Cooperative efforts for good and mischief

By Matt Reese

Cooperatives can be excellent tools for connecting consumers with the farms that produced their food.

I have younger twin brothers who caused more than double the amount of parental consternation as young children through their cooperative efforts. On one occasion, the twins were around four years old and had gone upstairs to bed. My dad heard several strange noises outside and went to investigate. He was somewhat surprised to find a pile of toys, clothes, sheets, shoes, and just about everything else from the twins’ room in a pile below their open window.

As it turns out, the four-year olds, rather than going to sleep, decided it would be fun to work together to remove the screen from their window and throw the contents of their room outside. My concerned parents rushed upstairs to find the mostly empty room and the twins both straining beneath one of their mattresses that was partially shoved into the open window. They discovered early on that a cooperative effort could be very effective.

In the adult world, a wide variety of business cooperatives take a similar approach in pooling the inputs for the benefit of accomplishing the goals of everyone involved. In terms of agriculture, farmers are familiar with valuable marketing outlet and various services cooperatives can bring to their farms. Often, though, they do not think about the benefits the cooperatives offer consumers.

As more consumers want more information about their food, cooperatives can provide the increasingly desired farm connection with high quality food for consumers.

“The consumer is far more entrenched with cooperatives than they may realize. It may be a mutual insurance company or credit union. A lot of the branded products that they buy such as Welch’s Grape Juice, Ocean Spray Cranberry or Ohio Signature Beef all have cooperative connections. Cooperatives offer the consumer a pretty direct pipeline to the farmer who produced their food,” said Dennis Bolling, President and CEO of United Producers, Inc. that works with 40,000 livestock producers in eight states. “That is a growing emphasis of a lot of consumers who want to know where their food comes from and how it was produced.”

In a world economy such as ours, there is comfort for consumers when they know where their food comes from.

“Consumers and retailers are seeing the value in this connection to local foods,” Bolling said. “The consumers can put value on cooperatives because of the intrinsic value in which ag operates — good people doing a good job to produce safe, healthy food. Now more consumers want the added knowledge of where their food came from. A cooperative is often the linkage from the consumer to the farm.”

Going an additional step for the consumer, many cooperatives form a specialty brand that provides specific products that people want, including products that can be traced back to a specific farmer. Food is also safer and of consistently higher quality because of cooperatives.

“If you take programs like Pork Quality Assurance, UPI is the intermediary that assures at the farm level that all those practices to ensure quality are adhered to,” Bolling said. “The consumer is ultimately dependent upon how good a job the farmer does. We’re in business to keep farmers in business, so we help them do source and age verification, animal ID that allows for trace-back and other safety nets that consumers just take for granted.

“The co-op has the same vested interest that the farmer has, and one of those things is keeping consumers safe. And, somebody has to make sure all of the safety standards required by retailers are done, and that is a role of cooperatives. Those retailers hold us accountable, we hold the farmer accountable and farmers hold themselves accountable because that is the right thing to do for their business.”

Cooperatives also make farms of all sizes more viable, benefiting local economies and rural life.

Farmers see first hand the benefits of aggregating volume for their operations, but in terms of providing what consumers demand and accomplishing goals, cooperative efforts can also be very effective — just ask my brothers.

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