Food For Thought

Farmers: A True Example of Cooperation 

by Jeff Ishee, Contributing Columnist

Jeff Ishee

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 office?

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 electing directors.

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,” said Meyerhoeffer.

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 a reality.”

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 Cooperative.”

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 Augusta County.

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