Farmers, perhaps more than others, are familiar with
the term cooperation. But are they familiar with what the term actually
means? Read this article. Then you be the judge.
Cooperation is defined in the dictionary as:
1. The act or practice of cooperating.
2. The association of persons or businesses for
common, usually economic, benefit.
A quick look at an etymological (word origin)
dictionary gives us an even deeper explanation of the term. If you search
all the way back to the year 1398, you will find the term cooperationem,
Latin for “working together.” Search further on the history of the
specific word “co-op” and you will find it was first used in the early
1870s in the United States, a shortening of co-operative store.
Co-op. Now there is a term familiar to most farmers.
The co-op store is where we often buy our feed, our seed, our fuel, our
woven-wire fencing and, for many of us, our clothes. Admittedly, this last
item we are sometimes keenly unaware of. When my daughter was in her late
teens and at the height of fashion consciousness, one day she looked in my
closet, turned around and looked me square in the eye and said, “Dad ...
do you realize that 95 percent of your wardrobe comes from the co-op?” I
responded with a puzzled look on my face, finally muffling a teen-like
“And ...?” We both got a good chuckle out of her observation
concerning my obvious allegiance to the local farm co-op. I made a pledge
to her that I would attempt to make at least a few retail purchases from
businesses other than the farm co-op store.
Cooperatives are a way of life for most rural
residents. Many of us belong to utility cooperatives and farm
cooperatives. Some belong to industry or housing cooperatives. And when we
have a question about something like fertilizer rates or how to rid a yard
of poison ivy, who else should we call but the local cooperative extension
The advantages of membership in a cooperative are
readily apparent for most of us living and working beyond the sidewalks.
By definition, a cooperative is a not-for-profit
business. That often-overlooked fact provides several incentives to the
membership of a cooperative. Any profit the cooperative earns is either
returned to members or invested in the improvement of operations or
services. This allows for high-quality goods and/or services at a fair
price. Why? It’s simple. It is because there is no motivation to reduce
quality or increase prices in the never-ending pursuit of shareholder
earnings/corporate profits at the expense of the customer.
Cooperatives are also great examples of traditional
grass-root efforts in the private sector. Members are made to feel as if
they “own the company” and are encouraged to take charge, vote on
important decisions, and determine the future of the cooperative by
Talk about taking charge. That is exactly what a
group of farmers did in 2004 when faced with a potential economic crisis
in the Shenandoah Valley poultry industry.
The area was rocked one April afternoon when a major
poultry company announced it intended to close its turkey processing plant
in Hinton, Virginia. The poultry complex employed about 1,300 people. One
economic analyst estimated the plant closure would have a
$150-million-to-$200-million negative impact on the local economy.
In addition to the jobs at the processing plant and
associated feed mill, more than 160 family farms depended on the operation
for a significant part of their livelihood. Suddenly, multi-generation
farms were at risk of being lost within weeks. As one farmer told me,
“No turkeys, no mortgage payment. No mortgage payment, no farm.”
But a dedicated group of farmers and other local
citizens united to create a new cooperative. One leader told me they made
a key decision at the outset – “If we work together and commit
ourselves, we can achieve success, save our jobs, save our farms, and keep
this important part of our heritage and economy viable.” The membership
of the newly formed Virginia Poultry Growers Cooperative worked tirelessly
toward their goal of saving the poultry complex.
But the optimism was not universal. The word on the
street was “They can’t do it. It’s just too big of a mountain to
climb.” As the deadline for the plant closure approached, many had
little hope the operation could be salvaged.
The naysayers, however, underestimated one critical
factor — the value of cooperation. Not only did the Virginia Poultry
Growers Cooperative succeed in raising the funds to purchase the
multi-million-dollar complex within six months (including an $8 million
USDA loan procured with the help of Shenandoah Valley Electric
Cooperative), they turned a profit in the first four months of operation.
Amazingly, the Virginia Poultry Growers Cooperative reported at their
first annual membership meeting the organization earned about $3 million
in net profits during the first four months.
Cooperative president Sonny Meyerhoeffer told the
audience he did not credit just one person for the success of the
cooperative, but felt it was a team effort. “It’s been a group effort,
a good team effort. Not only from the growers and the employees, but also
the community that’s been able to back us and look favorably upon us,”
The success of the cooperative has brought national
attention. A recent article published by the U.S. Department of
Agriculture Rural Development Office stated, “That this development
project succeeded in a co-op launch can clearly be attributed to a number
of important factors, mainly: unwavering dedication and the hard work of
the co-op leaders and members. VPGC can stand as a model for producers on
how to create co-op development fever, and for professional development
practitioners, private businesses and government economic-development
staff on how to coordinate and work together to make a cooperative vision
This extraordinary effort provides us with a true
example of the value of cooperation.
In my dictionary, I recently penciled in a third
definition for the term cooperation: “Virginia Poultry Growers
Jeff Ishee is host and producer of
the award-winning programs “On the Farm” Radio and “Virginia
Farming,” a production of Virginia Public Television. He resides in
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