Valley Bounty: Empowering our local food system: River Valley Co-op invests in regional farms and the interests of community

Shopers at River Valley Co-op reach for vegetables grown at Winter Moon Roots in Hadley.

Shopers at River Valley Co-op reach for vegetables grown at Winter Moon Roots in Hadley. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Corn tortillas made by Mi Tierra, a local business, sold at River Valley Co-op.

Corn tortillas made by Mi Tierra, a local business, sold at River Valley Co-op. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

The first River Valley Co-op opened in Northampton in 2008, followed by a second location in Easthampton in 2021. Total sales continue to grow, fast approaching $50 million annually.

The first River Valley Co-op opened in Northampton in 2008, followed by a second location in Easthampton in 2021. Total sales continue to grow, fast approaching $50 million annually. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Basil Celestin, an employee at River Valley Co-op, stocks vegetables from Winter Moon Roots in Hadley.

Basil Celestin, an employee at River Valley Co-op, stocks vegetables from Winter Moon Roots in Hadley. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Shoppers at River Valley Co-op in Northampton. Between the two locations, co-op ownership nears 16,000 community members.

Shoppers at River Valley Co-op in Northampton. Between the two locations, co-op ownership nears 16,000 community members. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Shoppers at River Valley Co-op in Northampton. The first River Valley Co-op opened in Northampton in 2008, followed by a second location in Easthampton in 2021. Total sales continue to grow, fast approaching $50 million annually.

Shoppers at River Valley Co-op in Northampton. The first River Valley Co-op opened in Northampton in 2008, followed by a second location in Easthampton in 2021. Total sales continue to grow, fast approaching $50 million annually. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

River Valley Co-op’s store and parking lot in Easthampton are covered in solar panels.

River Valley Co-op’s store and parking lot in Easthampton are covered in solar panels. CONTRIBUTED

The interior of the Easthampton River Valley Co-op location, which opened in 2021.

The interior of the Easthampton River Valley Co-op location, which opened in 2021. CONTRIBUTED

By JACOB NELSON

For the Gazette

Published: 02-23-2024 2:22 PM

In just 15 years, River Valley Co-op has grown into an indispensable part of the local food economy. For local farms, food businesses and community members who want easy access to local food, their continued growth is something to celebrate.

“River Valley Co-op is a community-owned grocery store that was formed specifically to strengthen the local food system in our region,” explains General Manager Rochelle Prunty.

In many ways, food co-ops are like any grocery store. Anyone and everyone can come buy groceries, prepared meals, beer and wine, health and wellness products, and more. However, community owned food co-ops differ from corporate grocery store chains in their fundamental business purpose.

Financial sustainability is important, but rather than just following stockholders’ desire for profit, food co-ops align their decision-making with the values of the people who decide to become co-op owners. Each co-op owner invests in a single low-priced share, making all co-op owners equal. With this community ownership model, the question is not ‘how can we make the most money?’ but rather ‘how can we meet our customer needs and have a positive impact on the wellbeing of our community?’

Prunty is approaching four decades of working with food co-ops, starting behind the cash register. Her tenure with River Valley Co-op stretches back to 2001 when she came on board to organize the push to fundraise for, locate, and build their first store.

“A lot of our early supporters were also supporters of CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture),” Prunty says. “Building on the success of CISA’s Local Hero marketing program, people were inspired to create a community-owned grocery store whose mission was supporting local farms and food producers.”

That first store opened in Northampton in 2008, followed by a second location in Easthampton in 2021. Total sales continue to grow, fast approaching $50 million annually. Traffic in the Easthampton store is catching up with Northampton, while co-op ownership nears 16,000 community members.

The amount of food River Valley Co-op buys and sells gives them a lot of purchasing power. By wielding it intentionally, they open doors for the farms and businesses they buy from, particularly local businesses and other co-ops.

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As a dairy cooperative based in Leyden, Our Family Farms checks both boxes. Angie Facey is a driving force behind Our Family Farms and an owner of one of its member dairy farms, Bree-Z-Knoll Farms. “We started working with River Valley Co-op the day they opened in 2008,” she says. “When we added our new creamery in April 2023 and expanded our product line, they took every single new item. The chain stores still haven’t gotten back to me. River Valley has great people working for them, they’re very responsive, and their systems are easy for farms like us to work with. We couldn’t ask for much more from a retailer.”

Buying local produce requires careful coordination across the seasons. “Often we work with our farmers on the next season’s crop planning, or bring in new farmers growing different things our customers want,” says Senior Produce Manager Henry Kryeski. “We’re fortunate to work with so many farmers, some for over 15 years, and our customers have come to look for their products in particular.”

One of those farms is Next Barn Over in Hadley. They got their start offering CSA farm shares, yet soon grew enough food to need other places to sell it.

Farmer Ray Young says, “I reached out to the original River Valley Co-op in Northampton and Henry said, ‘sure send us some of this and some of that some of that…’ Next thing you knew we were delivering twice a week. It’s these supportive partnerships that allow us to keep farming, taking care of our land, and offering good jobs to our staff.”

What does this amount to in dollars and cents? Last year alone, River Valley Co-op bought $12.7 million dollars of products from 133 area farmers and 219 other local businesses. That’s a significant investment, all kept circulating in the local economy. Counting the 240+ jobs they provide and other multipliers, the co-op’s full economic impact is undoubtedly much bigger.

Their investment in the local community also goes beyond their purchasing power. Being community-driven, they have a mandate to invest in other things co-op owners care about. These decisions are fueled by co-op owners’ ideas, energy and enthusiasm, and guided by a board of directors they democratically elect.

In recent years, River Valley Co-op has invested in renewable energy, including massive arrays of solar panels on the Easthampton store’s roof and parking lot. These will power the store and offer discounted electricity to another 60 families with low incomes in the area. Meanwhile, their Food for All program, which offers lower-income shoppers a 10% discount, grew to serve over 2,200 people last year, saving them a collective $310,000.

They’ve also spoken up in support of political measures, including the 2022 ballot question that ensured all qualified Massachusetts residents could get a driver’s license, regardless of their documentation. Nationally, an estimated 40% percent of all farmwork positions in the U.S. fall to undocumented people, making this an important change for the safety and well-being of many people who grow our food.

“Food co-ops are about a different way of doing business,” says Prunty, who is well-versed in the history of the food co-op movement. “This business structure started when people were displaced from the British countryside during the industrial revolution, moving to work low wage factory jobs where they were unable to grow their own food. They envisioned a new model of a grocery store that wasn’t extractive, but instead built on mutual support for social and economic justice.”

“That is our legacy,” she continues. “We’re a long way from realizing that vision, but every time you shop at a food co-op instead of a corporate grocery store, that’s what you’re investing in. As independent food co-ops work together, we can make a difference, building strong local food systems that serve our communities.”

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA.