Retail cooperation[edit | edit source]
COOPERATION in buying supplies at wholesale, in standardizing and shipping crops, in keeping grain in elevators, and fruit and some meats and poultry in cold storage has reached a high development among the farmers largely in the Northwest, much ahead of us "city folks."
There are more than five thousand active Farmers' Cooperation Associations in the United States. Minnesota alone has over six hundred cooperative creameries, some of which have a laundry annex.
The associations have six hundred and sixty thousand members and do a business of nearly a thousand dollars a year for each member.
These are the people that we call "hayseeds"; if we could plant some more such "seeds," it would be a good job. But in cooperative retail domestic supply we are far behind England and other countries, even behind Russia. That is partly because our better retail business methods leave less room for the savings.
A simple and easy but important beginning of cooperation was where each one took turns in delivering the milk and fetching supplies.
One farmer might do it all every day for a small charge.
The new South is developing a great business in this line. When you go to New Orleans look up the stores whose letter head reads:
NELSON CO-OPERATIVE ASSOCIATION, INC.
_Food Suppliers_ OFFICE, 506 So. PETERS STREET. CREAMERY, ERATO ST.
WAREHOUSE, 511 SO. PETERS ST. BAKERY, ELYSIAN FIELDS AVE.
61 RETAIL STORES 4 MEAT MARKETS
In August, 1917, N. O. Nelson of the above concern writes in answer to my request:
"It does not take 2500 words to tell all I know about Cooperation. I trust the inclosed may be serviceable for your book, and shall feel proud if it is.
"I am doing my job here for two very practical reasons; first, the immediate service of reducing the cost of living to say 15,000 families, mostly poor; second, to introduce economy in retailing.
"The readers of such a book as yours are well aware of the wasteful ways of retailing goods. In every town and city there is a multiplication of stores, advertising clerks, teams, and other incidentals.
"Likewise there is a lot of middle men and drummers, the buyers at the producer's end, the wholesalers or middle men at the consumer's end, with speculator and landowner at both ends. All of these have to be supported by the system, and the dear consumer pays for it.
" The Cooperative store system, which was started in England 73 years ago, eliminates most of these waste expenses. The system has kept spreading at an astonishing rate; in Great Britain there are now 3 1/2 million members, and more than a billion of sales a year.
Other European countries are full of these stores. Many of the retail stores have from twelve thousand to fifty thousand members;their sales run into the millions. They are federated in a wholesale agency which buys for them and manufactures on an extensive scale.
"By the economies thus introduced they are able to save regularly about 15%, besides paying interest on the capital employed, and accumulating a liberal surplus. It is simply a question of people getting together (all civilization is), contributing their own money and their trade, and thus avoiding all the waste expenses.
"It is a very democratic plan; anybody is welcome to join it; every member has one vote and no more, they elect their directors, the directors elect the managers, and the managers employ the clerks.
They sell at the market prices and every three or six months take account of stock and rebate the profits in proportion to each member's purchases, with half rate to non-members.
"It appeals to the economical sense of the ordinary housekeeper, and to the ethical sense of those who want no advantage of their neighbor. It prevents some from getting unduly rich and it helps to keep many from being unduly poor.
"The same principle has spread into farmer's work, especially Creameries. In Cooperative Creameries and Stores Russia has grown faster in the last 15 years than any other country, having at last reports over thirteen million members. This orderly getting together for common social needs has much to do with the orderliness of the Russian Revolution.
"The United States has made large progress in producers' cooperative associations, but not much in stores.
"I have in New Orleans a system of 65 stores on a modified system;it is a cooperative association but we sell at as low prices as can be afforded, for cash in hand. The sales amount to about 2 1/2 millions, the most of it in the winter. The Association owns a Bakery, a Creamery, Condiment Factory; and Coffee Factory, and a 1550-acre plantation. We are able to undersell the market about 20 %
"People anywhere can make a cooperative store if they take it seriously. There should be about 200 members and $2000 in cash to start with: then get an honest and intelligent manager; start with a grocery, buy and sell for cash, either on the Rochdale plan of selling at full market prices and dividing the profits periodically,or on my plan of selling as cheaply as can be afforded. In either plan it works out into producing a large part of the goods sold,thus eliminating entirely the superfluous middleman.
"Three acres and Liberty is the correct way of producing a living;with the adjunct of a cooperative store to do the selling of the surplus produced and the buying of goods needed, the small farmer is free from all the waste and trammels of trade."
Now what's the matter with your helping your county and country and humanity by organizing those two hundred waiting buyers in your own town? You can be the "honest and intelligent manager" at a decent salary. If, later, the cooperators want another manager, why you can easily organize another store. The best information on this subject is the Cooperative News, Manchester, England; subscription two dollars.
Evidence is daily accumulating that the food and farm problem is not so easy as many thought it to be a few months ago. This is made clear when economists say: "The really important question in the food problem is not distribution, it is production." It is unfortunate that this statement should gain belief at this time,when those who prey upon the producer are watching for any support from whatever direction.
Passing by the obvious fact that production must precede distribution, notice that, with all the energy that has been devoted to production of farm products by the government experts, it is clear that not only is there a shortage, but that it has required all kinds of inducements, from the President down, to get the farmers to increase their output, the most potent of all being the cry of patriotism.
Some explain this by showing how land monopoly prevents men going back to the farms. While this is perfectly true, it does not answer the question why farmers now in possession of farms are not working them near their capacity.
The answer of the ordinary man to this is inefficiency on the part of the farmer, and up to the present this idea has passed as sufficient to account for the situation. The publicity given the whole farm question during the past six months, however, has to a large extent dispelled the inefficiency answer, as the farmer has responded so completely to the call, and the amateurs are beginning to realize that there is something in farming besides tickling the earth with a feather. All the facts so far brought out show the farmer abundantly able to produce all the foodstuffs needed,provided he has a reasonable certainty that he will be able to dispose of his produce at a price that will give him a fair return for his labor. This being the case, it is easy to see that putting more men back on farms would not remedy the condition we are now in;but would rather increase the difficulty.
The fact is, the two blades of grass theory has been exploded, the increased production cry has been tried out, carried to its logical conclusion, and found wanting, and the inefficiency explanation has been proved a falsehood on its face. It is, therefore, obvious that with a proper system of distribution, the entire question of production will take care of itself; but just so long as the producers find it unprofitable to produce food, just so long will they have to figure carefully not to grow too much, or it would be better for them had they grown nothing at all.
The reason why we have such divergent ideas on this subject is that so many people write about it who have had no experience in farming,while on the other hand there are few farmers who can state the case so the public can grasp the most obvious facts.
Finally, it is a question of the government doing what it ought not to have done and leaving undone those things it ought to have done.
It has granted to a few monopolies transportation and terminal facilities which enable them to hold up deliveries and thus control prices. The remedy lies in seeing that the government attend to its own business, which is securing equality of opportunity for all, and special privileges to none.
It follows that cooperation should not stop either at production or at distribution. It must embrace the source of both, nor even stop at governmental plans of small holdings.
As a business enterprise, combining philanthropy and percentage,capital has an opportunity.
Accordingly an option should be secured upon a large piece of land not over forty miles from a large city, near a railroad station. The transportation at first is not important, as the new commuters will make a demand for it, and cheap autos will largely fill the gap; it will improve rapidly.
If possible it should have a lake or a fair stream on it for irrigation and small water power; the soil should be examined by experts, to see that it is suitable for trucking and market gardening.
The object should be to make a sort of vacant lot gardening plan on a grand scale. Heretofore the trouble has been that we have been unable to get land where there was any assurance that we could have it again the second year, and that the limited amount of land makes it impossible to give the men as much as they ought to have. They do not need much land, because a man working at intensive culture with only the rough plowing done for him cannot take good care of much more than one acre of land. He will probably make as much money out of one acre of land as he will out of two. Those who are willing to work should be given one acre of land, with the assurance that they can have it as long as they work it faithfully and comply with the simple rules which we have found so effective in the Vacant Lot Gardening work,--which are practically, that a man should attend to business and not annoy his neighbors. No contract or lease should be given the men, or indeed the women, for both work such gardens, as they have been doing for the past twenty years in several large cities, making at least a living upon the land and often a very large return.
There must be a competent superintendent, for everything depends upon him, who would show the men what land they should use, what they should put in, instruct them how to do it, and market their products cooperatively. Experience in Philadelphia, and in some score of other cities where they have established Vacant Lot Gardens, shows that about ten per cent annually of the people prefer to work for others, and consequently take places in the country after they have learned to do market gardening. Some others, being dissatisfied with so little land, and wanting to own their own place, go off and buy land or lease it for themselves. This makes a constant drain from the gardens, leaving openings for others who will learn in time their trade; it is possible to make in this way a steady drain out of the cities to the country, and what is better still, an automatic drain.
The land must be so near to a center of population that it may be possible to take a gang of men down there in the morning, show them what it is, and send back those who do not seem likely to make good,or who are dissatisfied; and that when men get their gardens successfully running, they may be able to bring their friends there to see what they have done, and say to them, "Go thou and do likewise."
I have been at Trudeau, Saranac Lake, and at Stony Wold, the consumptive sanitariums, and found there both by observation and by testimony that to send back the convalescents to the bench or the
workshop from which they came is practically to repronounce upon them the sentence of death from which the sanitarium has offered them a reprieve. The only practical thing to do with such convalescents, and with such persons who are not capable of their ordinary avocations, is to get them in some way upon the land. There is a large demand for persons who understand the new intensive gardening, and places can be found for more than we can hope to educate in that line.
There should be buildings upon the land sufficient to bunk one hundred to one hundred and fifty men; accommodations could be made with the small timber for a considerable number. Many of these men would need some help, but most of them would shift for themselves if only they could get the opportunity to build upon the land and to have a secure tenure of it. A mere tenant knows that it is bunkum when he says "Our Country."
It is perfectly practicable to sell about one half of the land in a year or two, and have a thousand acres or more left free and clear,which will cost the promoters nothing. Renting this out or selling it will repay the whole cost, and probably bring a large profit besides.
This is no experiment, it is only to do the thing that we have been doing under various conditions with various sorts of men in different localities for the past twenty years in the Vacant Lot Gardens: namely, to give men the opportunity of living upon and cultivating land, putting up their own tents, shacks, or bungalows,and giving them such instruction and such help as does not cost anything more than the salary of the superintendent. There are abundant men who can make good and shift for themselves under those circumstances; the men who are available are single men, such men as those for whom Mr. Hallimond, a clergyman working in the Bowery, has been finding rural employment in the past ten years. Also many families will come to us through the Vacant Lot Gardens and the Little Land agitation. People such as these will increase the land value, for every decent man carries around with him at least five hundred dollars' worth of increase in land values which his presence adds to somebody's holdings of land. The struggle to pocket this increase accounts for much of the human drift from the field to the factory.
God made the country; man made the city--and the devil made the suburbs, by the aid of the speculator.
Alpha of the Plough says in the London _Star:_ "I was walking with a friend along the Spaniards-road the other evening talking on the inexhaustible theme of these days, when he asked, 'What is the biggest thing that has happened to this country as the outcome of the war?' "'It is within two or three hundred yards from here,' I replied.
'Come this way and I'll show it to you.' "He seemed a little surprised, but accompanied me cheerfully enough as I turned from the road and plunged through the gorse and the trees towards Parliament Fields, until we came upon a large expanse of allotments, carved out of the great playground, and alive with figures, men, women, and children, some earthing up potatoes, some weeding onion beds, some thinning out carrots, some merely walking along the patches, and looking at the fruits of their labor springing from the soil. 'There,' I said, 'is the most important result of the war.' "He laughed, but not contemptuously. He knew what I meant, and I think he more than half agreed.
"And I think you will agree, too, if you will think what that stretch of allotments means. It is the symptom of the most important revival, the greatest spiritual awakening this country has seen for generations. Wherever you go, that symptom meets you. Here in Hampstead allotments are as plentiful as blackberries in autumn. A friend of mine who lives in Beckenham tells me there are fifteen hundred in his parish. In the neighborhood of London there must be many thousands. In the country as a whole there must be hundreds of thousands. If dear old Joseph Fels could revisit the glimpses of the moon and see what is happening, see the vacant lots and waste spaces bursting into onion beds and potato patches, what joy would be his! He was the forerunner of the revival, the passionate pilgrim of the Vacant Lot: but his hot gospel fell on deaf ears, and he died just before the trumpet of war awakened the sleeper.
"Do not suppose that the greatness of this thing that is happening can be measured in terms of food. That is important, no doubt, but it is not the most important thing. I am confident that it will add more than anything else to the spiritual resources of the nation. It is the beginning of a war on the disease that is blighting our people. What is wrong with us? What is the root of our social and spiritual ailment? Is it not the divorce of the people from the soil? For generations the wholesome red blood of the country has been sucked into the great towns, and we have built up a vast machine of industry that has made slaves of us, shut out the light of the fields from our lives, left our children to grow like weeds in the slums, rootless and waterless, poisoned the healthy instincts of nature implanted in us, and put in their place the rank growths of the streets. Can you walk through a working-class district or a Lancashire cotton town, with their huddle of airless streets,without a feeling of despair coming over you at the sense of this enormous perversion of life into the arid channels of death? Can you take pride in an Empire on which the sun never sets when you think of the courts in which, as Will Crooks says, the sun never rises?
"And now the sun is going to rise. We have started a revolution that will not end until the breath of the earth has come back to the soul of the people. The tyranny of the machine is going to be broken. The tyranny of the land monopoly is going to be lifted. Yes, you say,but these people that I see working on the allotments are not the people from the courts and the slums; but professional men, the superior artisan, and so on. That is true. But the movement must get hold of the _intelligenzia_ first. The important thing is that the breach in the prison is made; the fresh air is filtering in; the idea is born--not still-born, mind you, but born a living thing. It is a way of salvation that will not be lost, and that all will travel.
"We have found the land, and we are going back to possess it. Take a man out of the street and put him in a garden, and you have made a new creature of him. I have seen the miracle again and again. I know a bus conductor, for example, outwardly the most ordinary of his kind. But one night I mentioned allotments, touched the key of his soul, and discovered that this man was going about his daily work irradiated by the thought of his garden triumphs. He had got a new purpose in life. He had got the spirit of the earth in his bones. It is not only the humanizing influence of the garden, it is its democratizing influence too.
"When Adam delved and Eve span Where was then the gentleman? You can get on terms with the lowliest if you will discuss gardens."