By Maria Miller, NFU education director

“Cooperatives are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility. “ – United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

Successful cooperatives have been around for a long time. Some Farmers Union oil and elevator co-ops are celebrating more than 80 years in business. A cooperative started by Ben Franklin continues to serve the Philadelphia community. In Europe, and especially in England, cooperatives took root during the Industrial Revolution.

What does this mean? For one, co-ops are time-tested ways for people to work together to improve their lives. For another, cooperatives are a unique economic and social structure that works in all cultures. Cooperatives such as CHS, Inc., literally are big business in the U.S. Other co-ops need just a handful of employees to serve their members. New co-ops are established every year in rural communities and large cities. Housing, daycare, and grocery stores are among the many types of co-ops that are increasingly popular. Agricultural co-ops are common across the nation’s heartland. Farmer-owned cooperatives produce cheese, cranberry, orange, and grape products for consumers. Rural electrics and telephone co-ops keep rural America lit up and connected. Credit unions provide members with a wide variety of financial services. Farm Credit is a cooperative lender. And did you know the Associated Press is a co-op?

As 2012 is the International Year of Cooperatives, here is a Top 10 list of things worth your consideration.

10. Make sure you have co-op stock in your name. Depending on how the account was set up, your family’s stock in a co-op may be in one person’s name, leaving spouses (and possibly adult children in a farm partnership) without an account. You may need stock in your own name if you want to run for the board.

9. Value your dividends. Cooperatives return their profits to members. These patronage refunds or dividends are a leading benefit of being a member. The more business you do at a co-op, the more your dividends will grow.

8. Value your savings. Co-ops are in business to provide you with services or products that otherwise would be more expensive or not available at all.

7. Look for cooperative products in the grocery store. Sunkist and Ocean Spray make juices, Land O Lakes and Organic Valley make butter and other dairy products, and Blue Diamond makes packages various kinds of nuts.   Did you know Ace Hardware is a cooperative?

6. Order online. All kinds of co-ops offer products available online, along with recipes, helpful tips, and much more. A select Google search using the product type and “cooperative” will get you off to a good start.

5. Introduce someone to the advantages of being a member of a co-op. Your children, other family members and friends will thank you.

4. Show up at your co-op’s annual meeting. You as a member have the right to vote. In fact, cooperatives encourage their members to show an active interest in the cooperative.

3. Run for the board or offer to serve on an advisory committee. Cooperatives are democratically run. Members elect the board of directors who themselves must be members of the co-op.

2. Join a new co-op such as REI that focuses on providing its members with gear for mountain climbing, hiking, and camping.  You can  order on-line and send items to your home or shop in their stores.  For a list of the top 100 cooperatives in the U.S., go to www.ncb.coop/coop100/thelist.html.

1. True cooperatives adhere to the Seven Co-op Principles, one of which is a commitment to educate members, employees and others about the value of cooperatives. To learn more about the principles or cooperatives, go to www.nfu.org/cooperation.

National Farmers Union shares that commitment to educate others about the value of cooperatives.  Every summer, Farmers Union camps and day classes are held across the nation teaching young people about co-ops.   The NFU Foundation’s College Conference on Cooperatives helps students from around the country gain a thorough understanding of cooperative businesses.   This year, NFU is concentrating on expanding our adult cooperative education programs.

At the NFU Convention . . . . .        Attend the United Nations’ Year of the Cooperative session on March 6 at 8:15 AM.

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