ACBA Summit: Austin Co-ops on the Move
Annual confab hopes to support democratic businesses
"The thing I like about the cooperative movement is that it actually moves," keynote speaker Jim Hightower said last year at Austin's inaugural Cooperative Summit. That movement has continued to sprout new Austin co-ops in the 14 months since that speech. This weekend, the second Austin Co-op Summit will convene Central Texans who want to start, sustain, or support businesses that operate democratically.
This year's summit is the first hosted by the Austin Cooperative Business Association, a trade association for local co-ops that developed out of the all-volunteer Austin Co-op Think Tank. During the closing session of last year's summit, National Cooperative Business Association President and CEO Michael Beall announced that the organization wanted to help fund a full-time staff person to take the Think Tank to the next level. The ACBA, as it came to be known, is a pilot program for start-up cooperative business associations, a project NCBA hopes to replicate across the country in cities with budding co-op networks.
"It's like a chamber of commerce, except we're focused on cooperatives as opposed to general business activity," says Brian Donovan, a former cooperative housing administrator who was named the ACBA's executive director in September. The ACBA will be a clearinghouse of resources for those who want to start or expand co-ops in Central Texas. Donovan's job is essentially to help co-ops go mainstream – a task that includes encouraging the city to work with co-ops as service providers and ensuring that groups that coach entrepreneurs through the start-up process are familiar with the co-op model.
The 2014 summit will build on last year's foundation and focus on the local food movement. Keynote and workshop presentations will examine types of co-ops (specifically those in agriculture), advocacy, and how to start a new co-op. A Saturday evening dinner at the Sustainable Food Center will offer 40 guests the chance to network over a meal prepared by Black Star Co-op chef Johnny Livesay.
The weekend's intended audience, Donovan says, is people interested in local food or co-ops: those who are already part of either community, and those who want to devise cooperative solutions to food- or agriculture-related problems.
Founders of two new food co-ops will tell their stories in panel discussions. Moontower Co-op bills itself as the region's first "food hub": a business that distributes food from local farmers and ranchers to institutional users like schools, hospitals, and corporate cafeterias. By working together, the producers can offer a regular supply of food similar to what the institutions might purchase from food giants like Cargill, but within 150 miles of Austin. The arrangement will also allow Austin-area farmers to predict at least part of their income throughout the year, offering stability in a volatile profession. Co-founder and board president Jake Carter grew up on a farm and has served on the board of Black Star Co-op Pub and Brewery. He and another Black Star board member dreamed up the business, then assembled its board from people they knew through the co-op community. "We have a good, strong cooperative economy in Austin," Carter says. "It's heralded as a new hotbed" of co-ops.
Strength in numbers is also the driving force behind Yard to Market Co-op, which gives avid gardeners the opportunity to sell their produce in retail settings. The co-op's Annelies Lottmann says the barriers to entering those retail settings are generally too high for individuals; the cost of a table, tent, and farmers' market fees could amount to a small-time gardener's entire profit for the year. As a co-op, though, the gardeners pool their resources and their produce, sharing risks and rewards. "By aggregating all together in a cooperative," Lottmann says, "we're able to behave essentially like a small farm, but what we really are is a collection of very small individual gardens." The group, which currently has 10 members, sells online, at farmers' markets, and at In.gredients grocery.
Lottmann already had the idea for Yard to Market when she attended last year's Co-op Summit. "I got to hear from a lot of folks in Austin who were working on small-scale cooperatives who hadn't been in operation very long, who didn't have a ton of capital or experience to start up, and who were making a go of it in a way that was really exciting," she says. "That was when I was sure it was the right path for us."
Register for the Co-op Summit at www.acba.coop or at the door. The opening reception, 7pm Friday at the Acton School of Business (1404 E. Riverside), is free. Saturday's sessions on the UT campus are $50 general admission and $25 students. Tickets for the Saturday night dinner at the Sustainable Food Center are $50 for meat or meatless options.