co-op month

Logo for Co-op Month

Cooperatives work every day to improve local economies and the economy of its members.

Within a co-op, every member has a vote – everyone who is a member is equal.

That may be even more important in 2020 with the pandemic affecting costs and traditional business structures dissolving.

Collectively owned by the community members, or in many cases, farmers and ranchers, co-ops share the benefits in the good times, as well as the burdens during the hard times.

“That’s how electricity came to rural America. The urban areas had electricity long before, but rural areas could not afford to do it until they formed rural electric co-ops,” said Brianna Ewert, cooperative development program manager for Lake County Community in Missoula, Mont. Brianna and her husband, Zach Ewert, own and operate Crow’s View Farm near Ronan.

In fact, some 42 million Americans rely on electricity from 900 rural electric co-ops in 47 states – making up 42 percent of the nation’s electric distribution.

October has been named National Cooperative Month, and the theme for 2020 is “Co-ops Commit: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.”

The theme highlights how co-ops are creating diverse, equitable and inclusive workplaces and boards, and it suggests how they can better meet the needs of communities that have been excluded from economic participation and advancement.

Agricultural co-ops are continually being formed, and Montana has more agricultural co-ops than any other kind of co-op.

Lake County Community Development Corporation has helped establish several Montana cooperatives, most of them agricultural co-ops, including the Western Montana Growers Co-op, the Montana Poultry Growers Co-op, and the Triple Divide Organic Seed Co-op (a group of farmers that wanted to control the flow of their seeds and have organic seeds).

Other Montana ag co-ops include CHS Inc., Sunkist, Mountain View Co-op, and Central Montana Co-op.

Co-ops improve the economical state of the organization by sharing resources and fairly distributing goods, services and other resources.

“Co-ops can be built around values, which don’t necessarily have to be about money,” Ewert said. “Participation is key to making co-ops work. If it is a food co-op, you also need to buy your food there.”

Members elect a board of directors and board members must also be a member to be on the board.

“One member, one vote,” is the central idea to co-ops.

A lot of co-ops start off as study groups, and cooperatives often help other cooperatives, including helping with funding.

On the farming side, co-ops are helpful because they give members access to quality good and services that they might not be able to afford by themselves.

Co-ops also provide better access to negotiations. Most importantly, co-op members can get a dividend back at the end of the year.

Some co-op fast facts:

  • According to a study by the USDA and the University of Wisconsin, cooperatives have an estimated 350 million members. (Many people belong to more than one cooperative.)
  • Agricultural co-ops are an important subset. America’s farmer cooperatives are setting records. Gross business volume for ag co-ops was up $6.7 billion in 2018 compared to the year before, and farmer co-ops had a record $96.3 billion in assets and a record $44.4 billion in farmer-member equity.
  • The largest number of farmer cooperatives is in Minnesota, followed by Texas, North Dakota, California and Wisconsin. Farm cooperatives did the most business in Iowa ($18.3 billion), followed by Minnesota ($16.2 billion).
  • The first modern cooperative was founded in 1844 in Rochdale, England. While there were many co-ops before this, Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers set down principles by which they operated.
  • When rural towns need grocery stores because a couple has retired and few people want to own a grocery store in a small town, people are forming co-op grocery stores.
  • The name “ag” is in every type of co-op, even non-ag co-ops. The types of co-ops are: an ag marketing co-op, a non-ag cooperative and an ag association co-op.
  • 92 million Americans use 7,500 credit unions – which are cooperatives – for their financial services. Cooperative banks, or credit unions, as they are called in the U.S., were invented in Germany in the mid-19th century.
  • Most of the America’s 2 million farmers are farmer co-op members providing 250,000 jobs and $8 billion in annual wages.
  • 1.2 million U.S. families of all income levels live in homes owned and operated through cooperatives.
  • 233 million people are served by co-op-owned and affiliated insurance companies.