University of Wisconsin Center for Wisconsin
Rural Cooperatives, September/October 1996, p. 2.
Published by the Rural Business and Cooperative Development Service
Community Effort, Dedicated Leaders Spawn Island Cooperative
Randall E. Togerson
On a clear, warm October day, cooperative members and supporters gathered in the Methodist church in the village of Tylerton on Smith Island, located in the Chesapeake Bay off Maryland's eastern shore. They were there to dedicate the establishment of a new crabmeat cooperative. The cooperative's members are women who pick crabmeat from their husbands' catch. The location is remote, about 45 minutes by ferry to the mainland. Families, many having lived on the island for five or six generations, primarily make their living from the bounty of the bay.
The idea of a cooperative did not come easy to the traditionally independent group. Crabmeat has previously been picked in the "back kitchens" of family homes. But Maryland health authorities challenged the practice and have in the past confiscated packaged crabmeat from Tylerton. Families were challenged to solve a problem and adapt to the new health regulations or face having a major economic activity for the island move to the mainland.
Some island women chose not to change their age-old picking system, objecting to being told what to do. But other women in the community chose to adapt by organizing a workers' cooperative. Through their own investment and outside help from public and private sources, they constructed a modern, $280,000 building that allows central steaming, picking and packaging of crabmeat. This work is being performed in a stainless steel, well-lighted and sanitary workplace. Health inspectors were among those joyfully attending the dedication.
Helping to guide a group of highly disgruntled, alienated people to forge a 15-member, cooperatively owned business was not an easy task, according to Janice Marshall, president of the Smith Island Crabmeat Cooperative. Each prospective member had their own ideas about how the business should be structured and operated. Technical assistance from the Cooperative Services program of USDA's Rural Business-Cooperative Service proved very helpful in working through this situation. There were many financial and regulatory hoops that also had to be jumped through.
Rather than witnessing the end of an era, the women dedicated themselves to a four-year process of raising money, site selection and organizational development. Their efforts led to the start-up of operations in June 1996. It took a true community effort by Tylerton's 74 residents.
In helping to dedicate the new cooperative, USDA Under Secretary Jill Long Thompson recognized the dedication of those women who met the challenge and overcame many obstacles in successfully establishing the new cooperatively owned business. Emergence of leadership among them was key to overcoming hurdles. It is this dedicated and committed leadership from among the 15 members that has brought renewed vitality to the community. This is the stuff that makes cooperatives succeed.