Viroqua Food Co-op
Year founded: 1995
Number of members: 3,025
Member investment: $75 per adult, $150 household
Retail square feet: 4,400
Number of employees: 58
The Viroqua Food Co-op is located in rural Wisconsin in a town surrounded by the gorgeous hills of the state’s Driftless region. It’s a place remarkable for lush agricultural farmland that yields bountiful produce, and world-famous dairy and cheeses. It’s also enjoyed a long history of agricultural cooperation, including such leaders as Organic Valley in nearby Lafarge. Viroqua the co-op, and Viroqua the town, are both excellent examples demonstrating what can happen when people work together well. It’s why Jan Rasikas, the co-op’s general manager, believes that the Four Pillars of Cooperative Governance model will help their co-op become even more impactful and stronger.
“I think the Four Pillars articulate what we’re already trying to do. By laying it out thoughtfully as a process, it can strengthen things we’re already doing and keep us on track,” Rasikas said. She cited as an example that the co-op is working to put the elements of servant leadership and Open Book management into to place within the organization. Rasikas believes that these efforts enhance their leadership capacity and ability to work together as part of the Teaming pillar.
An Open Book management meeting at the co-op.
“A lot of the language of labor in our country is adversarial,” Rasikas noted. What the co-op is trying to accomplish is a place where ethics and accountability have value, and transparency and honesty is given a high priority. “Our mission states our commitment to superior customer service. We take that to mean service to each other as staff as well as to our customers. When we latched onto that we turned a corner; going the extra mile for each other makes a big difference in our work culture.”
Stronger teaming has the added benefit of resonating throughout all the Four Pillars. Strengthening one pillar helps make it possible for the others to function better, too. Not only that, it provides a framework for improvement in weaker areas. From Rasikas’ perspective, the Four Pillars illuminates the possibilities inherent in cooperation’s business structure, and that’s very exciting to her.
Rasikas believes that co-op owners more readily understand the fundamentals of ownership, in part, because people have a good grasp of its privileges. Yet the thing that defines co-op ownership—democracy—is little understood. “We’ve been kind of complacent about democracy,” Rasikas said, not just at her co-op, but as a sector. “It’s important to teach co-op owners that the democratic part of what we do is what makes us different from other legal business structures,” she said. “In practice, we need to remind ourselves that co-ops advanced democracy; it’s not always easy, but the results are amazing when we stick to it.”
The way co-ops operate and the impact they can have is directly related to their democratic structure. Rasikas recollected when the Viroqua Food Co-op expanded in 2005, and how unprepared they were to handle the challenges and success they experienced then. “There’s no democracy happening when people are overwhelmed and undertrained,” she said. “When we learned to be positive and concentrated on helping each other, we were much better able to focus on strengthening our cooperative.” The result of that, Rasikas said, is that when the store is running well, it can better reflect what democracy looks like—working together through respectful relationships, responsive service—back to the community. “I’m excited Democracy has its own pillar in the model.”
Rasikas thinks the Four Pillars also have the potential to provide a clear framework for helping owners have a point of reference for the co-op’s purpose. “It’s not about asking everyone to vote on everything,” Rasikas said, but about inclusion and opportunities to provide feedback. “It’s about taking advantage of the benefits of the democratic structure.”