CLINTON, Maine — Magic Molly is a vibrantly blue fingerling potato, beloved among farmers and gardeners around these parts for its taste, vigor, hardiness in northern climes and irresistible color.
But Magic Molly has another identity, too. She’s the cover superhero depicted on the 2017 Fedco catalogue, drawn by a Fedco worker who is a farmer as well as an artist. This Magic Molly is wearing a cape, Carhartts and high rubber boots, and holds a trowel and a weeder in her hands as she “roams the cosmos rooting out corporate tyranny and planting the seeds of freedom.”
Not everyone likes her, though — an outspoken minority of customers have complained that her hand-drawn figure is maybe a little too bodacious for their tastes.
“That was a controversial cover,” Roberta Bailey, a Fedco division coordinator, said wryly.
Even with the controversy, Magic Molly has been a great fit for Fedco, where garden enthusiasts and farmers alike know they’ll get a healthy dose of art and alternative political philosophy along with the vegetable seeds, bulbs, seed potatoes, soil amendments, gardening tools and more they order from the company. She’s been the subject of a popular coloring contest this spring, with more than 400 people sending in their rainbow-hued versions of Molly’s black-and-white image. One creative person even used dried beans and seeds to portray her in earthy shades of browns and reds.
“I thought 100 would be a good turnout,” Gene Frey, a branch coordinator at the company, said of the contest. “After about 250, I stopped guessing. The amount of energy that went into this just blows me away. That’s one of the things about Fedco that got me excited — this kind of energy. There’s a kind of communication going on here.”
The back-and-forth between the customers and the company has been going on for a long time. Fedco has been in the seed business since 1978, and the cooperatively-owned company is a direct descendent of the coop movement that was active around the state at that time.
“Practically every town in Maine had access to some sort of food coop, and many, many people spent a day a month driving down to Boston and getting cheese and produce and so forth,” John Bunker, who founded the company’s trees, shrubs and ornamentals division, said in a 2008 conversation with Fedco Seeds founder CR Lawn. “At a certain point … there was a decision made to start a co-op warehouse in Maine, and that was called Fedco. That was the Federation of Maine Coops.”
Initially, Fedco was a distribution point for the products that back-to-the-landers and other Mainers were traveling so far to purchase: honey, olive oil, grains and other speciality (at that time) items. After a while, Lawn decided to try distributing seeds purchased in bulk from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, founded in Albion in 1973. Bulk seeds at first made up a very small part of what Fedco did, but grew even as the food warehouse portion of the business began to shrink and then falter. By 1984 or so, the warehouse went bankrupt but Fedco seeds had separately incorporated and remained in business.
Nearly 40 years later, the company has grown and changed, although not, perhaps, as much as it could have. It’s never been owned by a bank, and it never went big and glossy. Its black-and-white catalogue is still printed on newsprint and still features essays on topics such as racial equality and the dangers of genetic modification right next to the descriptions of fruits and vegetables. And the company has proudly retained its 1970s ideals. A chief example is the fact that the company does not knowingly sell genetically modified — or GMO — seeds, and is one of more than 150 seed companies that have signed the Safe Seed Pledge.
“Agriculture and seeds provide the basis on which our lives depend,” the pledge begins. “We must protect this foundation as a safe and genetically stable source for future generations.”
Fedco also remains organized as a cooperative, meaning that worker members own 40 percent of the cooperative and consumers own 60 percent. Currently, just over 1,000 Fedco customers have become members, paying a sum of money in equity to the company. In exchange, they receiving benefits such as a small discount on all orders, the opportunity to vote on proposed bylaw changes, a chance to vote for and serve on the board of directors and, perhaps most importantly, “the satisfaction of owning a small part of one of the most successful new wave co-ops,” according to Fedco’s membership information. Members also share proportionately in the company’s profits through annual dividends.
“We focus on equality,” Bailey said. “In our pay scales, there’s not a drastic extreme between the lowest paid person and the highest paid.”
Although this is certainly not the usual way of doing business in 2017 America, it has paid off in a lot of ways for the company, which boasts very low staff turnover. Bailey should know — she has worked at the company since 1989.
“Back then, we got together for a month, filled the seed packets, then went home,” she said.
It’s a lot busier now. These days, Fedco includes five separate divisions: Fedco Seeds; Organic Growers Supply; Fedco Trees; Fedco Bulbs and Moose Tubers, which specializes in potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, shallots and ginger. It ships more than 25,000 orders a year, including more than 600,000 packets of seeds, and sends about 50,000 catalogues to its customers. It’s busiest this time of year, as its warehouses hum with the activity of packing up and shipping out orders. Although the company primarily does business by mail-order, it will open its doors at the 213 Hinckley Road warehouse for the annual tree sale from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Friday, May 5 and Saturday, May 6.
In the summer, when it’s slower, most of the Fedco workers have returned home to labor on their own farms and gardens. The 40 or so workers who come to Fedco in the early spring to fill seed packets, process truckloads of seed potatoes and other seasonal tasks are an independent-minded group. In the parking lot, a car with Jill Stein bumper stickers is parked close to a truck with a Donald Trump decal.
But they do have some important things in common.
“What you’re going to find here is a group of opinionated, very smart people,” Bailey said. “You have to be thinking outside of the box to choose to work in a place like this.”