Servant Leadership in Cooperative Business: Stirring It Up at East Wind Nut Butters

Posted on July 11, 2017 by
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East Wind Community is a founding member of the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (FEC) in the hills of the Ozarks. East Wind Nut Butters, founded in 1981, is equally owned and operated by the members of East Wind Community and is currently its dominant source of income. East Wind Nut Butters produces peanut, almond, cashew, and sesame seed butters. East Wind Community is composed of 73 members who live on over 1000 acres of beautifully forested land.

Here I am again, sitting at a desk dazed by a big bright monitor. Scrutinizing spreadsheets. Writing emails. Staring at the weather. How did I allow this to happen? I came to East Wind to get away from all this, didn’t I? That is what I thought I wanted, at least. Of course, everything besides the familiar humming of a computer and the ringing of phones is different.

After graduating from the honors business school at Indiana University in 2012 I didn’t have many plans. While my friends sought higher education and high paying jobs I had little interest in either. Disillusioned with the state of the world and the society I grew up in I came to desire an alternative to what I was observing on a daily basis. Three years and some Google searches later my discovery of IC.org led me to schedule visitor periods at East Wind and Twin Oaks.

In March of 2015 I made the two-day bus journey towards southern Missouri to make my intrepid first visit to a fully income-sharing community. A month before, my year stint as a secretary for a small family business ended when I decided to pursue this incredibly different path. That tiny amount of time spent in the office workforce of America proved to be invaluable in the role I was soon to fill.

Nearly immediately I fell in love with East Wind. The land, the people, the sense of opportunity and promise. After visiting East Wind and Twin Oaks for “official” visitor periods and checking a number of places in between I knew that East Wind was where I wanted to be.

I lived and labored at East Wind for about seven months as a “working guest on the waiting list.” Essentially this meant that because the membership of East Wind was at its legislated full capacity of 73 people I had to wait to become a member. Benefits such as having a room, receiving a $150 dividend each month and full medical coverage did not apply to me. However, I also was not beholden to the rules concerning working for East Wind’s dominant business: East Wind Nut Butters. All members who wish to receive their monthly dividend must work a set number of hours (the “Industrial Quotient” or simply “IQ”) each week. This number is determined by the General Management Team of the business and ranges from zero to eight. I was not required and in fact was discouraged from working IQ hours during my time as a working guest.

For a young man looking to learn about food production and homesteading this could not have been a better arrangement. East Wind’s weekly labor quota is 35 hours. These hours can manifest from gardening, cow milking, building maintenance, cooking, cleaning, working in the business (“IQ” hours), and a plethora of other things that community values as useful labor. Without the burden of having to work in the business (I worked just three factory shifts in the first seven months I lived at East Wind) I was free to pursue passions known and unknown. Gardening, woodworking, cow milking, cart building and maintenance, and food processing consumed both my mind and body. I could not get enough and learned more practical skills than I had in my 24 years prior.

This time was precious. Finding friends. Bonding with an amazing new partner. Coming into my own as an adult. Easing into the idea of East Wind being home. My existence was relatively carefree and I was grateful to have found such a special place. Not being a member meant that no serious responsibilities fell upon my shoulders.

Often, while sitting at this desk in front of this ridiculous screen, I am reminded of my college days. Listening to Ratatat, Beethoven, anything nonlyrical really and reading, studying, analyzing. Except this is an actual challenge. This is the real world. Decisions with consequences. Responsibility and accountability to oneself and others. No grades, just results and outcomes. I am a manager. I am an entrepreneur. These are the roles I play at East Wind. A business with three million dollars in sales a year can’t exist long without a group of people taking on particular niches and holding such positions to maintain stability and continuity.

An active sales manager and a vision of where the business was heading were desperately needed when I first began working in the office for Nut Butters. Everything else was already in place. Delicious and nutritious nut butters made fresh in daily batches. A production team composed of experienced and talented individuals working together to manufacture tried and true, simple and wholesome, one- and two-ingredient products. A meticulously managed warehouse full of almond, cashew, peanut, and sesame seed butter. An established regional brand with an impeccable food safety record.

East Wind Nut Butters was doing everything right in terms of producing high quality staple foods, but its major failing was in being sluggishly responsive to an increasingly competitive health food market. In 1981, when the business was founded, all-natural and organic peanut butter was a true novelty. Look at your grocery store shelf today and you’ll see that today’s market is saturated with more nut butter brands and varieties than ever before. All-natural, organic, claims of “Superfood!,” etc. abound. It’s easy for a small brand that relies on word of mouth and that barely advertises to get lost in all the marketing noise.

One of the first decisions I made after being elected as the General Manager and Sales Manager of Nut Butters was to change our label vendor. Going with a smaller, more local printer reduced costs significantly and also made changing the labels less of a hassle. East Wind has always relied on the quality of their products and word of mouth to maintain business. I liked that the advertising budget was incredibly minimal. I don’t like the idea of “selling” someone on something they don’t need. However, marketing nutritious staple foods to the general public is sufficiently palatable to my ethical standards. Making clear on our labels why East Wind Nut Butters is different than the other brands was a top priority. “Single Ingredient: 100% US grown Valencia peanuts.” This phrase would have meant very little to me two years ago. Until recently I was unaware of the fact that most peanuts are imported from China and India and that there are many different varieties of peanuts. The nice thing about US-grown Valencia peanuts is that when you roast and mill them they make a nice, thick, nutrient-dense peanut butter. With Chinese peanuts there is a need to add things like palm oil, hydrogenated oil, excess salt, and sugar to make the peanut butter something a person might actually find tasty, though still not something a health-conscious person would want to put in their body.

Making slight changes to our labels is a relatively small decision in the grand scheme of things. What about expanding business? A larger facility and new products? Radically changing the business model? These are all considerations that any entrepreneur thinks about. When to scale up. When to drop products and when to introduce new ones. All of these bigger decisions have a context. Context is of the utmost importance for any business. I am one of 73 equal owners in this business. I am not a Silicon Valley cowboy with angel investors and a dream. Keeping a level head close to the Earth is my top asset. Any big project needs to be thoroughly thought out in the full context of East Wind. More than that, it needs to be effectively communicated if it is ever to become a reality.

If you want to make a major organizational change and have this change be effective you need to communicate clearly to those who will be affected. Such an effort cannot be a top-down, out-of-the-blue affair. Constantly eliciting feedback and figuring out the priorities of a community of 73 people takes a lot of time and energy. Communication attempted by an individual to an entire community can be difficult and it is in this realm that I still have much to learn. Patience and planning are prerequisite to any ambitious endeavor in this setting.

East Wind meetings can be boring by their very nature. No one intends them to be, of course. They require a lot of deliberation, and involve long spans of waiting to speak. The standard meeting, in which we rotate through single speakers talking and everyone else listening, is not the most efficient way of discussing a multi-faceted idea. Redundancy and tangential lines of thought quickly dampen any sense of momentum. On occasion, I am reminded of how I felt during Occupy Bloomington circles.

Typically, less than a third of the community is in attendance for community meetings. All meetings must be proposed by a member of the community and 10 percent of all members must sign the proposal to get the meeting scheduled. At some points in the year there will be no meetings “on the stack” and weeks go by without having an “official” community meeting. At other points there is a lengthy list of issues—policies on how common spaces are used, an idea to repurpose a defunct building, policies on pets—and very consistent weekly meetings. Many meetings see less than a third of the community participate. Not everyone cares to spend an afternoon talking about things that may not affect their lives much.

The most contentious issues and votes are the most well-attended. Budget meetings and membership votes pique plenty of people’s interest, but even for these I’ve learned to expect no more than half of the community to be in attendance. The format of the meeting, the weather on the day of the meeting, and the location of the meeting have a significant impact on how many people attend and how productive the meeting is. The meeting format at East Wind that has become commonplace is by no means set in stone and those with the energy and the will find more creative ways of percolating their ideas through the collective East Wind conscience. Exploring this art can be vexing. I have come to believe that the commune setting is the ultimate teacher due to its all-encompassing scope. How can humans live with each other? What type of society are we shaping? How are we to live?

Such considerations are rarely given much time or energy in the majority of the corporate world. Really simple ideas like growth and monetary profit dominate. By ignoring the living Earth and the interests of others it becomes possible to make decisions that are close-to-optimal through that limited lens. It’s easy when you look at numbers on a spreadsheet and all you have to do is maximize profit. Clearcut rainforest and cheap palm oil, abused workers and cheap imports—if you don’t see these things and don’t think about these things then it is easy to go about your day in a society that rewards you for your “success.” The ability to deny is a strong evolutionary trait. It exists within all of us. It can allow us to make sense of this world. It can allow us to make sense of this world in the worst ways. Feeding into these habits is a culture founded upon endless growth and destruction; a culture of convenience and consumption; a technoutopia of iPhone cults and pick-your-own realities created by a web of social media platforms.

Forgive my digression. Where I came from, what I was born into reminds me of what I wish to avoid passing down to succeeding generations. My motivation is in building something; building upon an inheritance that many lay claim to. We stand on the shoulders of giants. My contribution to this legacy, whether footnote or volume, remains to be seen. The manner in which I manage East Wind Nut Butters defines me, both externally and internally, whether I like it or not. Respect for a job well done is accepted awkwardly. Scorn for a mistake, typically self-inflicted, is not taken lightly. The trap of thinking that my work in the business is, in isolation, my most important role in community is an easy one to fall into.

The delusions of grandeur that consume my ego at times are not always useful. A solid block of manual labor working in the garden or a grounded conversation with a fellow communard soon alleviates the problem. For this relief I am grateful. Ambition that is constantly checked is potently transformative. This has been my experience at East Wind. Leaders here are servants, and servants are leaders. I am one of many and in this I find comfort. We live to serve. It sounds religious or like a corporate tagline, but the sentiment is sound. Serving each other. Serving your landbase and watershed. Serving the living systems that allow for your existence.

What is it to lead in community? It is subtle. It is pronounced. It is the patience and foresight to wait for the right time and let energies flow organically. Generally, people want to help and people want to make things happen. For the biggest projects it is a matter of anticipating the roadblocks and the bottlenecks and eliminating or reducing them to maintain high participation and morale. My two years at East Wind have been sufficient to accumulate a small amount of wisdom on the matter. Two more will bring a greater grasp. Everything in due time.

As I sit here at this desk listening to Washed Out and finishing up an email by click clacking on the keyboard I take a break to stare out the window and ponder possible futures. I have never experienced such optimism and passion for life. Total engagement. This weird and wonderful place, this income-sharing commune has provided the environment, the proper context, for my potential to become kinetic. Where am I? Where is East Wind? Where shall we head?

Sumner is a 26-year-old white male attempting to live a moral life in an age of decline. He desires to create and build. Gardening, cow milking, maintaining East Wind’s fleet of hand carts, and dishwashing are some of his favorite labors. In his downtime he plays various card and board games or spends time with his lovely boyfriend. On nice sunny afternoons you will find him and his friends along East Wind’s mile of Lick Creek. Recently, he has become enthralled with birding and taking pictures of our avian friends. By the time this article is published you should be able to see some of his bird pictures, amongst many others, on the eastwind.org website.


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