70 South Street, Blue Hill, Maine
Your Community-Owned Grocery Store


Mon-Sat 8am – 8pm & Sun 8am – 6pm

What's a Co-op?

Co-op is more than just a name. Blue Hill Co-op is one of thousands of businesses and organization around the world that follow the cooperative model.

Cooperatives are member-owned, member-governed businesses, which operate for the benefit of their members (aka owners). Co-ops start with people who join together to meet a need. By investing capital or labor, they can participate in a democratically run organization, that operates to benefit the people who use it and their community. Cooperatives are not nonprofits, but rather than being solely profit-centered like many conventional businesses, Co-ops strive to function on a triple-bottom line of people, planet, & profits.

There are a lot of different types of cooperatives, from food co-ops to credit unions to mutual insurances to worker-owned farms. But all cooperatives contain the following elements:

Co-ops are owned & governed by their primary users

(the owners)

Co-ops are democratically governed

(one owner = one vote)

Co-ops are businesses, not clubs or associations*

Co-ops adhere to internationally recognized principles

(The Seven Cooperative Principles)

*Consumer cooperatives are very different from large member-based “discount clubs,” which charge annual membership fees in exchange for a discount on purchases, the owners of which are removed from the local community. Consumer co-ops are centered on the local community’s needs, and the business is actually owned by the people who shop there.

The Seven Cooperative Principles

A Brief History of Cooperatives

Early human societies learned to cooperate and work together for survival. You might even say that cooperation is inherent in human activity. Early agriculture would have been impossible without mutual aid. Farmers relied on each other for defense, harvesting crops, building storage buildings, and sharing equipment. These natural, unorganized versions of cooperatives have been used throughout history and are still utilized by many today around the world.

The modern concept of cooperative business models first appeared in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries during the Industrial Revolution. Working people in cities could no longer produce their own food and had very little control over their food or living conditions. Those with money gained staggering power over those without. Early cooperatives were formed to protect the interests of the less powerful members of modern society: workers, consumers, farmers, and producers. 

People experimented with different models of pooling limited resources to purchase goods from wholesale dealers. The goods were then distributed equally among the members. In this way, they could obtain higher quality goods for less money. 

The first really successful cooperative was started by millworkers in Rochdale, England, in 1844. After a failed strike the previous year, they took steps to secure their most pressing need, food security. Twenty-eight people founded the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society. They pooled money saved over the year and opened a store carrying the staples of butter, sugar, flour, and oatmeal. This cooperative is considered the first modern co-op and set down the Seven Cooperative Principles still in use today. If you’d like to read a contemporary to the time novel that explores the issues and culture that gave birth to this movement, try North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell.

The Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society is still alive and well today, though after merging with several other cooperatives, it is now called The Cooperative Group and has over 65,000 employees across the UK. They run food co-ops (retail and wholesale) and provide insurance, legal services, and funerals. 

In the US, early cooperatives were primarily groups of farmers or producers working together to obtain the best prices for their goods. Enslaved and free African Americans also utilized cooperative models for mutual aid societies to pay for medical needs, schooling, funerals, and to pay for freedom. During the Civil War, African American women in South Carolina formed the Combahee River Colony. They cultivated cotton on abandoned farmlands and, eventually, their membership grew to a hundred women strong. The Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Cooperative Union was founded in Texas in 1886, and at its peak in 1891, it had 1.2 million members. 

Early American consumer co-ops were based on European models. However, most early co-ops did not have long-term success, failing due to a lack of investment, poor management, or a lack of understanding of the Cooperative Principles. It wasn’t until the 1900s that American cooperatives gained true success as a movement. The Rochdale plan was a campaign in the early 1900s that formed cooperative wholesalers who would sell their goods to consumer-organized buying groups. As time passed, the wholesalers helped the buying groups grow into retail outlets. In 1920, there were 2,600 consumer co-ops in the USA, which were predominantly general stores in towns with less than 2,500 residents. 

The Great Depression triggered a wave of new, primarily urban, cooperatives. Some leading consumer co-ops were launched in this period, many of which sustained themselves for fifty years or more. The Hanover, Eau Claire, and Hyde Park co-ops are still operating today. 

The civil rights movement also had its fair share of cooperative organizations like the Young Negro Cooperative League and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. These, sadly shortlived, cooperatives taught activists “grassroots leadership, education, democratic decision making, and a step-by-step, transformative process of working toward long term goals,” according to Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard, author of Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice. 

One famous cooperative of this era was the Freedom Quilting Bee, a cooperative of black women sharecroppers in the South. They came together to sew and sell quilts. They also purchased land both for a sewing factory and to sell to families who had been evicted because of their activism. Though the Freedom Quilting Bee is no longer active, they were a founding member of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, which is still alive and well today.

The 1960s counterculture movement brought another wave of growth for consumer food co-ops. This period was marked by a lot of experimentation, with some running like more traditional stores and others running with volunteers and limited hours. Some paid patronage dividends, and others offered discounts to members. These cooperatives took on the ideals of the time and focused on whole, unrefined foods. Soon, cooperatives became heavily associated with natural foods. However, cooperatives have always been a means for ordinary people to gain some control and independence in a world of great inequality.

For more information on the history of cooperatives, go to: www.grocery.coop 

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