Every year in October, businesses all over the world celebrate what it means to be a cooperative. This year, we want to celebrate by sharing the story of how Maple Valley Cooperative came into existence. We talked to Founder & Board President Cecil Wright to get his take on Maple Valley’s transition to Cooperative & the reasons why it was the best decision for the business. Read on to see what he said!
Cecil Wright lives in Viroqua, WI in a passive solar home (no furnace!) with his wife Sonya and their two adopted children; Addisu & Lina. During winter, he spends time on his many projects and is often found walking through his woods, working on the network of lines stretching between the ancient trees. In summer, he often travels to Madeline Island in Eastern Wisconsin, as well as the many places his projects take him.
Where It All Began
I learned to appreciate the value of an organic lifestyle early on. While attending high school & college, I started a forest management company where I sprayed 24D & 245T to kill off undesirable growth. After the Vietnam War, the media exposed serious illnesses that “Agent Orange” had caused. It was made of the same chemicals that I had been spraying on trees. I realized then that I needed to make a change and I became dedicated to organic living and more mindful of how our food connects to our environment.
In 1991, after college, I moved to Columbus, Ohio. In those days, natural food stores were a relatively new phenomenon that I was excited to discover. I began to do my grocery shopping at one such store called Northwest Natural Foods. One day, while selecting fresh vegetables, I struck up a conversation with the store’s manager. He told me about the trouble he had been having finding a regular source of maple syrup.
His story lit a spark in my mind. “I can do that!” I thought. After all, I had grown up surrounded by maple producers and I knew just where to find it. I got right to work buying syrup from local farmers and supplying it to Northwest Natural Foods. It wasn’t long before I was doing the same for several stores in the area.
Growing the Business
As my farmer base and customer range increased, I decided to bring on some help. Bruce Peterson & Dan Churchill joined the business, and soon we had farmers in the New York & Ohio area (including Dan’s family’s syrup). It wasn’t long before we were selling our syrup throughout the midwest & southern United States.
It was important to the three of us that we do what we could to solve inequalities in the maple industry while selling a truely organic maple syrup (something that was hard to find in those days). This meant offering a fair pay price to farmers in a market that had been (and continues to be) dominated by consolidators.
Moving to Wisconsin
After many years of successfully growing the business, it was time for a change. In 1997 I decided to make the move to Wisconsin to work for Organic Valley. When I arrived in Cashton, WI, I purchased a 40-acre wooded parcel where I started my own maple farm. I also made some connections with local maple farmers and continued to sell syrup. Then, in 2003, I purchased a large historic building in downtown Cashton. This would become the home base for the company.
We’re a Cooperative
Four years later, in 2007, I proposed the idea of switching the business over to a cooperative model. Many of those involved at the time had already had experience working in coops and saw the value in such a model. We saw cooperative models as more democratic, fair, and engaging. The change was made and Maple Valley Cooperative became what it is today.
Since becoming a cooperative, Maple Valley’s vision continues to build on the early success of the business. A cooperative is defined as “a farm, business, or other organization which is owned and run jointly by its members, who share the profits or benefits.” To compete in the Natural & Organic industry, our cooperative created 5 classes of member-owners: Farmers, Customers, Employees, Vendors, and Investors. By engaging all levels of stakeholders within our supply chain we create a fair system of collaboration. We can better compete in the marketplace through the strength of our members.
Coming together to solve common challenges by combined action is at the root of cooperatives. Maple Valley Cooperative was formed to bring economic strength to farmers and to create ownership by all those involved in getting organic maple syrup from tree to table. In addition to participatory and democratic ideals, cooperatives are a more efficient and fair business model.
Many companies are owned by investors and people who are not involved in the company. This means extra profits and capital must be generated from the business operations. When a member/owner invests in the co-op, their returns come back in the form of wages, pay price, and/or goods provided to the cooperative. Preferred stock is a common tool that cooperatives use to include investors (an obligation to pay a fixed return on the money invested). This is a fair way to have access to capital for cooperatives. It is also a way for investors to participate in responsible investments.
As Maple Valley Cooperative grows, I am excited to see what the future holds for us. It is my hope that the cooperative spirit will inspire all of our member-owners, as well as anyone who comes in contact with our business. In a world full of division & uncertainty, cooperatives hold a more important role than ever before.