Co-op & Community

Scoop Article written by: Leslie Wehrman

“Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” -Edward Abbey

Full Steam Ahead. Call To Action. Do Good. Add To Cart! Just Do It. Go Big Or Go Home. Actions speak Louder Than Words. Are we not constantly being bombarded from all directions to act, to be a mover and shaker, “to be the change” as Ghandi advocates? In my own life it feels necessary in each moment to take some sort of action, and personal intentions combined with daily reflections help steer the course. This isn’t to say I’m always crushing it, reaching set goals, and moving mountains! Oftentimes I fall way too short, miss the mark, and need to renavigate the entire plan. What I’ve realized over time however is that striking a healthy balance between being and doing is tricky business, and highly nuanced. More than one friend has cautioned “Les, remember you’re a Human Being, not a Human Doing!” And so it was in the summer of 2021, I was treading along on my chosen path, minding my own, content with personal contributions and the direction of things…when I met Michelle Fulton for the first time. Simply put, she made an enormous impact on both my inner & outer worlds almost immediately. Michelle helped reframe many previously held beliefs I had about community and cooperation, modeling through her actions a better way to show up in the world. In our time together I began contemplating personal responsibility to The Bigger Picture – percolating thoughts surrounding society, the status quo, and compassion began emerging – so much so that by the time we parted ways 7 weeks later, I can tell you for certain that a subtle paradigm shift had washed over my being. The crux of the matter revolved around action and inaction, real and perceived costs, and the when versus the how each citizen ultimately pays for assistance we all so desperately need. But oops I’ve gotten ahead of myself here. Allow me to start now where all good stories should, at the beginning of course.

On the evening of July 22nd, 2021, I watched in angst with Quincy residents as the Dixie Fire raged over Mount Hough and threatened Chandler Road inhabitants & homes. Dixie had come from the Meadow Valley area where homeowners had already been evacuated and was finding new fuels to devour on her consumptive rampage that would eventually go down in history as the largest wildfire California has ever known. Dixie’s gluttony was shocking and severe – eventually thousands of residents would be displaced from Quincy, Meadow Valley, Taylorsville, Greenville, and many surrounding areas. Virtually overnight the fiery tempest forced locals into becoming firestorm refugees, and it was at this time I was able to provide a makeshift sanctuary for some 37 people (along with 9 dogs, 5 cats, 8 goats, 14 chickens and 1 goldfish!) on my 5-acre parcel just outside of Portola and Graeagle. Emergency cohabitation with virtual strangers experiencing deep stress and the trauma of loss over a 7-week period was hands-down one of the most influential time periods of my life. There is a book titled Paradise Built in Hell written by Rebecca Solnit that investigates moments of altruism, resourcefulness, and generosity that arise amid disaster’s grief which illustrates our lived experience at the refugee camp with great precision. It’s difficult to admit out loud, but the fact is Dixie’s mandatory evacuations that displaced so many provided the necessary elements that would eventually create a tight knit group of grateful people who learned to work together, share talents, and bond over the most mundane things! Buying groceries, cooking, cleaning, laundering, harvesting from the garden, driving the tractor, clearing the property of debris, fixing plumbing issues, and daily barn chores occupied our time. The simple act of doing these tasks together brought with it a certain type of rare joy begetting authentic friendships, literally forged in fire. I met Michelle on Day 2, and quietly watched her way of being. With alacrity she dubbed herself Barn Boss, taking responsibility for an enormous list of duties straight away. With copious amounts of humor many evacuees in turn gave themselves titles. There was: Kitchen Master; Media Director; Laundry Mistress; Construction Crew Boss; Harvest Queen; Events Coordinator; Pedicure Mama; Tractor Trainer, and many others…but the long and short of it illustrated each person’s natural propensity for certain jobs and a definitive eagerness to help where their suitable talents were most needed. Though every participant was an “essential employee,” Michelle seemed to become the glue that held us. Demonstrating compassion, discernment, and a willingness to listen seemed her modus operandi – and in this woven tapestry of benefic energy Michelle emanated the adjectives holistic, healthy, and heartfelt. With self-effacing humility, time and again she offered comedic relief and always a helping hand – love is a verb after all. Over time Michelle became in my mind the very embodiment of cooperation. Prior to meeting this force-of-nature, I had never really seen such authentic mutual support in action. Dixie’s devastating fire may have lasted several months, but ironically it was that natural disaster to which I owe so much. So many fine lessons in teamwork will not quickly be forgotten.

Journeying through life invariably presents us with twists, turns, and surprises – complications and blessings of all sorts can be unearthed – and challenges designed for growth potentiality seem ever-present. The Dixie Fire tragedy and refugee camp personalities most certainly brought to the fore many questions I had been grappling with for quite some time. The very real human desire to contribute to the larger whole, while simultaneously leading a meaningful life with true purpose that also pays those darn monthly bills seemed to be the unreachable trifecta back in 2021. The dream of marrying profession with vocation had occupied most of my waking time for several years and ultimately culminated in the business creation of Forest & Farm (Dixie refugee camp, self-same locale.) The operating model is ever evolving but the core mission is to establish an eco-sustainable agritourism gathering space complete with fresh fruits & vegetables, bed & breakfast, and a mini farm animal petting zoo experience. A heap of work by any standard! Prior to making an acquaintance with Miss Fulton (who I later learned was the Quincy Branch Feather River Food Cooperative store manager,) I hadn’t considered asking outsiders to help with my venture. I now know that my vision will require many collaborative hands to thrive…there simply is no way Forest & Farm can flourish whilst I myself remain in a vacuum. Also, before the Michelle Experience, I’d never contemplated being a part of our local Coop (plenty of work to do already!) aside from maintaining a standard membership. There was a vague awareness of the cooperative business model and a general sense that supporting local food sovereignty efforts “is the right thing to do.” But spending last summer with Michelle and Plumas Refugees really brought home the concept it takes a village. There wasn’t one person who stood out as taking all the responsibility and doing all the work…what stood out was that ALL evacuees were contributing to areas they felt most comfortable. Our evolved cliché mantra became: many hands make for light work. It was within this cooperative microculture zone where hope & inspiration for larger-scale projects took hold.

Barn Boss Michelle began planting seeds for me to consider becoming part of the FRFC Board of Directors, sharing encouraging tales & endless tidbits about how satisfying her own employment had become at the Co-Op. The role-modeling she demonstrated worked to create in myself a desire to emulate the cooperative precepts: Open membership! Democracy! Economic participation! Autonomy & Independence! Education & Training! Cooperation among Co-Ops! Concern for Community! These working principles struck at something deep within and landed in a space where high ideals could potentially be realized – a victory in my mind – when so many other societal structures seem to be failing. Consequently, last April I ran for a position on the board and was awarded a spot amongst some stellar community members who continually guide and teach me in ways that are hard to describe. Again, it’s this nuanced quality…a subtleness that requires an open heart to fully grasp what makes the whole operation tick. Never have I been involved with a group so respectful, so open-minded, so free of fear. The egalitarian atmosphere that flows from the cooperative business model allows space for creative collaboration to emerge where solutions are needed. Humor and levity reign supreme while real work is getting done and important decisions are being made. Since meeting Michelle and becoming involved in our local FRFC, I am letting go of some old, near-sited foundational beliefs surrounding what is possible to achieve in groups, growing compassion, and garnering hope in the big picture future where little existed before.

Being on the FRFC board has been a real eye-opener into cooperative function – the Co-Op programs that help community members are tremendous! There is Round-Up at The Register that benefits local organizations through direct donation, discounts for Feather River College students, 10% off for members on Tuesdays, Wellness Wednesday perks, open scholarship and grant opportunities, and volunteer events galore that help support and elevate our local community members. Since being voted in, I have participated in the members’ Annual Picnic, the FRC Student Orientation Mixer, a BOD Retreat, and various online training courses that flesh-out how to execute a cooperative business model (values like honesty, social responsibility, and equity are often discussed when seeking reasonable decisions.) Last month the Co-Op was inducted into the Adopt-A-Highway program. We will meet regularly to help keep our highways clear of debris (a worthwhile endeavor – please consider volunteering some of your time!) Next week I’ll be representing the FRFC at our local Sierra Valley Art & Ag Event, where local farmers and artists share products and information with the public through fellowship and education. Next month, October, is National Co-Op Month…so the FRFC BOD cohort will host two Community Appreciation Days in Portola and Quincy to connect with customers, answer questions, and tap into the local community pulse as a means for improving upon existing store culture. Since the Co-Op is in fact owned by members, it’s always looking for feedback and ways to improve current operations. Really and truly, your opinion matters to the FRFC! Another upcoming opportunity to express thoughts and concerns will be at the Breakfast with the Board gathering, date to-be-determined, but be sure to add this to your calendar. Concern for Community is, after all, foundational to the Co-Op mission. In other words, we’re in this together so let’s build something we can all be proud of.

And so, while Bryan Adams may have thought the Summer of ’69 was his best, I’m here to sing the outstanding merit of last summer. It was only through extending myself, being present, and participation that I was able to glean the treasures of last July & August…and honestly none of the experience would have been possible without my partner Will Lombardi. It was through him and his connections with Plumas friends and family that brought all the people to my tiny farm on the east side in the first place. In my somewhat sheltered pre-2021 existence I had yet to make connections with a large majority of county residents, but Will unwittingly exposed me to some of the dearest personalities I’ve met thus far in life. The serendipity of it all was never lost on me, that so many gifts emerged from the disaster named Dixie. And while I still grapple within the quagmire of professional and vocational balance, it’s clear that selfless action is where the juice lives. For it is through others in loving cooperation that we’re able to expand, learn, and grow – individually we can only go so far. Whether it’s through community service, volunteerism, or fundraising, all beneficial societal improvements come with a cost. Inaction is a choice, though we may try to tell ourselves differently. If history reveals the hard and soft costs of waiting or lingering on a decision often leads to paying too high a price, then last summer’s lesson was one of preventative maintenance and rethinking what it means to be a compassionate human. In the past our culture set well-intended communal goals that fostered inclusion and allowed space for all walks, using words like “coexistence” and “acceptance” proudly. Today it feels as if those qualities are no longer enough. Political polarization, climate change, planetary suffering, and COVID-19 have pushed us through and past the proverbial tipping point, demanding new responses from earthbound inhabitants. A new, unprecedented way of being is begging to be birthed and it’s the invitation of a lifetime. My new friend Michelle gave me a gracious glimpse of how to thrive in challenging times. Cooperation is the new name of the game: individuals can embody these qualities and grassroots organizations like the Feather River Food Cooperative are leading the charge.

-If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.
[Gospel of St. Thomas]