People & Profits
On the whiteboard in the Organic Growers Supply office—where we write everything from expected arrival dates for truckloads of goods, to snippets of poetry and interesting vocabulary builders, to pounds of potatoes our crew has pulled since the beginning of the season—Aktan wrote, “Money will ruin everything...” beneath which I wrote, “So will not having enough of it.” Later he reminded me, “The first statement does not exclude the second.” Point taken.
We all daily negotiate, implicitly or explicitly, the boundaries and rules of our economic system, which in turn helps set the boundaries and rules of our human existence. The process of negotiation begins with deciding who can participate in the system at all. Who can own money? Who can own land? Who can own their own bodies? Who can own the bodies of others? A truly impartial economy would accord every person the same rights of participation and the same rules of access, but we systematically sacrifice such rationality at the altar of prejudice and privilege. Even in the times and places where we have eliminated the grossest forms of inequality, the winning players tilt the board in their favor in more subtle ways, like predatory lending practices, employment discrimination, and computer algorithms that undermine marginalized populations. Economic injustice is perpetuated by the steady accretion of human decisions large and small, from judges on the bench or shady bosses at the factory—and from the shameful willingness of humans to aid, abet, and ignore each other’s unjust decisions.
Those of us who critique material excess, unchecked profit motive, and the ridiculous economic abstractions of modern high finance tend to resent the intrusion of money into those realms that we jealously guard as human. The sell-out rock star, the priest selling dispensations, the for-profit college, the price-gouging pharmaceutical company—all incite our ire and disdain for seeking dirty profits in the humanistic domains of art, spirituality, love, education, and healing. On the other hand, when we are suspicious of farmers, teachers, artists and caregivers who seek just wages, we risk denying the dignity and worth of such labor, and of relegating power and activity in those realms to the ignorant and inexperienced or to the independently wealthy. The tightrope we walk between avarice and justice sways dangerously.
Perhaps we can best protect ourselves and our society from the worst corruptive influences of money by ensuring that our economic systems are not divorced from our human relationships. What I love best about Fedco is what a deeply human company we are. Fedco workers are not just a labor expense. Many Fedco staff are friends, spouses, or domestic partners to each other. We bring our children to work, and they play football with the warehouse crew in the pallet line during breaks. Many of us have business interests outside Fedco that trickle through the walls: we buy each other’s apples and eggs and sheepskins. We don’t assume we have to do things the way all the other companies do them. Our product line, our catalog descriptions, our imagery, and even our job descriptions reflect the skills and interests of the individuals who work here. At Fedco, our customers are not “accounts” to be bled dry. Again, they are often our personal friends. We get to know your farms and your ordering habits, not by running you through algorithms but by very human observation. Every single Organic Growers Supply order placed crosses my desk: if you place more than one order, I’ll probably remember your name if I run into you at a farm conference. We tape your kind notes to our walls. At Fedco, our suppliers are not just nameless corporations: we often purchase from individuals and family companies dedicated to the same ideals we hold, who are excited about creating a world with a better agricultural system and more self-sufficiency. Many of them personally deliver to our warehouses and get to know our staff. Our staff use their products in their own farms and gardens and can offer personal feedback to the suppliers as well as hands-on tips to our customers.
The Fedco cooperative has operated in the black since year one: not because we uphold profit as our primary value, but because turning a modest profit is necessary to the survival of Fedco as an entity and all the human relationships it creates and supports.
Our unusual cooperative model, with ownership by both customers and workers, reflects the reality of our economic interdependence and accords some power and voice to everyone in the Fedco world—we thank you for being part of it all!