North East Organic Growers is a workers’ co-operative based at Earth Balance, Bomarsund – twelve miles North of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
Existing since 1995, we grow organic vegetables on our twelve acre site, and run a “box scheme”, which is a cost-effective way of buying certified organic seasonal vegetables and fruit on a regular basis. All produce is certified organic and guaranteed to be free of added pesticides, herbicides and GMOs, grown using ecologically sound and sustainable methods so members will be supporting a healthier environment as well as their own health.
We have been very fortunate in that two members of this coop have sent their responses and we can have a better picture of how the coop operates. It is also special in that the original founders had left and the coop continues to thrive!
Enter Phil Tyler and Ian Dodds:
What were your biggest challenges on day one?
P: I wasn’t there from the start.
I: I am not one of the founder members – in fact all the founding members have left to do other things. The biggest challenge I believe at the beginning was getting the money to set up the company. I think they managed it by grants and loan stock but I am not sure.
What or who was the biggest help?
P: I believe a loan-stock fund-raising activity from supporters.
I: Having customers willing to buy loan stock and buy our produce and having people willing to work hard for very little financial reward
What problem is your business solving?
We like to think that we are providing a local, ethical source of organic fruit and veg.
How did you find out that this problem exists?
It’s more that we wanted to provide it rather than saw a ‘problem’ as such.
Why a coop, why not a regular business?
I am not sure, but it was probably because the founder members were interested in worker democracy and also because no one member had enough money to set it up on their own.
What type of cooperative are you?
We are a limited company, but organised as a workers cooperative.
What is your cooperative’s income sharing structure?
We get paid an hourly rate for work done, as in a normal business. If we made a large enough profit there is a mechanism to distribute it listed in our articles, but we have never had cause to use it so far.
What is your decision making process?
P: Approx 6-weekly members meeting, day-to-day, as the need arises. discuss or just go ahead if it is small scale or within ones area of work that day.
I: We have meetings for all coop members every 6 weeks where long term decisions are made. Day to day decisions are made according to their importance. If we have an important decision between meetings we may have an emergency meeting or we could have discussions by email.
How quickly can you make decisions?
P: Depends on what – day to day, pretty quickly, more major things can take a while; if they are urgent we can be quick.
I: The process can be slow as we all have different opinions. We like to think that we can get better decisions by taking more time to discuss each persons views. We are lucky in that our work is quite stable from week to week.
How would you compare the individual level of autonomy as compared to a regular employment?
P: There is quite a bit of it I’d say of regular job. But it takes the right sort of person to know when things should be discussed or not, and not to get too bothered if you disagree at the time.
I: Our autonomy is quite high. But we are always watching each other to see what we can do to improve our work. We don’t have any designated managers, but we do have some people who take on more responsibilities than others or who have been here a longer time and they act as de-facto managers.
What extra advice can you give to would be founders of coops?
P: Keep things in perspective, don’t waste too much time on small things.
I: Coops are bit like Parliament- full of arguments, discussions, compromise. Its not simple like a hierarchy. But the rewards are worth it. However, some people are not suited to this level of autonomy so choosing the right people is important