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Guest Opinions

Cooperatives Continue to Shape the Landscape in Rural Wyoming

Written by Scott Zimmerman

By Scott Zimmerman, Cooperatives Specialist, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union

October is being celebrated across the U.S. as National Cooperative Month, and Governor Matt Mead has signed a proclamation declaring Cooperative Month in Wyoming as part of this celebration. Here at Rocky Mountain Farmers Union and our Cooperative Development Center we applaud the Governor’s action, and we join with him in saluting cooperatives nationwide.  

To understand what cooperatives mean today, it helps to understand the history of cooperatives. The cooperative movement began in Europe in the 19th Century, not long after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The increasing mechanization of the European economy transformed society. It threatened the livelihoods of skilled workers and destroyed businesses too small to compete with industrial giants. Labor and social movements attempted to address the need for change.

The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers was formed in Rochdale, England in 1844. Mechanization was replacing skilled workers with unskilled labor. Weavers were being replaced with machines that produced quantity without much regard for quality. These tradesmen, driven into poverty by industrialization, banded together to open their own store. They designed the Rochdale Principles to govern their business and they pooled their meager capital to stock their store with simple necessities at affordable prices. They were so successful that, in the next 10 years, more than 1,000 co-ops sprang up in Great Britain.

Cooperatives worldwide still subscribe to the Rochdale principles that guided these first cooperators to success. There are seven original principles:
1. Open, voluntary membership
2. Democratic governance (one member, one vote)
3. Members control capital and equity
4. Autonomous, independent governance
5. Education and training in cooperative principles
6. Cooperation among cooperatives
7. Commitment to their communities

Agricultural cooperatives have played a huge role in developing and sustaining local agriculture here in Wyoming and across the West. Wyoming agriculture has created and benefited from three general types of cooperative: service, supply and marketing. Each type fills a different role in our state.
The service cooperative, as its name suggests, provides its member owners with a service typically not available otherwise. A good example of this type of cooperative is member-owned Rural Electric Associations. Had it not been for the vision and hard work of the founding members of these co-ops, rural Wyoming would have remained without electricity many years longer. Co-ops emphasize benefits to members rather than measuring their results in raw profits, so small “local” electric utilities were able to address the need.

The supply cooperative offers its members the opportunity to buy inputs and raw materials at prices competitive with the volume discounts offered to the industrial corporations they must compete with. Typically the co-op can offer the supply item at volume pricing based on the buying power of the entire membership, and typically the co-op will deliver to small, independent operations. Many rural Wyoming agricultural communities have been home to “fuel and supply” cooperatives. These operations offered fuel, seed, fertilizer and farm and ranch supplies to their members. Cenex is a well-known example of this type of cooperative that is still part of the Wyoming landscape.

The marketing cooperative typically pools its members’ goods and offers them for direct sale to obtain the best price. Grain or commodity marketing cooperatives fall into this category, as well as the co-op food markets that benefit both consumers and producers.

Starting in the late 1970s, many states changed the legal definition of “cooperative,” and a new kind of co-op emerged. New-generation cooperatives in rural America adapt traditional cooperative structures to the increasing need for capitalization. Some states now allow capital investors to participate as voting members. This kind of co-op often is an agricultural processor adding value to a primary product. Capitalized by investors and run democratically by members, they might be producing ethanol from corn, pasta from durum wheat or gourmet cheese from goat’s milk. The highly successful Mountain States Lamb Cooperative, headquartered in Douglas, is an example of such a cooperative.

Rocky Mountain Farmers Union takes cooperation as one of its founding principles, and we have promoted cooperative solutions to rural and agricultural challenges for more than 100 years. Since 1991, our foundation has been a leader forming and assisting cooperatives of all types. Our Cooperative Development Center, created in 1996, has used funding from Rural Cooperative Development Grants (RCDG) awarded each year by USDA - Rural Development to support our cooperative development work in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming. In the Center’s 15 years we have helped design, develop, incorporate and manage more than a hundred cooperatives, many of them, like Mountain States, still thriving. We continue to seek out and assist individuals and groups with ideas that may become the next successful cooperative venture.

As you can see, cooperatives have had a significant role in shaping the Wyoming agricultural landscape. We celebrate that role each year in October. RMFU and our Co-op Center will ensure that the role of co-ops will be important for years to come, and we will strive to enhance that role wherever possible.