For Michael Faber, local food and family make Monadnock Region home

·8 min read

Aug. 27—The general manager of the Monadnock Food Co-Op was the store's first employee when it launched about a decade ago, but it wasn't his first foray into a career in local organic supermarkets.

For Michael Faber, 49, of Hancock, the food co-op and his extended family brought him from the Berkshires to the Monadnock Region in 2011 after a history of working in two co-op grocery stores in western Massachusetts.

Born in the greater Boston area, Faber said he witnessed firsthand the disappearance of farms in favor of suburbs in his hometown of Acton, Mass., as he was growing up in the 1970s and '80s. That sparked his interest in conserving cropland, the first inkling of his eventual career.

"A lot of the farmland was getting purchased for development, so that town lost a lot of the farming it once had," he said. "I'm sure you've seen the bumper sticker, 'No farm, no food.' I like to back it up a step further and say, 'No farmland, no farms.' "

He began his working life in 2001 at the Berkshire Food Co-Op in Great Barrington, Mass., following graduation from UMass Amherst with a bachelor's in operations management, though that course of study wasn't necessarily his first choice.

"I would say that the pursuit of a business degree was more in this misconception I had growing up that if I wanted to have a job and a career, I needed to study business," Faber said. "I think a lot of us struggle with this question of, 'What are we going to do when we grow up?' "

And as Faber came to better understand food industries in college, he grew closer to answering that question.

"At that time I was learning more about how food is produced in our country and just realizing that unfortunately, the vast majority of food is produced with synthetic chemicals and fertilizers," he said. "Learning about the food co-op and them supporting sustainable agriculture and food grown organically, ... that really just inspired me."

Starting out as a bulk buyer, Faber said he was soon promoted to store manager. He later took a job as general manager of Wild Oats Market in Williamstown, Mass., where he was working when he learned of a new food co-op in Keene that needed a general manager. Faber said it felt like a perfect match given he already had connections to southwestern New Hampshire.

"Two of my brothers had settled in Hancock and I was ... just really wanting to be closer to family," he said. "My family has roots to this region going back to the early 1970s when my parents bought a little cottage on a lake a few towns over."

Summer memories at the Deering Reservoir left a "lasting imprint" on Faber, he said, and the idea of being able to work there and help establish an organic store was appealing. He said his brothers, Paul and Tom Faber in Hancock, learned of a group's plans to develop the supermarket now on Cypress Court and contacted him.

"I [asked my brothers], 'Hey, what are their names and numbers?' " Faber said, grinning.

When he stepped into the picture, Faber said he envisioned the Monadnock Food Co-Op being a comprehensive hub for organic products and regional family farms, something he felt Keene and Cheshire County were lacking at the time.

"You'd have to go to like a dozen different places to get all those products, and it wasn't even really practical," he said. "Nobody has the time to drive around all day."

He also expressed hope the co-op would be a community center for events and a place that could educate customers on healthier eating habits. For Faber, healthy eating starts at home where he grows vegetables and raises chickens with his wife, Sadie, and their two children — Wesley, 8, and Leland, 6.

The Faber homestead's harvests have included tomatoes, carrots, beets, potatoes, kale and both summer and winter squash, to name a few foods.

"We just love gardening and the idea of knowing where our food comes from," Faber said. "Being a part of seeing it grow and having it sustain our family has been really cool."

Away from the garden, Faber coaches Wesley's soccer team, the ConVal Soccer Club's under-9 boys team, noting he's had a lifelong love for the sport and played soccer and basketball in high school.

Faber also practices maple sugaring and sells locally under the name "Faber Family Sugarhouse." He has fans of his maple syrup among co-op staff, like Store Manager Stephanie Wright, though her favorite of Faber's attributes is his leadership.

"He is thoughtful and he really thinks through the guidance he provides," Wright said. "He doesn't just support me but also supports my direct managers that report to me. He really does help us regain focus about why it is that we're here at the co-op: to have a healthy sustainable food system and to support our local producers."

Wright said she joined the co-op in October 2017 and was promoted to her current position in July 2018. In her time at the store, she said she's seen it continually grow its staff to about 125 employees today, according to Faber.

"Even when times get tough, [Faber] really maintains a positive attitude, and that's key when we have that many employees that are working in what can be a difficult environment," Wright said.

In its first fiscal year in 2013 when the store opened, Faber said the Monadnock Food Co-Op had about $7 million in sales. Now, it has $20 million. Over its nine years of business, he said the store has formed strong partnerships with area food producers, like Piccadilly and Manning Hill farms in Winchester and Flying Cloud Dairy in Alstead, to name a few.

Faber also said he's helped spearhead the co-op's Farm Fund in partnership with the Cheshire County Conservation District, which he said finances infrastructure improvements for local family farms to ensure their continued success.

"That's been super important because dairy producers are pretty challenged economically and the state and the nation have been losing dairy producers at a pretty rapid rate," Faber said. "Manning Hill Farm has received grants from our co-op ... they used to build a larger walk-in cooler so they had more space to store their milk."

In 2018, Faber and the co-op's board of directors began drawing up plans for an expansion to give more emphasis to prepared food, build a new kitchen and offer more indoor and outdoor seating.

Carolyn Crane, current president of the board, said through the expansion, she also saw Faber grow to better understand financial decisions in how the co-op operates.

"Four-and-a-half years in to the store, we started talking about the imperative that we couldn't sustain what we were doing without growing," Crane said. "It was really just dogged pursuit of that and getting into complex financial things that I think he's learned a lot about, and in addition to what he already knew from being involved when the store was first built."

Crane, who joined the board in 2016 and became its president in 2018, said she likes that Faber is "not reactive, [rather] a good listener."

"He really takes his time to make sure he understands what you're saying," she said. "I can see that his sort of personal style and the way he interacts with people has shaped a lot about this store."

Faber said he was grateful the co-op's expansion project wrapped up last year, especially since he knows of other co-ops trying to expand, but running into supply chain issues with building materials.

"It was tough because the expansion ended up landing right in the middle of COVID, but in some ways the timing was great; at a time when we were looking to provide more distance and space we were adding more space," Faber said.

Looking ahead, Faber said the co-op hopes to improve its food production facility on Dunbar Street where tenant MamaSezz is currently using the space to prepare plant-based meal delivery kits. The co-op also plans to introduce online ordering for prepared foods, which Faber said should launch this fall, and add electric vehicle charging stations to the store's parking lot.

Faber said he's strived for a sustainable store, with the charging stations just one aspect of that goal. The store installed solar panels in 2016 to further that initiative, he said, adding that he's personally also added a solar system to his home to produce renewable energy.

Most days, Faber can be found greeting customers around the co-op and meeting with staff, ... operations from his small office in the back behind the freezer section. But, he adds, the best part of his job is that "every day is a little bit different."

"I get to work with a lot of really great people ... to help make the store as successful as possible," Faber said. "Everybody contributes to the success of this store and everybody's work here is important and valued."

Tim Nail can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1436, or tnail@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter at @timmnail.