To find their voice in the economy, people should consider the cooperative business model

Big Flat Co-op helped preserve the rural town of Turner, Montana.Big Flat Co-op helped preserve the rural town of Turner, Montana.Big Flat Co-op helped preserve the rural town of Turner, Montana.As has been chronicled in numerous press stories and books in the past months, many people in rural America are feeling a heightened sense of resentment and lack of trust in institutions. More and more say they feel powerless to affect their place in the economy.

This past Friday, I participated on a panel at the Rural Sociology Society’s 2017 Annual Meeting in Columbus, Ohio, entitled: “Where to Go From Here: How to Work Together in the Future.” This panel featured non-academics including a journalist, a lawyer, and yours truly from the cooperative business sector to provide some different perspectives on how rural people can find their footing in today's sometimes-turbulent environment.

I made the point that most rural people are already familiar with one of the most effective tools in empowering people in the economy: cooperatives. By becoming a member of a cooperative, people own, control and benefit from using the business. This virtuous loop of both controlling and benefiting from the business is a tried and true way for rural people to take back some control of their economic lives.

People in rural America can feel marginalized as they risk losing some of their basic services. But Big Flat Co-op in Turner, Montana—a town of just 61 people 190 miles northeast of Great Falls—is a great example of people joining together to shape their economic future. Before the co-op grocery opened in 2013, the closest grocery store—accessible by only one road—was more than a 60-mile round trip. In the winter, snow often closed that road for weeks at a time. 

Even in the best weather, “nobody wanted to drive 31 miles one way for a gallon of milk or a dozen eggs,” said Shannon Van Voast, secretary of the Big Flat Co-op Board of Directors.  

Now, 95 percent of Turner’s population shops at Big Flat Co-op. They no longer need to stockpile staples like milk and bread in their freezers. The co-op also supplies food for school lunches at the local K-12—critical to keeping education close to home for children in Turner and nearby towns. 

“We are finally able to meet the needs of our people,” Van Voast said. “It works because it’s a co-op.”

And co-ops work not just in rural America. During last week’s panel, we also talked about how—contrary to what many have thought in recent years—rural places and the people who live there are not on the margin; rather, they are a harbinger. People in rural communities have seen good jobs disappear as key industries consolidate or move away.

The same dynamic is hitting many urban and exurban areas, leaving many families and communities questioning where they fit in today’s economy. For many people, the answer lies in a strategy that is proven, known and impacts the core of how people interact with the economy—through businesses they own and control. This makes cooperative model more relevant then ever across all kinds of geographies and demographics.

—Doug O’Brien is Executive Vice President of Programs for NCBA CLUSA, where he works with the cooperative community to deepen its impact on the economy.

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