THE TROUBLE WITH FARMERS MARKET CO-OPS
AND HOW THEY MIGHT BE FIXED
The only good opinion is informed opinion.
I have had a strong interest in farmers market co-operatives for at least the last ten years. What I have to say about them is based on fourteen years experience, and observtion, in various kinds of farmers markets across this province, some of them co-operatives.
My focus is exclusively on those farmers markets that are co-operative corporations, since one would expect higher standards of these markets.
My opinions are informed by a strong commitment to co-operative ideals, which I began to acquire as a director on the boards of two markets. I am very familiar with market culture. My book, Farmers Market, is a fictional account of what can happen in a farmers market that has co-operative status without having built a true co-operative. This account is based on the observations of many years. It is not the representation of any particular market but is a spoof representing the ills afflicting many markets, some co-operative corporations, some not.
WHEN CO-OPS ARE NOT CO-OPS
Two farmers markets are registered co-operative corporations. . One would expect them to have the co-op structure and to espouse and practice the values and principles of the international co-operative movement.
They do not. And here's why: A co-op is not created by registering as a co-operative corporation.
Registration merely signals the intent to create a co-operative. What must follow is education and training, beginning with market founders, and passed on to directors, managers, and vendors, in order to create a workable structure that embodies co-operative idealsthe values and principles of the international co-operative movement.
Education is the keystone. Without the keystone the structure is not stable. Without education, the other co-operative principles and values will not be therebecause there is no commitment.
If there is no commitment in a particular market, no one in the market knows what a co-op is supposed to be; they cant know because they have not been informed, they have not been trained, they have not been educated.
Without commitment, there is no continuity. Whatever good might be achieved by any one person, or any one board, is always in danger of being lost, as everything depends on the character and qualities of the founders and directors, both the original ones and all those who come after.
A pretend co-op will have only pretend democracy. In a pretend co-op the membership is impotent. There is no trust. The members want to keep their places in the market. They want to stay in the market. The focus is on making money. The boat must not be rocked.
In a pretend co-op the membership is the power base only on paper. Member rights exist only on paper. Board decisions are made not in accord with law or principle, but on a tribal basis: Who do I have to please now? Whose back do I have to scratch?
Because, ultimately, what transpires will depend on the character (or lack of) of those who happen to be on the Board at any given time. Directors come and go. Opinions change, decisions are forgottenespecially so when records are never reviewed.
There is an untold number of pretend co-ops in Ontario. Heart and soul are missing. They have signed on for some perceived legal advantage. But they have made no attempt to realize co-operative principles and values.
And not to dishonour the co-operative movement, its time that we tallied their number. They should either be true co-ops or surrender their status. The existence of such pretend co-operatives dishonours the international co-operative movement and mocks our democratic traditions.
FARMERS MARKETS THAT ARE NOT TRUE CO-OPS LACK THE SAFEGUARDS
When co-op values and principles are lacking, the market is adrift. Directors find it all too easy to ignore or corrupt their own by-laws, whether intentionally or through ignorance, lassitude, or lack of courage. A clique, with the market founder at its centre, or a large re-seller, may gain control of the market, and so foist on the market objectives that have nothing to do with running a co-op. The by-laws are invoked when the directors find them convenient, and are ignored when they are not convenient.
A CO-OPERATIVE IS NOT JUST ABOUT MAKING MONEY
A co-operative, as it is supposed to be, is a particular kind of business model. Its not just about making money. The co-operative movement began in Britain and France in the 1800s as a reaction to the abuses of industrialism, and is now world-wide. Co-operatives have social goals that may be absent, and usually are, in other business models.
WHAT ARE THE VALUES AND PRINCIPLES OF THE CO-OPERATIVE MOVEMENT?
The co-operative movement is world-wide. All co-operatives are expected, and in law required, to be based on commonly accepted values and principles.
The values are: self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity.
Co-operatives are expected to promote the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others.
There are 7 universal principles: Education, Training and Information; Voluntary and Open Membership; Democratic Member Control; Member Economic Participation; Autonomy and Independence; Co-operation Among Co-operatives; and Concern for Community.
That is what is supposed to be.
BUT THE REALITY CAN BE QUITE DIFFERENT
Here's why. Several people with varying motives come together and decide to start a farmers market in their community. Usually, the founders have some fine ideas about helping their community, preserving farms, or promoting healthy eating, that kind of thing. These people will be the founders and the first directors of the market. Since they have the perception that market directors have less liability in the event of a lawsuit if their market is a registered co-operative corporation, they decide to go that route.
They may have no other reason for making this decision.
Chances are, they have no intention of building a co-operative.
If the founders have no understanding of co-ops, if they take no steps to build a co-op, there will be no co-op.
No one is checking to see whether all those fine values and principles are alive and well in the new farmers market co-op. Maybe the new farmers market co-op is run according to the Act or maybe it isnt. Maybe the by-laws are in good shape and adhered to, or maybe not. Since nobody is checking to see, anything can happen. And anything does happen.
Because whatever shape that new farmers market co-op takes, is entirely dependent on those who are running the market. If they are people of principle, the new co-op will be well run, and will be run in accord with the law and the market's by-laws, at least as long as those people are around. But what happens when they are gone? And if the directors are not people of principle, then abuse of power is a certainty. But I concede that people generally inclined toward principle may do the same thing out of stupidity.
Abuse occurs when there is no commitment to the values and principles of the Co-operative Movement. When that happens, by-laws and elections are prone to become mere window dressing, a veneer of legitimacy, in a market where directors have assumed extralegal powers.
In such markets, directors persuade themselves that the decisions they make, (that may be based on whim, prejudice, or self-interest) trump both the Act (which no director has likely ever taken the trouble to examine) and the By-laws (which are not very well understood). They make decisions under the mantel of director discretion, or the good of the market, or board unanimity, and perhaps are incapable of understanding that they may not rule on anything that has already been decided in advance, once and for all, because it is written into the Act or the markets By-laws.
THE LAW IS EXPENSIVEAND EXCLUSIVE
The Co-operative Corporations Act provides penalties for abuses by the directors. In charge of enforcing co-op law is the Superintendent of FSCO (Financial Services Commission of Ontario). But the penalties, like the rights of members, exist only on paper, because there is no oversight, and there is no effective way to report abuse, just as there is no effective way for members to have their rights recognized.
TRUST, TRUTH AND TRANSPARENCY ARE ABSENT IN A PRETEND CO-OP
The market situation impacts on market visitors, as well as on the vendors. The most critical area for concern, and the one where abuses are most likely to happen, is in food and producefor most people, the major market draw.
How likely is it that a visitor to one of these pretend co-ops will find a commitment to trust, truth, and transparency?
Its not likely. Not in a market that belongs to no umbrella organization, that has no real allegiance to co-operative principles, that has directors who respect neither the law of Ontario nor their own By-laws, and whose observance of democratic forms is limited to what seems to serve them, and who do not care about the rights of comrades, and who are prepared to sacrifice those who do not consent to their petty tyranny?
We need to know how many of these farmers market co-ops across the Province are not real co-operatives. Counting the success of the co-operative movement in this country by adding up the number of corporations registered as co-operatives may not be a good idea. We need to especially look at farmers market co-ops that do not operate under an umbrella organization such as Farmers Markets Ontario, because it is in those markets where the lack of co-op structure and ideals can do the most harmbecause no one is looking.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
Corporations registered as co-operatives are required by law to have a co-operative structure. That includes farmers market co-ops. As is stated on the On Co-op web site: To operate as a co- operative in Ontario, your business must be organized and operated on a co-operative basis. The definition of co-operative basis is based on principles laid out in the Statement of Co- operative Identity adopted by the International Co-operative Alliance in 1995
The government of Ontario needs to follow up on these farmers market registrations, to find out who is operating according to the model and who is not.
Here are some suggestions:
1/ REGISTRATION EFFECTIVE ONLY
The founding directors of new farmers market co-operatives should be required to participate in a course designed to get them started on the co-operative principle of Education, Training, and Informatio, after which they receive accreditation. And all new directors after them should need to do the same.
2/ A PLAN IS REQUIRED
The founding directors, after their training, must present a plan showing how they intend to build co-operative values in their farmers market co-operative.The plan could be part of the course of study for accreditation.
3/ OVERSIGHT AND FEEDBACK
There should be oversight of new co-operatives and feedback to FSCO (or some institution working with FSCO). Instead of being just cut loose, there has to be a link. There must be communication. How is the plan succeeding? Do they need help?
4/ EXAMINE EXISTING FARMERS
The Act already provides for loss of co-op status of any co-operative that is not being run as a co-op. Give them a choice: Conform to the model or surrender your status.
A major purpose here is to deter the uncommitted. We do not need the pretenders. We do need oversight and enforcement.