Commentary

Free Weekly No PR Machine

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By Terrah Baker

Phew. What a week. Learning the ins and outs of The Free Weekly is no easy task, but luckily it’s one with many rewards. It’s also one that holds great responsibility to readers, the community and, of course, the people who write my paycheck. With that responsibility there will no doubt be judgment, of which I have learned in the past to accept by repeating the common mantra “you can’t please everyone.”

Often, as a reporter, you write an article not knowing exactly where the story will go as it unfolds. Everyone has a different outlook on, and dare I say perception of, reality, which forms their opinions on topics and life occurrences. Take the story I wrote on Ozark Natural Foods that ran July 12. (Yes, this is my subtle way of addressing concerns about this story.)

Having heard many of the rumors concerning the turmoil that seems to follow in ONF’s financially-successful path, I went into this story knowing the array of opinions and perceptions, both positive and negative, I would encounter. When I began researching owners’ comments online and from personal acquaintances, it became clear, quickly, that I did not have enough room or time to include every opinion, and the past could only be considered just that, if some conclusion was to be reached following the controversy.

So, I chose my direction: What does the future look like for ONF? I thought my first step would be to talk with the people who really make those decisions that affect ONF on a day-to-day basis — Marketing Director Alexa McGriff, who in a sense speaks for much of the staff (or at least communicates with them regularly), General Manager Alysen Land, who was just rehired to take ONF in a direction that has been voted on by the governing board; and Board of Directors President Joshua Youngblood and other board members (or at least the two who responded to a request for an interview).

These individuals reiterated the same ideas of moving forward, opening communication and letting go of the past, as was demonstrated by the staff’s decision to go back to work, and the board’s decision to dismiss complaints and bring back Land. In this way, I was giving to the readers what I thought they needed — a dose of the facts — which in this case is the governing powers that be “can’t please everyone,” and their moving forward with their past decisions concerning “business” structure, whether you — or I — like it.

All of this while dealing with the one restraint often placed on print journalists — space. With not enough space (and time) to include every aspect of ONF’s business structure, past, present and future, all a reporter can do is choose a direction, or let the people and facts choose it for them. In this case, maybe there are many questions left unanswered, but unfortunately, I, nor any other journalist, can answer or address them all in one article.

The point to this column is not to defend myself (although I tried), but to ensure you my intentions were not to provide public relations for ONF or to support or discourage any certain agenda, practice or decision made.

TFW, if nothing else, does not avoid controversy, (as I am proving with this response) and is not afraid to provide the facts, good or bad.

Because of the high response rate, we have planned a follow-up article to address many concerns still lingering over ONF’s — and now our — head. So, although we know we can’t please everyone, that doesn’t mean we’re not going to try.

6 Comments

ONFeuds August 2, 2012 at 4:53 pm

Ms. Baker:
thank you for committing yourself to ‘clearing the air’ in a very messy situation.
Current Board and Management are insisting on transferring over $2,000,000 of Members’ funds to Bank of America. Who, in view of their substantial pre-payment penalty, does not need nor want our money.
In my view, this debt reduction strategy, will impose austerity on ONF. High prices will be here to stay and Dividends to Member/ Owners will become a distant memory.
If this comes to pass, I for one won’t even stick around long enough to say “I told you so.”
There is only one side in all this: a Board that represents and stewards benefits to Members, and a Board that hires the best GM to achieve these ends.

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No PR??? August 3, 2012 at 11:47 am

If you are not doing PR for the current management, then why do you mention “turmoil that seems to follow in ONF’s financially-successful path”? I submit that the turmoil is caused by (not following) the finance path because the purpose of a co-op is to benefit the owners, not be as “financially successful” as the recent management team has been focused on. About seven years ago the management team reports that they were asked to have 4% profit after taxes, yet here we are with 8% or more which takes money directly from the owners.

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michael langford August 3, 2012 at 12:02 pm

Terra, The controversy over ONF’s “financially successful path” has the potential to stimulate a community dialogue about where we get our food and how much we pay for it, and who we really trust to manage those operations.
There are still some important questions to be answered, about actions and decisions by the individuals that you interviewed. Those decisions and actions are supposedly answerable to the Articles of Incorporation, The Bylaws, and the entire membership.
“Letting go of the past” is easier said than done. That is merely rhetoric, not fact. As an intelligent human society, we deal with complex and often unpleasant facts every day, not just “a dose of the facts…”
In the interest of fairness and objectivity, perhaps it’s time you do a bit of homework, and give us more than one side of the story. Give us all the facts, and let the community decide for itself.
Can you do that?

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Derek August 3, 2012 at 12:52 pm

The core issue as I see it is this – the co-op’s bylaws clearly state “best possible food, lowest possible cost” and for years we owners trusted management was trying to do just that. It turns out management was charging higher prices and spending the money on improving various metrics, not including paying the employees a “Living Wage” opting instead to pay a “Livable Wage” (another violation of the bylaws IMHO).

It comes down to feeling that GM Land violated the trust of the owners – she’s running a great “corporate model” operation, which includes the idea of “charge whatever the market will bear” – the problem is ONF is supposed to be a co-operative. There is a tightrope to be walked between opposing interests – can GM Land keep that balance? The past performance, upon examination, screams “NO!”. That’s why “let go of the past and move forward” isn’t a valid option yet. The past has to be dealt with, mistakes corrected, lessons learned, and goals adjusted before we can move on.

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Barbara August 6, 2012 at 8:09 am

Owners created ONF for access to healthy food at low prices.

According to various guidelines for cooperatives generally, the coop shouldn’t “hoard” surplus cash from transactions with its owners.

Profits above a minimal percentage should be withheld and then returned to owners at the end of the year to compensate for the high prices owners have been paying all along.

ONF shows nearly an 8% profit margin on sales to its owners. It’s charging its owners considerably more than the low prices the coop was founded for. And when it gives back 20% of that at the end of the year, it’s still overcharging its owners. If ONF returned 50% instead of 20% of owner-supplied profits, it would be keeping at least 1% above what’s usually considered a healthy profit margin for a coop.

Over the past several years ONF has put aside enough money to pay off its building debt (probably around $2 million). It’s bought the building next door and collects rent on it. (Ironically ONF meetings have to be held in north Fayetteville at the OMNI center because in spite of all its property ONF can’t provide meeting space for its own Board and owners.) It designed and built a $400,000 entryway, it installed some solar panels… (Did ONF use local contractors?)

It appears that the membership is paying to let all this happen. But the membership at large has not been consulted and has not voted on any of it, and so far no outside financial expert has reported on it to the membership.

This is only as I understand it (and my understanding may not be perfect, so I welcome TFW’s clarifications),

ONF’s latest message to its members was an admonition to be respectful and compassionate. It contained no information about finances.

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