by: Kailla Coomes
Laurie Rose Jones arrives at Growers Market at 12:30pm and steps through the green-door as she gets ready for her day of volunteering. She sees a few volunteers already there, sorting through fresh fruits and vegetables. Jones is there to relieve David Klausman, also a volunteer, who has been there since the early morning. Jones starts to prepare for the arrival of fresh produce, which arrives every Thursday morning.
Since today there is new produce she knows that it will be particularly busy so she makes sure that everything is neat and ready for the rush. She has been volunteering for over two years and has helped in the kitchen and as a cashier but is now a coordinator helping every Thursday morning.
“I love the people who come here because they are interested in community and nutrition,” Jones says.
Growers is and always has been a member only food co-op. To become a member there is an orientation that everyone has to go through. At orientation they talk about how Growers operates and all the history behind this 40-year-old food co-op.
The idea of having a food co-op began in the summer of 1971. During this time the Vietnam War was going on and people were coming together with others to create a more alternative lifestyle.
“There were a lot of people around at the time that wanted a cooperative,” Vickie Nelson, a person who was with and helped start Growers, says.
According to Nelson there was a group called the Council of the Poor, they were a coalition of poor people and political activists. They were given $3,000, as a grant, to start a co-op. The money was used to rent out a warehouse on 3rd and Lincoln. At first the Council wanted the co-op to be a seven-day a week store but they soon found out that as a start-up business, financially, it would not work.
To get volunteers they held a meeting for the public letting them know that they needed the community’s help and support for this project. Nelson attended that meeting hoping to find a way that she could make a difference in Eugene.
“I moved to Eugene to work at a co-op and work cooperatively,” Nelson says. “I saw organizing posters around for a meeting about the start of a food co-op, so I went.”
The head of the meeting was Paul Bestler. He was a member of the Council of the Poor and would be the drive and force of Growers until his death December in 1987, stated in Bestler’s obituary published be the Register Guard.
According to Nelson, December 9, 1971 was the day that Growers first started buying from local farms in Lane County. Volunteers would take orders up until Wednesday and on Thursday morning they would go to these farms and buy the food that customers wanted and take it back to the warehouse. Then the people who had placed an order would come to the warehouse and pick up their food.
“[Growers] would only charge 10% above whole sale price.” Nelson says. “After the first year, Growers had 400-500 orders [per week],” says Nelson.
The Emerald, LCC Torch, the Register Guard and the Auger, an alternative newspaper that published from 1969-74, were covering Growers. But the most effective way that the market was being noticed was by word of mouth. Volunteers would go door to door telling people about Growers Market and asking them to become involved. One volunteer that was found this way was Ron Pike and he was also apart of Growers since the beginning.
“Growers became more than just a place to buy food,” Pike says, “it became a community center where bonds were formed.”
But, before the first year was up, Growers Market hit a giant speed bump; the landlord evicted them from the warehouse. Paul Bestler and Bill Nelson, who were involved with the start up of Growers, found the warehouse on 454 Willamette Street, which has now been the Growers home for 41 years. The new warehouse began selling food on October 1, 1972.
Growers began to grow fairly quickly, more and more people wanted to be apart of it. Not only did residents of Eugene volunteer but students from the University of Oregon became involved as well.
“There was a lot of university students that were very interested in being involved with buying local foods and being apart of a corporative effort,” Pike says.
Growers strived on having volunteers who were committed. It was important to the people of the co-op that no one was paid and that all the food that was collected was from local farms.
The market has gone through a lot of hard times through the years. One was that the volunteers who had been with Growers Market since the beginning were starting to move on to other things.
“I went back to school,” Nelson says, “I wanted to become a librarian and to do that you need a master’s degree.”
Other volunteers needed to start earning money to support themselves. Growers wasn’t just a one-day a week business. While the store wasn’t open volunteers spent hours preparing boxes, cleaning the store, and completing orders. People also wanted to start families and that took a lot of their time and energy and Growers became lower on their list of priorities.
A definite blow came to Growers in December of 1987 when Paul Bestler died from mesothelioma at the age of 42. This crushed the volunteers at Growers.
Competition was something that Growers now had to deal with as well. With the opening and continual growth of other alternative natural food businesses such as Kiva, Sundance and New Frontier, Growers began to struggle.
“[Now] you don’t have to seek out a special group if you want to go organic.” Nelson says, “You can go to any regular market.”
The location of these businesses became more convenient to certain people who no longer had to make the trek to downtown to get fresh and organic food.
“Its very much a matter of convenience,” Pike says, “my neighbor goes to the Frontier market because it’s only a block in half away and it’s open every day.”
Growers had always been open only one day a week but now with the introduction of new competitors, whose businesses were open seven days a week, they changed their hours to now being open three days a week.
Not only were they competing with new alternative businesses but also big chain grocers such as Safeway and Albertsons. As organic food became more common and available these large chains began to carry them. Growers, trying to stay significant, began to also have organic food. They also decided to have the warehouse act as a store where people could come in and buy food but also still make orders.
The volunteers at Growers now are still as excited and involved with this co-op as others were in the past. Laurie Rose Jones has been volunteering at Growers for two years and she became involved because she was just looking for some volunteer opportunity and found Growers.
“There are so many opportunities for volunteering [at Growers],” says Jones.
While volunteering is helpful for the community, members also benefit from spending time helping out. When a volunteer spends ½ hour at Growers they will then receive a “pumpkin”.
“One pumpkin will get you seven consecutive days of 15% off of the marked up price,” says Jones.
Many volunteers have shopped at the store before becoming involved with volunteering. David Klausman shopped at Growers for more than 10 years before becoming a volunteer.
“First year I was a cashier,” says Klausman, “now I am an opening coordinator and I set up the cash registers, write checks to the vendors and price everything out.”
Paul Cope has been volunteering for nearly 19 years. He comes almost every morning to help around and get the place open for customers
“The community comes together and puts this on every week,” says Cope. “Its quite the amazing event.”
Growers Market has changed a lot since the start in 1971 but still has similarities from its past. There is and will always be a support for local farms.
“We still try and stay as local and bulk as possible,” says Cope. “You can bring your own container and get as much or as little as you want, it reduces packaging.”
They are still all volunteered based. They offer organic food and are open three days a week. Grower’s sense of community will never change and it is what has kept it going for so long.
“[Growers] is a place where people with cultural differences can come together and have no differences,” says Cope.
Cope and Jones share a hug as Cope finishes his work at Growers today, a sign that this neighborhood food co-op has brought people together and has created a place where people can go for some fresh food and open minds.
The Man Behind Growers: Paul Bestler
Paul Bestler was a social activist and a member of the Council of the Poor and with the help of the $3,000 dollar grant, started Growers Market in 1971. He wanted a new and alternative place where people could get food locally.
“Paul Bestler was a strong leader,” says Vickie Nelson. “He had been in Vietnam and then become a social activist.”
He, with the help of many others, made Growers successful and known around Eugene. Bestler put everything into making sure that Growers stayed running and relevant. Others saw him as someone to look to for motivation.
“[Bestler] was the heart and soul of Growers Market,” says Pike.
According to his obituary in the Eugene Register Guard, Bestler also helped to find the first community garden in 1972, the McKenzie River Gathering in 1976, and the Genesis Juice Co-op in 1977. He served as treasurer on the boards of the White Bird Clinic and the OUR Federal Credit Union for low income people, and as project manager for the Homestead self-help housing program.
Bestler was committed and loyal to his community up until is death in 1972 at the age of 42. He is remembered as an influential activist in Eugene and his dedication to the people will always be remembered.
“Paul was inspirational,” says Pike, “if he said we can do it than we believe it.”