By Alexis Dunnum, NFU Executive Assistant
While some Americans may not be familiar with cooperatives, for rural Americans, cooperatives are integral to the economic and social viability of their communities. For decades, co-ops have provided family farmers and rural communities with everything from crop seed to broadband service.
As a member of thirteen different cooperatives, including a local dairy co-op, dairy farmer and Wisconsin Farmers Union President Darin Von Ruden explained how it has benefitted his operation.
“My family chose to become members of a local dairy cooperative, Westby Co-op Creamery, 30 years ago because it offered better payments to smaller farms, as compared to other cooperatives and businesses in the region,” Von Ruden said. “Co-ops give back to their farmer members and keep more competition in the market, which is important. As we continue to see consolidation of businesses in agriculture and other industries, cooperatives play an important role in keeping these businesses and farms afloat.”
He chose Westby Co-op Creamery “because it was local, and we wanted to support local business and our community.” He says that the added benefits of purchasing goods and services from a local cooperative is that the money remains in the community and distributes profits back to co-op members at the end of each year. “Cooperatives really have the community spirit in mind. If you want to help your community, it pays to be a member of a cooperative.”
Dennis Carlson, a grain farmer in Mandan, North Dakota, also belongs to several cooperatives, including a credit union, an electric co-op, and telephone co-op. He says that being member of a grain cooperative has positively impacted his operation and many farms in North Dakota.
“Through a grain cooperative, members can haul grain, buy fertilizer and seed, and can sell their products to markets they would otherwise not have access to,” said Carlson, adding that cooperatives add value to commodities through the collective ownership of processing equipment and through the creation of new products.
“Co-ops provide these goods to their members, but the business model also gives members governance and the opportunity to serve on boards, have greater input, and make decisions on behalf of the business.”
The control of the cooperative lies in the hands of its members, who democratically elect the board of directors. This model not only ensures members remain the top priority, but also creates leadership opportunities and promotes community engagement.
Carlson noted that cooperatives can also help those affected by economic hardships. “The agriculture economy also suffered greatly in the 1980’s and during that time, many businesses in rural areas closed or moved on,” he said. “But cooperatives survived and were often the last businesses left in town. That doesn’t mean cooperatives don’t have their own struggles, but they do have their member’s best interest in mind and will work with their members to make sure both the member and the cooperative can succeed. Cooperatives feel more responsibility to their members because they’re in business for the long haul.”
When asked what he would tell someone considering becoming a member of a cooperative, Carlson responded, “Why wouldn’t you want to be a member? You get to be a part of a value-added chain, get a profit, can serve on board and make decisions on behalf of the co-op, have a place to sell your products, receive services, and more. Plus, you know you’re dealing with an entity that’s got your best interest at heart.”
Cooperatives are vital to the success of American farmers and ranchers and the economic prosperity of rural communities. Though National Co-op Month may be coming to a close in a few days, we should continue celebrating and supporting co-ops all year long.
Want to know more about cooperatives? Visit the Cooperative Network.