When a new food-related cooperative in Maine is announced, the worker-owners tend to crowd together for a triumphant picture. Maybe there’s a banner. Whether the new owners are running a coffee roaster in Rockland or a farm in Lewiston, there are definitely big smiles.

But one thing missing from those photos is Jonah Fertig-Burd, even though he has almost certainly been behind the scenes. Some of what the 39-year-old does is help get new cooperative businesses off the ground, like the Lewiston-based Isuken food truck owned by a group of Somali Bantu refugees. From raising money to buy the truck to actually painting it, Fertig-Burd was there. Or New Roots Farm, another Somali Bantu business in Lewiston.

He helped found the Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative, which works to promote local farmers and fishers to locally owned businesses and institutions, boosting Maine’s food economy. He’s focused now on developing a formal alliance for all the cooperatives in Maine, the Cooperative Maine Business Alliance. Some of them are practically household names, like Fedco Seeds, or the Portland Food Co-ops, but others, like nine housing cooperatives or 22 lobster cooperatives that he said land nearly a third of the lobsters in Maine every year, tend to fly under the radar. Fertig-Burd wants to call attention to them.

“More and more people are looking to do things differently in our economy and cooperatives are increasingly becoming a tool,” Fertig-Burd said. “And a way to increase ownership, equity and the voice of people in their communities.”

In his spare time, the West Durham resident is a farmer, with a particularly cheery crop: Christmas trees.

Whatever he does, he’s “devoted,” says Omar Hassan, an intrepreter who works with Fertig-Burd at the Cooperative Development Institute, which promotes cooperatives throughout New England and New York.

“Jonah has provided and shared so much opportunity to me and to the New American community,” Hassan said.

This year Fertig-Burd also helped a midcoast institution make a big transition from a traditional ownership model. Rock City Coffee and Roasters’s longtime owner Susanne Ward was ready to sell the business she’d founded in 1992. But she didn’t want the place to change under new ownership, and neither did the workers. The solution? A worker cooperative owned and run by 17 employees.

“Democracy needs to happen not only in the ballot box but in the workplace as well,” Fertig-Burd said.

What’s Fertig-Burd himself thankful for? “For my family and for the beautiful land and water and lakes and rivers and our ocean. And thankful for the good people in this state that are working to build a better Maine.”

« Mainers to be thankful for

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