Cooperatives keep farmers competitive

The weekly hometown newspaper recently brought news of a family friend’s death. The friend, a dairy farmer, had lived a long, good life and was a respected member of his church, community and profession.

My family’s connection, outside of cows and kids, was business: He, my father and a few dozen farmers in neighboring southern Illinois counties were members of a small farm cooperative through which they purchased inputs like feed and fertilizer.

Back then, 50 and more years ago, these very busy hog, cattle, dairy and grain farmer-members did all the cooperative lifting, light, heavy and in-between. They gathered orders, kept accounts and, often as not, used their own trucks, tractors and wagons to deliver their coop brothers’ purchases.

In fact, I saw our dairying family friend only three or four times a year. Once always was at the annual coop picnic (think summer Sunday afternoon, grilled pork steaks, cream soda), the other times were when he left his never-done farm work to pick up and deliver soybean meal in his wheezing, single-axle truck to our farm.

Making time

How did he have the time to leave his hay-to-bale, silage-to-chop dairy to bring us our goods in his truck? He didn’t. He made time because that’s what cooperative members did back then to aid the success of their shared enterprise and fellow farmers.It was — is — the very essence of small “c” cooperation. Others recall similar selflessness in other, bigger cooperatives.

The Berry brothers, attorney John Jr. and writer and poet Wendell, of Henry County, Kentucky, are eloquent, passionate explainers of the Burley Tobacco Growers Co-operative Association based in their home state.

Neither defends tobacco because, as Wendell noted in a discussion of the Burley Association with his brother at a public forum last spring, “It’s indefensible.”

Both, however, vigorously defend the principles their father, John Sr., an attorney and farmer, and other burley growers employed to start, then manage, the cooperative.

Essential tool

It was an essential tool, they explain, used by hundreds of thousands of farmers and generations of farm families in five states to maintain competitive markets, successful farms and vibrant rural communities.

The principles harnessed by Berry Sr., my father, his Illinois neighbors and many others continue to inspire cooperation today.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2,238 ag, ranching and fishery cooperatives and their 2.1 million members employed 129,000 full-time and 56,000 part-time employees while generating $235 billion in sales last year.

Moreover, notes USDA in a recent issue of its Rural Cooperative magazine, (link opens .pdf), today’s farm cooperatives — like today’s farms — run the gamut in size.

“While 31 cooperatives recorded more than $1 billion in sales” in 2012, reports the magazine, “almost 34 percent of ag cooperatives (749) had less than $5 million in sales.”

Biggest co-ops

But the four biggest ag co-ops, CHS Inc., Land O’Lakes, Inc., Dairy Farmers of America and Growmark, are really big; Their combined 2012 sales, $76.7 billion, equaled one-third of all ag cooperative business last year.

Coincidentally, the number of cooperative members nationwide, 2.1 million, nearly matches the number of farms nationwide, 2.2 million, even after membership and coop numbers dropped in 2012.

Overall membership sank by 200,000, or seven percent, and coop numbers fell (mostly through of mergers) by 60. But even as the number of traditional ag co-ops begins to trend wither, the number of non-traditional ag co-ops is beginning to bloom.

In September, USDA’s Rural Cooperative magazine carried short, informative stories about a new peony-selling coop in Alaska, the founding of two community “food hub” co-ops in Wisconsin and a the recent start-up of a “wellness and yoga” coop in rural Montana.

These newcomers are learning what the old-timers well knew: working together works. Or, as some of the folks in Hamilton, Mont., now say, “Namaste, partner.”

About the Author

Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com More Stories by Alan Guebert

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