By Cathy Statz, Wisconsin Farmers Union Education Director
A mobile home park resident. A dairy farmer. A college student. A produce grower. A home care worker. A hardware store owner.
What do these people all have in common? Each is the owner of a business called a cooperative.
Many of us in rural America are familiar with the time-tested cooperatives that built financial stability and market access for farmers and ranchers in the early part of the last century. Farm supply co-ops and their federated systems – like the Farmers Union Central Exchange, later Cenex, and now CHS – helped farmers get access to feed, seed, and equipment, while the rural electrics brought light and power to the barns and homes of people unserved by the investor-owned utilities. The Farm Credit System and marketing co-ops helped farmers to finance, move, and process the natural resources of the countryside into goods for a hungry nation – and world.
The story of cooperatives doesn’t end there, though; co-ops continue to emerge as a response to market failures of many kinds – not just in rural places, but in urban ones. Let’s take a look at the key co-op sectors through the lens of their owners:
A mobile home park resident. In 2008, Resident Owned Communities (ROC) USA was founded with a mission “to make quality resident ownership viable nationwide and to expand economic opportunities for homeowners in manufactured (mobile) home communities.” On October 19, 2017, ROC USA was proud to have supported the residents’ association of the 430-unit Halifax Estates in Massachusetts as they celebrated the purchase and conversion of the park to a non-profit housing cooperative, protecting it from the previous owner’s plan to sell it to an investor.
A dairy farmer. Nearly 30 years ago, seven dairy farmers channeled their interest in care for the land and in sustaining rural communities and created what is today America’s largest organic cooperative, CROPP Cooperative, with 1,800 member-owners – better known as Organic Valley. As a producer cooperative, they represent approximately 10 percent of the nation’s organic farming community.
A college student. Those first few years of financial freedom can set a young person up for success – or disaster. Credit unions, as financial cooperatives, have a strong mission to promote financial literacy at an early age, and many partner with local schools to create school-site credit unions. At the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire, the ATMs hosted by Royal Credit Union dispense in $10s, not just $20s, recognizing the financial situation of students. Royal is also known for providing low interest loans on vehicles, and offers programs designed by and for college students and young professionals.
A produce grower. A farmer grows local potatoes. The nearby hospital wants local potatoes to serve in its cafeteria. But neither entity has the capacity to make the connection. Enter Fifth Season Cooperative, a full-service, local food broker meeting local foods needs in the Upper Midwest. As a hybrid (or multi-stakeholder) co-op, Fifth Season is uniquely positioned to benefit stakeholders who would normally be opposite each other at the bargaining table; their diverse membership includes farmer/producers, producer groups, processors, distributors, buyers, and workers.
A home care worker. Home care workers manage the everyday needs of the elderly and disabled in our communities, allowing people to live affordably, and with dignity, in their own homes. But the pay is typically low and the work is difficult – so turnover is high, especially as many home care workers function as private contractors with little formal education and no benefits like workers’ comp or health insurance provided. Cooperative Care was formed in 2001 when workers in rural Waushara County, Wisconsin, came together to better their own lives – and those of their clients – through a worker cooperative. Today, 55 caregivers provide excellent care and service – and they do so as leaders and owners, not just as employees.
A hardware store owner. Many rural communities and small towns are served by ACE or True Value hardware stores. What many farmer co-op members may not realize is how much they have in common with these store owners – for they are co-op members, too. ACE and True Value (and Carpet One, in the flooring business) represent a somewhat hidden sector – purchasing cooperatives – which allow independent retailers to have access to the benefits, insurance and advertising clout of much bigger businesses – while retaining local ownership and control on Main Streets across the country.
October is Co-op Month, an excellent time to celebrate this centuries-old business model that is making waves in a modern world that is looking for more affordable, accessible paths to ownership – and toward greater civic engagement and a stronger democracy that benefits all.
Looking for more on how you can explore, advance, and celebrate cooperatives? Visit https://cooperativesforabetterworld.coop/