plants, and bushels of onions or tomatoes in summer, but it can be a hard habit to break come late fall. Farmers are busiest in summer and often find it difficult to take a break from planting or harvest to come and market their produce all day. If the weather is inclement or something else is going on, traffic can be light - making their efforts a financial waste of time. The online farmers market solves both of these problems.

Cooperative members have access to whatever is available from farmers year round and can easily select it at their leisure then pick it up on a set date. Farmers can know ahead of time what has been sold and need only transport that quantity to market. It takes less of their time as well, and they are able to interact directly with their customers who can offer input or make requests.

Ultimately, an online co-op is about reestablishing a relationship between farmers and urban customers. Most contemporary agriculture is run on an economy of scale, and price is the most important part of the equation. In order to be competitive under this model, farmers must grow very large quantities of crops selected primarily for aesthetics and travel hardiness, rather than taste or nutritiousness. Farmers markets bypass this by allowing for direct contact between producer and consumer which creates a relationship that fosters both accountability to and responsibility for each other. Under this model, customers and farmers again are people with real needs and the real ability to mutually satisfy them.

There is a growing demand, as well, for a farm model that is sustainable and not dependent on short-term farming methods involving over reliance on chemical fertilizers, hormones or antibiotics - a farm model that respects the needs farm animals have for space, fresh air and natural food. Without access to customers who will pay more for better food and more sustainable farming, farmers cannot make this model pay, however, in the general marketplace.

Fortunately, now there is both the willingness and the engineered technology to bring like-minded producers and consumers together for mutual benefit. In Grand Rapids and the surrounding area, this can be found at the West Michigan Cooperative, which is growing and changing itself according to what people are asking for - and receiving.

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