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October 23, 2020

Lewiston event takes stock of growing co-op business movement, fueled by USDA grants

Photo / Maureen Milliken Isnino Ibrahim, at right, speaks about the Isuken Co-operative at New Roots Farm in Lewiston Thursday. Background, left, is Tim Hobbs, USDA Rural Development Maine director.

The success of local cooperative businesses, some of them founded and run by New Americans, was celebrated Thursday in Lewiston.

The celebration was held at New Roots Farm, in Lewiston, Maine's first immigrant-owned cooperative farm, and recognized the farm and other area cooperative businesses in that have worked with the Cooperative Development Institute, recipient of three recent U.S. Department of Agriculture grants.

"In my country, I was part of farming," said Isnino Ibrahim, of the Isuken Cooperative, a Somali-Bantu-owned food truck in Lewiston. "When I came here, my biggest fear was how was I going to use what I learned back home here?"

Speaking through an interpreter, she said the cooperative business ownership plan and Lewiston's New American food movement helped with that. Even though this year, with the pandemic, was rough, "I didn't give up on myself, and others didn't give up on us. We all worked together a group."

The spirit of collaboration was echoed by members of other cooperatives and organizations at the event, which was hosted by USDA Rural Development and CDI. 

The grants to CDI, which build on similar grants from last year, announced in January, are helping to expand the cooperative business movement in Maine, Vermont, New York and Massachusetts. Of the $624,892 awarded, $249,920 in Rural Community Development Initiative Grant money will fund the "Rebuilding the Rural Economy Training Program," a two-year train the trainers program for seven recipient organizations in Androscoggin, Oxford, Waldo and Washington counties.

CDI provides education and training programs for approximately 16,400 people throughout the Northeast and has helped form 164 cooperative businesses in the last 20 years. "Thanks to the support of the 2020 USDA grant awards that impact will continue to grow and significantly expand," the organization said in a news release.

The focus of the grants is to create businesses, secure jobs and build a more resilient rural economy, said Tim Hobbs, director for USDA Rural Development in Maine, at Thursday's event. The government agency "makes investments that benefit the community," Hobbs said.

"We do big projects, multi-million dollar ones, and invest money on a smaller scale," he said.  

a large diverse group of people standing in front of a food truck that says Isuken Cooperative
Photo / Maureen Milliken
Members of Lewiston area cooperatives, officials from the Cooperative Development Insitute, government officials and others at Thursday's event celebrating the success of cooperatives, many of which are run by New Americans.

Other co-operative businesses represented at the event were Raise Op, a housing initiative that also was also awarded a GrowSmart Maine 2020 Smart Growth Award Thursday; New Roots Farm, a Somali-Bantu farm cooperative; Spoke Folks, a Norway business that collects rubbish and compost using bicycles; and Herban Works (Center for Wisdom's Women), which makes natural beauty products.

Maine is becoming a national leader in developing cooperative businesses, said Katherine Bessey, coordinating director at CDI. "These cooperatives in Lewiston serve as examples of what can be achieved in other communities," she said.

The message from the cooperative business representatives was that no matter what they achieved, they strive to do more.

"We just want to help people at a higher level," said Seynab Ali, from New Roots Farm. "We still have dreams. We want to do more."

Those dreams include buying the farmland on College Street in Lewiston that the farm co-op is leasing, he said through a translator. "We want to help the community, and other new Americans, with our farm. We also want to help those looking to farm."

Ibrahim, of Isuken Co-op, said the group intends to keep working to expand. "We look forward to future years, and becoming better."

Azinaida Pedro, of Raise Op, said the housing initiative is starting an innovative child care program that will help fill the gap for those who need child care in order to work. "It's needed in the community, and in the country," she said.

Justin Bondesen, of Spoke Folks, said his business is incorporating as a co-op next week. Betty Riggins, of Herban Works, said that, with help from CDI, the group, which sells its products in Lewiston's Tree Streets neighborhood expects to keep growing.

The $249,920 in Rural Community Development Initiative Grant that funds the training program includes partners like Sunrise County Economic Council in Washington County, which, through its Ownership Transition Initiative, is working with CDI to senior business owners in Washington County convert to employee-owned cooperatives. The program provides a succession plan for local businesses, preserving the business and securing jobs in rural Maine. 

The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and the Root Cellar will be helping with ways to expand Maine’s cooperative food system.

"We will be able to incorporate cooperative frameworks into our education and technical assistance for farmers seeking creative and resilient solutions to marketing, ownership of land, equipment, and other resources,” said Ryan Dennett, MOFGA farmer programs director.

The other grants, with the same funding as last year, are:

  • $200,000 Rural Cooperative Development Grant to improve the economic conditions of rural areas through cooperative development, including creating new co-ops, expanding and strengthening financing, markets, infrastructure, operations, governance and business fundamentals of existing ones and building networks and resources.
  • $174,972 Socially Disadvantaged Group Grant to fund CDI's Equitable Economy program, which helps immigrants and refugees build financial resilience, leadership skills and successful cooperative business knowledge.

Also benefiting from the grants this year is the Eastern Woodlands Rematriation Collective, a group run by Native Americans in northern Maine that aims to develop a more formal network of local Native business projects, including herbal medicine and youth leadership community garden projects organized by members of the collective. 

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