A Journey to Cooperation

June 13th 2018

By Alex Johnson, Maple Valley

The maple woods in late winter are still and quiet. Heavy snow that has fallen through the barren branches of tall maple trees covers the forest floor like a downy blanket. It muffles the sound of crunching footsteps, protecting the atmospheric peace. At times, one can hear the distant call of a horned owl or the soft thud of snow falling from tree branches warmed by the midday sun. A vast network of blue tubing is strung from tree to tree. It quietly collects sap from the trees each day and directs it to a central tank where it waits for the forest’s farmer.

This is the sugarbush, and the source of the golden syrup that is the heart of Maple Valley Cooperative. But this is not where the cooperative was born. Like many things, its origin story is much more complex than that. The first inkling of an idea that would eventually become Maple Valley Cooperative originated in the mind of Cecil Wright nearly 40 years ago.

It was the 80s and Cecil was living in Columbus, Ohio having moved there after college. In those days, natural foods stores were a relatively new phenomenon that Cecil was excited to discover. He began to do his grocery shopping at a store called Northwest Natural Foods. One day, while selecting fresh vegetables, he struck up a conversation with the store’s manager. The manager told Cecil about the trouble he had been having finding a regular source of maple syrup for the store.

Cecil thought “I can do that!”. Afterall, he had grown up surrounded by maple producers and knew just where to find it. Cecil began buying syrup from local farmers and supplying it to Northwest Natural foods. It wasn’t long before he was doing the same for several stores in the area.

Soon after, Cecil met Bruce Peterson who was planting trees for a living. Bruce was looking for a new job, and was inspired by the work Cecil was doing. Soon Bruce was travelling the country selling the syrup that Cecil was sourcing to the growing number of natural foods stores.

Their business was growing so quickly that Cecil & Bruce soon needed to bring on a 3rd partner; Dan Churchill. Dan did marketing and graphics for the team. He also had family that made syrup and he helped them to extend their farmer base to Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York.

In 1999 Cecil decided to make the move to Wisconsin to work for Organic Valley. When he arrived in Cashton, WI, he purchased some land and began to prepare it for maple sugaring. He also made some connections with local maple farmers and continued to sell syrup.

In 2003, Cecil purchased a large historical building in downtown Cashton, WI and renovated it with the help of local Eric Meyer. Cecil had met Eric through George Siemon, the CEO of Organic Valley. Eric purchased woods next to Cecil’s land and they worked together to produce syrup. The building became the new base of operations for the maple syrup company.

Four years later, in 2007, Cecil 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. Cecil saw cooperative models as more democratic, fair, and engaging. Eric was on the Board of Directors for the Upper Valley Maple Cooperative at the time, and they had grants available to aid in the switch. The change was made and Maple Valley Cooperative became what it is today.

Since that time, Maple Valley Coop has continued to grow and now has 15 employees and over four hundred members. Sixty-six of these members are investors who earn dividends and have voting rights. They are divided into the following groups: Farmer, Employee, Vendor, Wholesale Customer, Retail Customer, & Investor.

 

Each of the seven board members serves as a representative for one of the groups to ensure that all parties are involved in decision making. “Because we are a multi-stake cooperative, I felt the employees needed someone who really understood the business and worked directly with the employees to be a representative and make their voices heard.” states General Manager Renee when asked why she ran for the board last year.

And, Renee is not alone in her passion for the role. “I feel very close to home with Maple Valley.” farmer board member Eric states, “I was part of Maple Valley before it was a coop with selling syrup for about 14 years now. I have a vested interest because of my longevity and knowledge of the coop. […] I have seen a lot of growth over these years and hope to be able to continue to provide these great options for others.”

In fact, this passion for Maple Valley can also be found in cooperative employees. “Waking up and coming to work at Maple Valley is not one bit a drag for me in the morning.” reports bottler Justin, “This is by far the best job I have ever had and that I thoroughly enjoy. As the bottler, I believe my role plays an important part on how Maple Valley is viewed as the steps I take in the process are based solely on the quality we deliver to keep customers coming back.” And packager Karon says, “Our crew really believes in organic. We strive to work together and help each other out and we really care about each other. It makes me feel like we are part of a family that looks out for one another and help when needed.”

That care extends beyond the office. Each employee takes pride in Maple Valley’s commitment to a high quality product that is made with care and consideration for the community, the environment, and the farmers who make it. “I would say specifically the care for the woodlands because taking care of our trees is important for our relationship with nature. They absorb CO2, offer oxygen, increase aquifers, fight climate change, any way we can take care of our forest overall is really important to me. Protecting the habitat of wildlife, medicinals, mushrooms, & bees, is very important.” states sales representative Adrienne.

Strict standards for organic syrup along with their own personal values ensure that Maple Valley’s farmers take care of their forests. Tree tapping is limited based on tree size and health. Tap sizes are also limited to ensure trees do not become stressed. Farmers are required to have a plan in place to maintain the health of the forest. These plans include awareness and promotion of plant and wildlife diversity, as well as buffer zones to protect plants from any outside chemicals. In addition, farmers ensure that syrup is vegan by avoiding the use of any animal products during processing.

Farmer Jim explains further, “We only trim back if it is invasive or taking over. For taps, organic standards are strict in the amount of taps we can use. The number of taps is determined by the size of the tree itself. Only one to three taps are used per tree based on dimensions. I only have one or two trees in my woods that have three taps. Stewardship is forest sustainability and keeping our woods healthy & clean. We don’t use any chemicals or sprays. We want to have diversity and even though it is full of tubing, we still want it to be a healthy forest with animals, etc.”

The health of the forest is integral to the future of Maple Valley Cooperative and its continued growth. Whether they are a farmer, employee, or other category, all of Maple Valley’s members are invested in this future. Maple Valley Cooperative continues in their sustainable mission to offer pure, organic maple products at a fair price for customers, employees, and farmers. As more consumers discover this healthier sugar alternative’s many benefits, cooperative membership is sure to grow. Nurtured by the true spirit of cooperation, Maple Valley’s future looks bright.