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Littleton Co Op celebrates nine years as part of the community



CO_OP_ANNIVERSARY
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The Littleton Food Co Op celebrated its ninth anniversary last Saturday, affording an opportunity to reflect on the origins, development, and prospects for the institution, which overlooks Littleton from its commanding heights on the Union Street hill. (Photo by Justin Roshak) (click for larger version)
May 16, 2018
LITTLETON—The Food Co Op celebrated its ninth anniversary last Saturday, affording an opportunity to reflect on the origins, development, and prospects for the institution, which overlooks Littleton from its commanding heights on the Union Street hill.

The Co-Op's leadership has been unusually consistent; many key leaders have been with the organization since the beginning.

Rodney Mitton, started as the Co-Op's first produce manager, and helped organize annual vendors' meetings. According to Mitton, the Co-Op buys from some 300 separate vendors in New Hampshire and Vermont—the first year, growers came to them, allowing them to sell, for example, local spinach in March. The Co-Op buys about $2 million in local products every year.

Mitton attributed the Co-Op's rapid growth to a strong leadership team with "the right people," especially those with savvy financial skills.

The Co-Op employs 90 people, and sells about $11 million every year. Employees start at $10.50 per hour, well above state minimum wage, which may explain why people stick with the organization, and why it has managed to grow so quickly. It would seem that well-paid workers are loyal, hard workers.

The annual winter-time vendor coordination sessions have grown and become key to the Co-Op's supply chain. The produce manager and vendors hash out who will grow what, and how much—on the whole, it works out fairly well, says Brian Labonte, current produce manager, who started out nine years ago as a dairy clerk. He pointed out that, although they are competitors, all the vendors share an interest in the success of the Co-Op, which keeps everyone on fairly civil behavior. He also draws a line against aggressive under-cutting.

"My goal is for no one to low-ball anyone else," he explained.

He said he was surprised by how well the hundreds of independent-minded Yankee farmers got along.

Growers and vendors have grown alongside the Co-Op, adding employees to accommodate growing demand and reliable purchases. Many suppliers have become certified organic, which typically means higher prices, although the Co-Op maintains itself as a "hybrid," and sells both organic and conventional products. That allows them to market to the whole community, Mitton said; many all-organic co-ops are transitioning to a hybrid model, which is both more profitable and egalitarian.

In the beginning, Littleon Co-Op leadership worked closely with the Hanover Co Op to learn from its experiences. The Co-Op has also benefited from a strong leadership team which represents many different, though often deeply local, perspectives.

Jessy Smith grew up in Littleton, studied graphic design in New York City, and returned home to work in marketing.

He joined the Co-Op in the last year, and said, "I've never worked anywhere where the people care as much as they do here."

Financially, the Co-Op supercharged its growth with several hundred thousand dollars in member loans when it was first built, with some individual members lending as much as $30,000. They have since been paid back with interest. Further member investment has spurred further expansion, and helped to secure millions in federal grants; community development authorities are very keen on project with clearly-demonstrated local buy-in.

At present, the Co-Op is adjusting to its recent two-fold expansion, but it is reported that conversations are ongoing about a potential second site. Those familiar with the discussions say such an ancillary location would be located well beyond the Littleton site's coverage area, so Bethlehem, Lisbon, and Franconia are unlikely to be chosen.

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