As rural communities grapple with plans for economic recovery in the Covid-era, one solution is popping up frequently—co-ops. This trend is not entirely new.
“Co-ops often receive renewed attention during economic crises,” explained Erbin Crowell, chair of the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA CLUSA) and executive director for the Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA), a co-operative federation of food co-ops across New England and New York State.
Surges in co-op launches occurred both after the Great Depression of the 1930s and the more recent Great Recession of the early 2000s. But, “What’s particularly encouraging during this crisis is how many rural communities that may be familiar with co-ops through their local farmer co-operative or utility are looking at innovative ways to use the model,” Crowell said. “This is because they tend to be more participatory, sustainable, and resilient.”
A co-op is owned, operated, and controlled by its members, and it exists to meet their common needs. When the economy is good, co-ops tend to give back, investing in community ties through sponsorships and fundraising. Crowell explained that because the first priority is to meet the needs of its members, rather than maximize its profits, there’s very little chance a co-op would abandon its community.
For rural communities, it’s an approach that just makes sense. “A key strength of the model is that it enables people with limited resources to pool their capital, their shared skills, and economic activity…to build a business to meet their own needs and goals,” Crowell said.
In many ways, food co-ops have been thought leaders in this realm, innovating in remarkable ways to transform their communities and the wider economy. For example, food co-ops pioneered the support of organic agriculture, Fair Trade initiatives, and Buy Local efforts, which have now become mainstream.
But if co-ops are powerful enough to alter the way we view our entire food system, why don’t we see them more often in the broader economy?
“Sadly this model of enterprise is not taught, is not promoted,” said Terence Courtney, Director of Cooperative Development & Strategic Initiatives, Federation of Southern Cooperatives.
Alongside Crowell, Courtney recently spoke at the Radically Rural Remote, during which more than 500 rural community stakeholders from 42 states gathered to learn about innovative practices rural communities are using to not only survive, but flourish.
During the session, Courtney pointed out that while co-ops are a proven model for lifting up disadvantaged and underserved rural communities, they face significant barriers in many parts of the country.
Where he lives, in the South, “There are no enabling statutes, no enabling laws or policies for co-ops,” he explains. In fact, many existing policies hinder a co-operative approach, which he believes is because co-ops are viewed as “too potent of a competitor to the traditional model of business.”
However, Crowell said that in spite of these challenges co-ops still enjoy a high rate of success. For instance, did you know that one in three Americans is a member of a co-op? How about the fact that most of America’s landmass is electrified by community-owned co-operatives? Or that there are more than 5,400 credit unions in the U.S., specifically created to meet the shared needs of working people?
“So we could say that co-ops are underutilized, but we could also say that their level of success and impact for our communities is astounding—and an opportunity that we can build on moving forward,” Crowell said.
Courtney believes the key is Cooperatives’ development. He explained that it’s about “building economic enterprises that benefit more people than a few and help us collectively weather future storms.”
In rural areas, Crowell is already seeing evidence of this strategy in action—electric co-ops expanding renewable energy and connecting isolated communities with broadband, as well as co-ops providing home care for seniors and shelter for people in manufactured housing parks.
By looking to communities that have gone before and calling on local cooperative development resources, rural communities across America can put similar strategies in place. How do we build a recovery plan and a new economy that leaves no one behind? According to Courtney: “Working cooperatively is how we do it.”
Radically Rural explores ways rural leaders are building stronger communities through innovative strategies. The column is produced by the organizers of Radically Rural, an annual summit of rural leaders. For more information about Radically Rural, visit the organization’s website or contact them via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.