Why are Vermont co-ops so successful?
When question-asker Kate Phillips moved to Vermont, she was surprised to find three different food co-ops within driving range of her place. She then received a notice from her new electric company – yet another co-op!
So, she started to wonder: What is the history of co-ops in Vermont? Why are they so successful here?
For this episode of Brave Little State, VPR's people-powered journalism show, reporter (and former co-op manager) Howard Weiss-Tisman visits the oldest food co-op in the country and digs into the Vermont Historical Society archives to get to the bottom of Vermont's co-op boom.
Note: Our show is produced for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio if you can! Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers. They may contain errors, so please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print. Some parts have been edited for clarity.
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So many co-ops
Josh Crane: From Vermont Public Radio this is Brave Little State. I’m Josh Crane.
Howard Weiss-Tisman: And I’m Howard Weiss-Tisman.
Josh: So about every month a different VPR reporter gets to work on Brave Little State, and for this episode, Howard, who is usually VPR’s southern Vermont reporter, is taking the wheel.
Howard: Kate Phillips, the question-asker this month is a librarian. Kate works at the Vermont Historical Society in Barre, and so I drove up to talk to her.
Howard: Kate moved up to Vermont with her partner about three years ago. She came from New Haven, Connecticut a few months before COVID-19 hit.
Kate: “We’d come up to Vermont several years in a row on vacation and always just felt really at home. And, we liked the scale of things, needed a big change at the time, and it worked out really well.”
Howard: You know, when you move to a new place, one of the first things you do is check out where you’re gonna buy your groceries? Kate started doing some research. And what she found kinda surprised her.
Kate: “I live in East Montpelier and it would be perfectly reasonable for me to shop at either the Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier, The Adamant Co-op, or the Plainfield Food Co-op. And that’s, you know, three food co-ops within 10–15 minutes from my house.”
Howard: Three food co-ops, within a short drive of her new place. It kind of blew [Kate’s] mind.
Kate: “Just the fact that there are so many kinds right in that area is surprising to me.”
Howard: Kate had never been a member of a food co-op before. She’d heard about them, and shopped at one or two here or there. But she had never lived in a place where it was an option—let alone three options.
Then she got a notice from her new electric company. Remember—she had just moved into her new house in Vermont. And her new electric company was… Washington Electric Co-op. And she was like…another co-op? What gives?
Josh: Welcome to Brave Little State, VPR’s people-powered journalism project. Here on the show you ask the questions — about Vermont, our region and its people — and we find the answers together. Today’s question is from Kate Phillips in East Montpelier:
Kate: “What is the history of co-ops in Vermont, and why are they so successful here?”
Josh: VPR reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman goes back to the early days of the so-called “co-op movement...”
Bob Smith: “Well, it was quite a history of farmers doing for themselves. So it was a self-help program when it originally started.”
Josh: To learn why this model of ownership prospered in Vermont.
Andrea Serota: “When the profit motive is removed from an endeavor it changes everything.”
Josh: And how people these days are forming new co-ops to address issues in their communities.
Jan Kuhn: “In the morning we were celebrating, in the afternoon we were looking down a septic tank hole!”
Josh: We have support from VPR sustaining members. Welcome.
The oldest and second-oldest Vermont food co-ops
Josh: Hey Howard.
Howard: Hey Josh.
Josh: So because of the way this show works, you did not initially know what story you'd be working on because we choose episode topics in public voting rounds. But it turns out that Vermonters definitely voted for the right question for you, specifically.
Howard: That's right.
Josh: Howard, do you have something to disclose?
Howard: So, I am a former co-op manager. I worked at the Putney Food Co-op in the ‘90s for about seven years. I was the general manager there for five years and the produce manager for about two years before that.
Josh: Well, you know, as part of your reporting, you did visit the oldest food co-op in Vermont, which is in Adamant. Did it feel a little like crossing over into, you know, like enemy co-op territory?
Howard: Oh, no–there are no enemies in the co-op world.
Josh: OK. It’s all very cooperative, I suppose.
Howard: And that’s one of the principles we'll get to–co-ops work together all the time. But it was really fun to go up to Adamant because the Putney Food Co-op is the second oldest food co-op in Vermont. The Putney Co-op started in 1941. And so the whole time I worked there, you know, we always said we are the second oldest food co-op in Vermont, and I hadn't been to Adamant. So doing this Brave Little State episode was a great excuse for me to go visit the store up there.
Adamant Co-op is the oldest continuously operating food co-op in the country actually. It was started in 1935. Back then it was a bit of a long haul to go down into Plainfield or Montpelier and so the folks up there pooled their money together and opened up a store front to sell food and hardware.
We're gonna hear that a lot in this episode, about how Vermonters started co-ops to make their lives better, because no one else was gonna do it for them.
Today the Adamant Co-op is an old funky store with all the wood floors and the old coolers.
There was a lot of talk that it might close through the years. If you read histories about it, you'll kind of see there were different times when they were teetering on the edge of insolvency. But they always were able to get some loans or to have a benefactor step up. And they've been able to keep the doors open.
Today the store is barely profitable, according to co-manager Andrea Serota. But that doesn’t mean the co-op’s not successful.
Andrea Serota: “To some extent we—the big ‘we’—here at the co-op, we get to define what success means to us. And when the profit motive is removed from an endeavor it changes everything. It changes how you feel. It changes what your goals are. It changes how you go accomplishing those goals.
Howard: On the day I visited, a local woman (and former Brave Little State question-asker) Eva Gumprecht, came in with a loaf of bread she wanted to give out to the community to remember her brother, who died recently.
Eva: “And I felt like baking for him… so I baked for the store.”
Howard: And also when I was there, a surprise check arrived in the mail from someone who visited in the summer and wanted to support the store.
And Brandon Koger, a regular customer came by and he was happy to find cranberries. He said he couldn’t find anywhere else in Montpelier.
Another guy I ran into was Tristan Von Duntz, who was there with his family. Tristan lives in Marshfield, a few towns over, and he gets down into Montpelier pretty regularly.
He’s got options to shop, but he says he tries to come over to Adamant a few times a week. He sometimes stops in just to say “hi” when he’s got nothing he needs to buy.
Tristan: “Yeah, it’s one of those things that sometimes people don’t notice or appreciate until it’s gone. And so for people to appreciate, and try to save something before it actually disappears— I think is a big theme. You know. So that, you know, 10-20 years from now our daughter will have these places to come back to."
Howard: Tristan’s relationship to his co-op in Adamant is actually fairly typical in Vermont. I heard from people around the state in my reporting who shared similar sentiments.
Josh: And people were also sharing those sentiments online. Someone commented on one of our posts on Reddit who summed it up pretty nicely. They said, “I just want my money to go back into my local community instead of into some rich guy's pockets.”
Howard: You know, there’s a lot of love for co-ops out there. Especially during the pandemic. Vermont co-ops really stepped up during COVID-19, doing sidewalk pickups, and limiting the number of people in the store. A lot of people said that the past couple of years really made them appreciate having a co-op in their community.
Josh: Howard, you also got quite a few personal invitations during your reporting as well, isn’t that right?
Howard: Right. So when we announced the winner of this month's episode, we heard from a lot of food co-ops out there. We have 13 co-op stores here [in Vermont] and Brave Little State got a lot of nice invitations from all across the state. But we couldn't fit them all in.
Co-op for Dummies
Josh: So I do want to ask you more about the history and kind of evolution of co-ops in the state. But first, I need a little bit of basic co-op 101.
Howard: Co-op for Dummies.
Josh: Excuse you. But, yes, also. You know, when most people hear the word co-op—and certainly when I hear the word co-op—they think of a food co-op. But I know that co-ops are more than that now. So for the basics: what makes a co-op a co-op? What is the defining characteristic?
Howard: Yeah I think even our question-asker, Kate, was surprised by how many types of co-ops there are.
Kate: “When I asked the question I didn’t realize how broad that word really is.”
Howard: So a cooperative is really a form of ownership. And it's a way for any business to, you know, describe how it's owned, or set up. And a cooperative is owned by the members. There are dairy co-ops, there are electric co-ops, there are artists co-ops and credit unions are co-ops, credit unions are owned by the members.
Howard: At a non-cooperative store, you're going to spend some money and that money is going to go out to the owners or if it's a national chain, it's going to go out of state. When you spend money in a food co-op that money is gonna stay right there.
Josh: I do associate coops with a certain level of privilege. In my experience, they’ve seemed like pretty White spaces. Did you learn anything about this in your reporting?
Howard: Yeah, this is definitely something food co-ops have acknowledged. There was a study done a couple years ago, and even a few co-ops in Vermont supported the study. And they were looking at that relationship between race and food co-ops. They found that economic disparity, racial segregation, and cultural norms (among other things) have all contributed to co-ops becoming overwhelmingly White spaces— in spite of the fact that the very model of a cooperatively owned business is supposed to be welcoming of everyone. We have a link to the full study in our show notes. And it’s something that co-ops around the country are starting to deal with.
Josh: How long has the idea of a co-op been around?
Howard: Well, informally it's been around a long time. You know any time a few farmers got together to pool their resources, it kind of can be considered a co-op. But in the mid-1800s when the Industrial Revolution was really raging in Europe, there were a lot of people concerned about working conditions. And tradespeople and farmers were kind of getting, you know, left out of all the business. So that's when the co-op movement formalized.
The co-op movement, so to speak, is directly connected to these folks in 1844 in England. They're called the Rochdale pioneers. And they came up with the seven cooperative principles. But they're the ones that you know, wrote down that co-ops are one member, one vote. Co-ops keep all of the profit within the co-op, and they spelled out exactly how co-ops should be set up. And really from there is where the whole idea spread all over the world.
Josh: And so part of Kate’s question was about the history of co-ops in Vermont, specifically. So how far back do we need to go to get to the first co-ops in Vermont?
Howard: So again, you know, informally, it seems like there were co-ops around in the 1800s, mostly among agricultural workers and farmers. There were these groups called protective unions that bought food cooperatively, and they provided insurance and pension plans to their members. The protective union movement ultimately faded away, and after the Rochdale cooperative model made its way to America, agricultural co-ops opened all over the country. And in Vermont, the earliest co-ops were dairy co-ops, because the dairy industry was so big back in the early 1900s.
Roger Allbee: “It was critical for saving the dairy industry in terms of bringing better prices back to farmers.”
Howard: That’s Roger Allbee. He’s a former State Secretary of Agriculture, his family has been dairy farming in Vermont for a long time, and he likes to study the history of dairy here in Vermont.
Roger: “Without co-ops the middle men would have basically controlled so much of the pricing that many of the farmers wouldn’t have been able to survive.”
Howard: The dairy co-ops formed so farmers could invest together in equipment and transportation, and it also gave them more bargaining power to negotiate prices with the big food companies that were buying the milk and butter.
This is an old interview with Bob Davis from the Vermont Historical Society. Bob used to work at the Cabot Farmers Co-op.
Bob: “Each farmer had to cut so much cord wood to fire the furnace at the co-op. They had a water committee, which meant a group of farmers had to go up and clean out the springs. And they needed re-boxing, to re-box the springs. So it was a self-help program when it originally started.”
Howard: So, co-ops are still an important part of Vermont’s dairy industry. Cabot Cheese is made with co-op milk, and most of the state’s organic dairy farmers are part of Organic Valley, which is a national cooperative.
Roger Albee says whatever the industry looks like in ten or even fifty years, co-ops will still be a part of it.
Roger: “Co-ops are a central part, I believe, of the landscape. And I think they can be a continuous central part of the landscape, but there needs to be some refocusing on the kind of products they develop. So there isn’t any one model, but co-ops definitely are a key part of the ingredient.”
Other types of co-ops
Josh: So let’s switch gears and talk about other types of co-ops in Vermont. So when and why did electric co-ops take hold?
Howard: So electric co-ops were starting really all over the country in the ‘30s. And it was a way to bring electricity into rural communities. The electric companies, were real busy bringing electricity to cities, and Vermonters kind of had to do it on their own. And that co-op structure is a really good way to do that. So Vermonters started electric co-ops, to help bring this technology.
Winston Churchill: “January 6th, 1946. Turned the juice on, for the first time here.”
Howard: This is Winston Churchill, (that’s really his name we checked it out), and he lived in Berlin. And when the electric companies weren’t there to build out the power grid, Vermonters went door to door, to sign people up for the new co-ops.
Winston: “That summer, I was out in the old barn running the mowing machine and then someone stopped out in the road. I said, ‘Something I can do for you?’ He said, ‘We’ve got electricity over as far as Francis Poor, and we’re thinking of coming right straight through.’ And said, ‘You want electricity?’ I said, ‘You got something you want me to sign?’ He said, ‘Don’t you want to know about it?’ I said, ‘No, all I want is electricity.’”
When I visited our question-asker, Kate, in the Vermont Historical Society library in Barre, she had pulled out all sorts of stuff from the historical society’s collection.
Kate: “Well this is Governor Aiken setting the first electric pole for Washington Electric in East Montpelier, which is where I live.
Howard: And Kate found a long history of co-ops, some of which succeeded, and many that have faded over time.
Kate: “There was the Cooperative Health Information Center of Vermont, the Union Cooperative Store at the Socialist Labor Party building here in Barre, The Mad River Glen Cooperative Ski Area. There was a Vermont Maple Co-op mentioned, the Montpelier Co-op Freeze Locker, which I don’t know what that means.”
Josh: And so what changed or what happened in the ‘60s and ‘70s?
Howard: So the 60’s and 70’s, it's what they call the second wave of co-ops. When the back-to-the-landers moved to Vermont, there was literally no way to get natural food. I mean, you kind of take it for granted today that you can go into any supermarket and get three kinds of oat milk out of the dairy cooler. But back in the day, it really was not available. You couldn't find brown rice, you couldn't find whole-wheat flour. And so what a lot of these folks who were new to Vermont did, is that they bought stuff in bulk. A truck dropped it off, sometimes in the back of a church or a school or community center. And the folks just divided the stuff up and sold it. A lot of our co-ops started just like that.
Michael Wells: “We got together and we went out and bought fifty-pound bags of grains and flour and things. It was wonderful to buy food with your neighbors.”
Howard: This is Michael Wells, and he’s been involved with food co-ops for a long time.
Michael: “I’ve been on the Putney Food Co-op board since 1991, I believe it was, and so that’s thirty years.”
Howard: So back in the day when these folks started these buying clubs, the members were expected to pitch in anywhere that was needed. And even when the buying clubs became co-ops, the board members would sometimes have to unload trucks or mop up a floor if a freezer broke.
Michael says co-op boards have come a long way in the past 30-years. He says the boards have really become professional, and these co-ops are big business. They do millions of dollars a year and the larger ones have 100 employees or more.
Michael: “Co-ops are in the DNA of the state of Vermont. You get together with your neighbors and you do what needs to be done. It just fits the milieu and the personality, if you will, of the state of Vermont.”
Noemi Giszpenc: “It’s one of these positive feedback loops, where somebody who has experience with co-ops is more likely to want to start a co-op or join a co-op."
Howard: That’s Noemi Giszpenc. She’s director of the Cooperative Development Institute. That’s a nonprofit group that works with existing co-ops, and helps new co-ops get development money.
She says there’s a thread that runs through states like Vermont where there’s a history, and it makes it easier to establish new co-ops.
Naomi: “So they do tend to cluster. It’s people saying, ‘Oh, yeah, my grandfather was part of a co-op.’ It’s not that weird or new or different.”
Howard: Noemi’s right. Vermont frequently places in the top handful of states that have opened up new co-ops over the past 10 years, as well as the handful of states that support co-ops via legislation.
And that history, and support system, are still inspiring people in this state to take on projects to better their immediate communities.
Josh: When we come back, we take a closer look at one of those projects.
Jan Kuhn: “No one’s out looking for a profit when we pay our rents. All our money goes right back into the park.”
Josh: This is Brave Little State. We’ll be right back.
"You help each other out"
Josh: Welcome back to Brave Little State, I’m Josh Crane. Today, we’re answering this question from Kate Phillips of East Montpelier:
Kate: “What is the history of co-ops in Vermont, and why have they been so successful here?”
Josh: VPR reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman is on the case, and now takes us to a mobile home park that has adopted the co-op model of ownership to make sure people can remain in their homes.
Paul Nesky: “My name is Paul Nesky.”
Howard: Paul has spent most of his life in Lamoille County.
Paul: “Went to school in Hyde Park. College in Johnson— I must say—and Lyndon. I ended up in the insurance trade as a general insurance broker. And my office was in the neighboring community of Morrisville. I was there for 42 years, and retired nine years ago."
Howard: And when Paul retired he and his wife found themselves a nice place to live in Hyde Park, in the Sterling View Mobile Home Park.
Paul: “This was not just a place to have a smaller home or an easier to take care of home. This was a community itself that had been thriving quite nicely on its own merits.”
Howard: Paul told me that he formed a small group of residents soon after he moved in to start thinking about buying the park. They didn’t want a developer coming in and jacking up the rents or kicking the people off to build more costly housing.
He didn’t know too much about co-ops when he started, but when they got closer to financing the deal, local and regional housing groups suggested the co-op route.
And then In 2021, after some Covid-related delays, the 200 (or so) residents of Sterling View became the owners of the park. And it’s one of 14 housing cooperatives in Vermont. Nesky says they learned pretty quickly what it really means to own a property cooperatively.
Paul: “When there’s a problem, like the very first day we owned it; first day of ownership, one of the septic systems, there’s seventeen of them in the park, one of them failed. And it took care of sixteen or seventeen homes. So, people were without a system that was operating. And we had to take care of it.”
Jan Kuhn: “Yeah. In the morning we were celebrating and in the afternoon we were looking down a septic tank hole. I know more about septic tanks than I ever thought I needed to know.”
Howard: That’s Jan Kuhn. She’s another one of the new co-op owners. And she says there’s a real difference now living closely with neighbors and owning the place together.
Jan: “We’re supposedly a moderate income park. So that’s why we need to keep the rents down. That’s one reason we wanted to become a co-op. You know, no one’s out looking for a profit when we pay our rents. All our money goes right back into the park. And so when we had to vote on our rent going up when we bought, it had to go up 48 dollars a month, which for some people here in the park is a huge amount of money. And still we only had three, maybe four, ‘no’ votes. And everybody else that was allowed to vote, voted ‘yes.’ They were willing to spend that extra money knowing that we were going to take care of each other, and that we were going to become a cooperative. And we didn’t have to worry about an outsider coming in and buying the park and then not taking care of it. So that meant a lot to us that we had so many people vote to increase their own rent.”
Howard: To summarize what Jan said there, the folks at Sterling View were willing to pay a little more because they understood they would be taking care of each other. Just like those dairy farmers in the early 1900’s, the families who invested in the electric cooperatives, and every food co-op member who bags up chocolate raisins or just supports their neighborhood co-op by shopping there.
Michael Wells: “Vermont, you know, has this zeitgeist of— we do better when all of us do better.”
Howard: I’ll give the last word to Michael Wells, from the Putney Food Co-op:
Michael: We help ourselves. There's small communities in Vermont. Get together and it doesn't matter what your what your views are, what your background is, you help each other out. And this is the culture of the co-op world.
Thanks to Kate Phillips for the great question, and for all the help tracking down documents and photos about co-op history in the Vermont Historical Society archives. Thanks also to the Vermont Historical Society for the great archival audio and photos.
If you have a question about Vermont, ask it at bravelittlestate.org. While you’re there you can sign up for the BLS newsletter, check out our archive and vote on the question you want us to tackle next.
This episode was reported by Howard Weiss-Tisman and produced by Josh Crane. Mix and sound design by Josh Crane. Editing and digital production by Angela Evancie and Myra Flynn. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.
Special thanks to Alex Burns, Phil Bannister, Matthew Cropp, Regina Thompson and Elise Graeves.
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