If I were putting together a Sunday Drive Edition of a scavenger hunt, it would most certainly include the “CO-OP” emblem. You probably know what one I mean: an outline of a red circle and blue circle overlapping and the letters C-O-O-P stamped in the middle.
No matter where you go in the Midwest, you can likely spot this classic symbol. It’s in obvious places like on the side of a grain elevator, gas tank or a business sign. And in more subtle places like old feed buckets, oil drums, clocks and utensils in a grandmother’s kitchen, or on hats and jackets kept by old farmers.
The logo, which was almost universally used by agricultural cooperatives in the 1980s and earlier, has slowly faded from use as modern cooperatives have opted to use their own brands to build recognition and loyalty, which is a smart move from a business perspective.
The nostalgic side of me is a little sad to see the once unified look of cooperatives drift into obsolescence. It makes me think about all the people who are rapidly moving further away from the complex story of how American agriculture came to grow of the safest, most abundant food supply in the world.
Cooperatives played a vital role in that story, and since October is National Co-ops month, I want to share briefly about how co-ops helped build American agriculture into what it is today and how they continue to keep our rural communities strong.
Cooperatives have their roots in agriculture. A group of farmers in England who were getting a raw deal from their suppliers formed the first cooperative several centuries ago. They were paying too much for a terrible product. Eventually the farmers got so frustrated that they decided they could do much better themselves. They pooled their resources to create a business but ended up creating an new framework and guiding principles for cooperatives, which are business collectively owned and operated by their members, who then share in the benefits and profits of the organization.
A century ago, that same model started to make a lot of sense in small remote communities across the Midwest. As farmers began to grow excess grain, they needed somewhere to take it. A group of neighbors could form a cooperative, which allowed them to team up and build an elevator for storage and have an organization that could take care of selling and shipping grain to larger markets. Cooperatives helped farmers make a better living for themselves and their neighbors.
Through the decades, these small community cooperatives have grown and merged with other cooperatives to create more efficiency and adapted to provide new services for their members. However, the guiding principles of serving members and their communities have stayed the same.
The people who started those cooperatives probably were not that different from you and me. They were trying to build a business, make a living and support their families. What made them special was the willingness to do something risky. They joined their neighbors, taking a chance together in hopes it would fix their problems.
In the spirit of cooperatives and the pioneers who built them, I challenge you to look around at your community. What problems need solving? No one is going to solve them for you. You do not necessarily have to start a cooperative to fix every problem but working together with your neighbors and investing in your community are great places to start.
And if you do have a local co-op, remember support them is just like supporting your neighbors and community.