Taylor Evans

What is a Co-op?

Have you ever wandered down the aisle of your local grocery store and come across products proudly displaying the phrase “Member-Owned”? Have you heard the word “co-operative” and wondered what, exactly, makes a “co-op” different from other types of businesses? Co-operatives or, “co-ops” have a long and rich history as business and organizations world-wide, and many of them are responsible for producing the foods we consumers love to eat!

A co-operative is defined by the International Co-operative Alliance as, “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise” or, put another way, an organization that is owned and governed by the members of that organization. Co-operatives span a wide variety of business types from banks to grocery stores to utility companies! Today 1 in 3 Americans are members of a co-op in a variety of industries shown below.

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While their purposes vary, every co-operative agrees to abide by seven principles of co-operative management. The basic idea behind a co-operative is that a group of individuals working together are more effective than a single individual working on their own to accomplish the same goals. Because each member of a co-operative is also an owner, everyone benefits everyone equally from profit-sharing, combined buying power and economies of scale.

Co-operatives exist across the spectrum of agricultural businesses, and dairy co-operatives were some of the first co-ops organized in the United States – the first co-operative creamery was established in Goshen, Connecticut in 1801. It takes a lot of milk to supply customers’ need for milk, cheese, and yogurt and so farmers saw the opportunity to save time, money, and provide a more consistent and regionally unique product. They organized co-operatives around creameries and distribution services to get milk from cow to customer. There are a number of farmer co-operatives that operate throughout New England of various sizes, from a few members to about 500 member farms!

Photo credit: Cabot Cheese

Being a member of a co-op provides farmers with a host of benefits including ease of distribution, processing, and marketing. Alison Kosakowski Conant, a member of the Cabot Creamery Co-operative, makers of Cabot cheese, detailed some of the best parts about being a part of the co-op:

“There are so many things to manage on a farm every day – keeping cows healthy and happy, growing and harvesting crops, working with staff, maintaining equipment, balancing the books, delivering baby calves, and more… It’s a lot of work for farmers to get fresh, healthy milk into the bulk tank, so the milk truck driver can pick it up once a day and deliver it to the processing plant… [and] that product needs to be safely processed, packaged, transported, distributed, and marketed. While there are some farms that do a terrific job with this [on their own], many others choose to focus on what they know best – dairy farming. The co-op [allows us to focus on farming and] also advocates for farmers and obtains the best possible market price for our milk.” But the farm business isn’t the only part that benefits from membership in a co-operative; according to Kosakowski, “The co-op is a community of farmers who support each other and look out for our collective interests. In a time when very few people make an active living on the farm, the co-op provides a community of folks who share a common purpose and lifestyle.”

From left to right: Dave, Deb, Alison and Ransom Conant of Conant’s Riverside Farm in Richmond, Vermont and members of Cabot Creamery Co-operative.

Co-operatives are an important part of the agricultural landscape… you can feel good about supporting the dairy farming families of New England whenever you see the “Member-Owned and Operated” stamp on any product you purchase! Dairy co-ops sell milk to many different customers or brands. Here are some of the dairy co-operatives in New England and just a few examples of the brands their member’s milk is sold under:

Agri-Mark Cabot Creamery Co-operative, McCadam Cheese
Central Vermont Producers AssociationBooth Bros. Milk
Dairy Farmers of America Guida’s Dairy, Oakhurst Dairy
St. Albans Co-operative Creamery Ben & Jerry’s, Horizon Organic, Vermont Creamery

Taylor Evans

Taylor Evans is a former Program Assistant who focused on grant administration and data collection for New England Dairy and Food Council. Originally from Maryland, Taylor has worked throughout the world of food including managing a small farm right after college. You can always find him outside, typically with his hands in the dirt!

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