When it comes to being proactive about building a strong local food supply, La Montanita Co-op in Santa Fe has all its bases covered. It carries the products of 700 local providers. Twenty percent of its entire stock is locally produced and, depending on the season, up to 1,500 individual products are locally grown or produced.
Those figures are courtesy of Robin Seydel, La Montanita's membership and community-development coordinator, and they come tumbling off the top of her head along with an abbreviated list of products targeted to the holiday season.
"Local squash and pumpkins, Embudo turkey, Pollo Real chicken, the local beef co-op Sweetgrass — that's grass-fed, grass-finished, sustainably raised, prime New Mexico beef from seven local ranchers." Seydel added local dairy products and eggs, locally made bath and beauty products, and a large selection of local wildcrafted herbal remedies and tinctures.
The store also carries coffee from regional coffee roasters and chicos from Taos Pueblo; locally made baked goods and juices; New Mexico-grown wheat and cornmeal; and a wide assortment of produce from area farms. "As an arid-lands community, our food shed is larger than what some people consider local," Seydel noted. "We consider a 300-mile radius around Albuquerque to be local."
Based in Albuquerque, where it has two markets and a "grab-and-go" (as well as a small market in Gallup), La Montanita expanded into the crowded Santa Fe natural foods market six years ago when Jill Markstein, owner of the old Market Place grocery store, approached the co-op when she was ready to retire.
"She really wanted the store to stay in the hands of the local community, but we weren't sure the Santa Fe community would embrace us, coming up from Albuquerque," Seydel said. "We had not considered expanding in Santa Fe at all, so we held six months of community meetings before we made the decision, and we were surprised to find that Santa Fe was very supportive from the outset. We now have 10,000 owners in Santa Fe, and they made the co-op what it is today."
While you do not need to be a co-op member to shop at La Montanita, as a member you become an owner, similar to a shareholder. There are members-only discounts as well as year-end refunds based on the store's fiscal health, and there are myriad opportunities for input and participation within the co-op.
The co-op currently has several progressive initiatives under way thanks this active participation.
The new La Montanita Fund is a micro-loan program for New Mexico's farmers, ranchers and food producers; it's already serving as a model nationwide for co-ops and community groups that want to create community investing opportunities. La Montanita is also partnering with MoGro, the mobile grocer project founded by Santa Fe resident Richard Schneiders, to bring fresh produce and natural food products to the food deserts of local pueblos.
La Montanita's successful growth and stability over the years — which Seydel compared to the efficiency model of a minuscule amoeba competing against a sluggish metabolic giant like Whole Foods — also has spawned the Southwest Development Co-op in partnership with Farm to Table.
This project provides consulting resources statewide for communities that want to develop their own co-op businesses.
Perhaps most impressive is the development of the Co-op Distribution Center, founded four years ago in a warehouse near the I-25 and I-40 intersections. "It serves as an aggregation point for small producers," Seydel said. "We distribute the products from there and provide storage. We buy pallet-loads of organic sugar and local hard-red winter wheat, which we mill into flour to sell to food producers. We have egg cartons and fresh produce packing cartons. We even purchased last year's hail-damaged apple and pomegranate crops and sold them to a local juicer." The center will even distribute locally made food products to stores outside the co-op network statewide, including Whole Foods.
"It's a completely different mindset about how to do business; it's the antithesis of the corporate model," Seydel said of the co-op model, which is based on the first-consumer cooperative, the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, founded in Great Britain in 1844. "Today, the same co-op model forms one-third of the Swedish economy and is the basis for a large percentage of governments in many countries — 122 million people belong to some kind of co-op."
As to the success of La Montanita, Seydel, who has been with the co-op since 1985, said it has taken a lot of hard work over the years. "
All of us old hippies didn't know how to use the model to its best advantage in the 1960s and '70s, but eventually we learned that we couldn't do all we wanted to do unless we could also run a successful business."
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