Sponsored by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the Common Ground Fair is a rite of autumn for many Mainers and for thousands from every corner of New England. Held September 22nd–24th in Unity, Maine, this year marked the 41st anniversary of the fair and its celebration of rural living and agricultural traditions. This year, co-ops were everywhere!
There were five presentations by cooperative developers throughout the weekend, and a Sunday keynote address by Jonathan Rosenthal from the New Economy Coalition. Larry Dansinger, of Cooperative Maine, lead off on Friday with a presentation on socially responsible investing in local communities, and was followed the Cooperative Development Institute’s, Rob Brown, who led an engaging presentation on converting Maine businesses to worker ownership.
On Saturday, Zafra Whitcomb from the Belfast Co-op gave a dynamic presentation on the status of consumer-owned food co-ops and how they have grown substantially in Maine. There are over 15,000 Mainers who are members of nine different co-ops with annual sales of over twenty-five million dollars. Mohamed Dekow, Omar Hassan, and Jonah Fertig, representing Cooperative Maine, New Roots Cooperative Farm, and the Cooperative Development Institute presented on the success of establishing New American farm cooperatives, and highlighted the efforts of New Americans in Lewiston, Maine. Soon these farmers hope to see a cooperative retail space and restaurant developed in Lewiston where their locally grown produce can be shared with even more members of the community.
Jonathan Rosenthal, Executive Director of the New Economy Coalition, gave an inspirational keynote address on Sunday. As a founding member of Equal Exchange, Jonathan shared his experiences, challenges, and remarkable success in helping to promote the developing trade justice movement. The movement is predicated on using new business practices with a vision to create a new economy, rooted in environmental sustainability, that works for everyone, especially those marginalized by all forms of oppression. The New Economy Coalition (NEC) is a network of over 200 organizations imagining and building a future where people, communities, and ecosystems thrive. Together, they are creating deep change in our economy and politics—placing power in the hands of people and uprooting legacies of harm—so that a fundamentally new system can take root.
Deborah Hawkins from the Cooperative Fund of New England closed out the cooperative program by giving a presentation on the ins and outs of financing for cooperatives. CFNE has had a major impact assisting cooperative development in Maine and New England. Now in its fifth decade, CFNE has raised almost $50 million from social investors to make 889 loans to new or expanding co-ops and community organizations. Borrowers have used these loans to create or retain over 11,000 jobs, 5,600 affordable housing units, and thousands of membership and business ownership opportunities. In addition, the businesses financed by CFNE have brought necessities like food, education, childcare, and healthcare into underserved rural and urban communities throughout New England. Throughout its history, no investor in CFNE has lost any investment funds, and CFNE’s borrowers have repaid over 99% of its loan funds. Food cooperatives Rising Tide (Damariscotta, Maine) and Brattleboro Co-op (Vermont) are also among the first recipients of an investment from CFNE’s Cooperative Capital Fund, which was launched in 2009 to provide additional equity and “patient capital” for co-op expansions. CFNE was also integral in providing financing for the Island Employee Cooperative in Stonington, Maine for their conversion to worker ownership.