Facing a Tough Economy, Season's Harvest Takes Steps Toward Becoming a Co-op
by Jessica Newens
Apr 22, 2010 | 2829 views | 0 0 comments | 24 24 recommendations | email to a friend | print
SEASON’S HARVEST PROPRIETOR Melissa Johnson has cut out everything “extracurricular” to keep the store open. (Photo by Cecily Bryson)
SEASON’S HARVEST PROPRIETOR Melissa Johnson has cut out everything “extracurricular” to keep the store open. (Photo by Cecily Bryson)
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RIDGWAY – Ridgway’s dusty Clinton St. is home to several local treasures – from Kate’s Place restaurant and Palladin interiors to the historic Sherbino Theatre, and caddy corner to each other, Colorado Boy Brewery and Randy’s Independence Café.

Then there’s Season’s Harvest Natural Foods, a 1,500-square-foot health food store housed inside a circa-1902 bank building that sits across from the post office. Open the store’s squeaky screen door and you’ll likely find the smiling face of proprietor Melissa Johnson, along with an impressive variety of locally-sourced fresh vegetables, natural skin care, supplements, and general health food merchandise.

To survive in today’s tough economic times, Ridgway’s hometown health food store may soon become a cooperative. And while that may not mean big changes for the consumer, it will require a significant amount of restructuring and perhaps a new location – and that’s where Johnson needs the community’s help.

After a several-years stint working at Ridgway’s Unicas Southwest, in the summer of 2004 Johnson left her retail job to take over ownership of Season’s Harvest natural foods store from Krista Stewart.

At the time, Season’s Harvest was “very, very small. Much smaller than it is now,” says Johnson.

She was also working as a farmer then, running Wildwood Herb Farm on Log Hill with partner Pat Morris. “We grew mostly herbs and greens, taking orders for restaurants in Telluride,” she says. But they had no water and the business was getting too big for them to keep up.

“I wanted to do something different,” and Johnson’s own interest in health and nutrition made Season’s Harvest an appealing business opportunity.

Her vision was to create an all-around health food store that specializes in carrying local produce and high-quality food while providing an organic alternative. “Krista gave the store a good start and I wanted to improve on that.”

Five years later, Johnson feels she has met her goals and then some. “It’s gotten better and better. I now have more and more produce coming from local farms, particularly Straw Hat. And I don’t have to pick it up anymore – it’s delivered.”

Along with fresh vegetables and fruits from farms in the Delta/Hotchkiss/Paonia region, Season’s Harvest provides products from a number of regional producers, including High Wire buffalo and elk products (Hotchkiss), Ferguson Family beef (Ridgway), Troyer Farm chicken (Olathe), Indian Ridge Farm and Bakery breads and granola (Norwood), Straw Hat produce and eggs (Montrose), Shining Mountain herbal tinctures (Ridgway), Dancing Willow herbal tinctures (Durango), Lea’s Organic skin care (Hotchkiss), Green Valley skin care (Cedaredge), Roubideau Farm goat cheese (Delta), and Avalanche goat cheese (Paonia). Johnson can also help her customers source raw milk (cow or goat) from Hotchkiss.

Despite Johnson’s success providing her customers with an ever-growing list of regionally produced products, health foods and supplements, around the time of the store’s five-year anniversary in 2009 the economy began to falter, not to mention the arrival of a large discount health food store in Montrose.

“I can’t compete with discount stores because I’m not big enough,” says Johnson. “We had our fifth birthday party in August, and by September we were taking a dive.”

Since then, Johnson has done everything she can think of to keep her doors open. “I cut out almost anything extracurricular,” from canceling her recycling pick up (she takes care of it herself now) to laying off two employees.

“I don’t make a paycheck, so I’m the one that works all the time,” she says.

Johnson also has had to skip her regularly scheduled orders from distributors due to their large minimums, and she has begun offering discount punch cards for frequent customers. She also let her webmaster go and no longer puts out a newsletter.

But what has probably helped her stay afloat more than anything, Johnson says, is the fact that the owners of her building temporarily lowered her rent. “But it is supposed to go up again in June,” she says, which has her scrambling for more options.

Hence, the idea for a Season’s Harvest co-op emerged. Although Johnson had considered making the store a cooperative a few years before, her business partner at the time discouraged her from going that route. But a recent visit to the Durango Natural Foods co-op, a store she considers to be “the co-op of co-ops,” reinforced Johnson’s hunch that the co-op route may just be the way to go.

According to Wikipedia, a cooperative “is a business organization owned and operated by a group of individuals for their mutual benefit” They are “autonomous associations of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprises.”

For Johnson, restructuring Season’s Harvest as a co-op may be the only way the store survives. So, at the urging of Ridgway Mayor Pat Willits, she recently began pooling community interest to see if her customers would support such a change, and after a month and a half, she had signatures from 146 people stating they would be interested in becoming co-op members.

“At this point, I’ve got enough people to start a steering committee,” says Johnson. “I made my first call today. I’m talking to people with experience with co-ops first. I don’t know how many people I’ll have [on the committee] yet.”

In fact, the first community meeting regarding the co-op took place last Friday, with about 10 people in attendance. When the group meets again this week, each participant should have three to five goals in mind that will help form a vision for the co-op, says Johnson. “After another meeting or so, we should be able to say ‘yes,’ we can pull this off,” she explains. “We need to look at the feasibility of it, and whether or not Ridgway and the wider region can support the co-op.”

With a green light, Johnson anticipates the next steps will be to form a steering committee, call for membership, select a board, and then break into committees with specific objectives.

“Then we’ll begin implementing the principles of a co-op,” of which there are seven: voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; member economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training and information; cooperation among cooperatives; and concern for sustainable communities.

According to the Durango Natural Foods website, “the central principle of cooperatives is member participation and control: members establish policy and elect directors, control the business and provide capital, and typically receive a portion of the net savings left after costs are covered. The one way to benefit from your co-op is to use it – the more you shop, the greater the benefits you’ll receive.”

In Johnson’s opinion, “this is the perfect direction I’d like to see it go,” but its the steering committee that will designate how exactly the Season’s Harvest co-op will look. For example, in exchange for paying annual dues (as low as $25), members would receive certain benefits, such as case items at cost and a certain percentage off the suggested retail price of their purchases. If a worker membership is established, that member would receive even deeper discounts in exchange for working a few hours a week at the store. Alternatively, an ownership co-op might have member-owners making a one-time equity payment (probably less than $200, according to Johnson) and in return receive a percentage of the store’s profit at the end of the year (assuming there is one) or a percentage of their total purchases for the year.

“Some co-ops put different pricing out for members,” says Johnson. “The beauty is that all customers get co-op pricing,” meaning everyone is typically getting somewhat of a deal.

As far as what goes into the store, “the board does not control that,” says Johnson, it is customer driven, and overseen by a general manager – which may or may not become Johnson. “That remains to be seen,” she says. “I need a certain amount of money and I need a certain amount of time off. I’d love to be the paid person at the store,” and maintain her longstanding relationship with her customers. But that decision will be made by the co-op, she says.

“It’s all up in the air,” says Johnson, who is essentially selling Season’s Harvest to the co-op. If the deal doesn’t go through, “I have no idea what I’ll do,” she says. “I have learned so much. Even when I was doing really, really well, I was always worried, but I never knew what I was supposed to be doing about that. It could be time for me to move on. I don’t want to be worried anymore. I really vacillate.”

The best part of Johnson’s Season’s Harvest experience has been her customers, she says. “I live out in the woods. If I didn’t come in I’d have no social life.”

What has been the worst part? “Doing the dishes,” she laughs, gazing at the store’s deli where soups, sandwiches and smoothies are prepared. “I’ve thought about cutting out the deli, but I think I’ll recommend the co-op keeps it because it brings people in.”

Johnson anticipates that if the co-op model does not seem feasible, she’ll go back to the drawing board, which may or may not mean the store will close its doors. One thing she is encouraged by is local support for a 3/50 initiative, which asks residents to support Ridgway and Ouray businesses by making a commitment to spend at least $150 a month locally – $50 in three area stores. “If 3/50 proves out and people begin to shop locally, perhaps things will start to turn around,” she says.

In the meantime, Johnson is encouraged by the support she has received so far for restructuring Season’s Harvest. “I think we’re one step closer to a co-op in Ridgway,” she says. “One small step.”

The next Season’s Harvest co-op meeting takes place April 21, 7 p.m. at the Ridgway Community Center. For more information, Johnson may be reached at 626-9719.
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