CORPORATE-RUN AGRICULTURAL CO-OPS ARE SQUEEZING THE VERY FARMERS THEY'RE SUPPOSED TO PROTECT. MAKING THEM WORK AGAIN COULD HELP REVIVE THE HEARTLAND.
Should you ever find yourself crossing the Coon Prairie, you'll come in good time to a place where the speed limit slows and a wooden sign reads "Velkommen til Westby." Affixed below are insignias from the Jaycees, the Kiwanis Club, and other local fraternity groups, and a plaque reading "'78 '85 '86 State Football Champs." Founded by Norwegian settlers in the nineteenth century, today Westby, Wisconsin, is a hamlet of 2,200, populated mostly by their descendants.
Unlike most farm towns across middle America, Westby is holding its own. South Main Street is graced by the Treasures on Main antique shop, Dregne's Scandinavian Gifts, and Borgens Cafe, where a hanging sign promises "Good Food" to passersby. There's also the handsome but unpretentious Bekkum Memorial Library, dedicated in 1986 with more than 16,000 books. Few, if any, rich people live here, but poor people are rare, too. Thanks in part to Westby's strong support for its public schools, 90 percent of the adult population has graduated from high school and more than one in five has a bachelor's degree or higher, roughly in line with national averages.
If you stay a spell in Westby, you're likely to notice another of its distinguishing features. Most of the major businesses in town are cooperatives, meaning they're owned by the same people who use their services. The local phone, cable, and Internet service provider is a co-op dating back to 1950, when local farmers, tired of waiting for distant monopolies to run wires to their homesteads, got together and formed their own telephone company. Similarly, the local electrical utility is a co-op formed in 1938 to bring electricity to the countryside when the power companies didn't see enough profit in it. The Vernon Electric Cooperative, part of the region's larger Dairyland Power Cooperative system, is still going strong as it expands into solar and continues to write checks to its 10,000 local owner-users for their share of its surplus revenues. Meanwhile, the Westby Co-op Credit Union offers Westby residents the chance to be their own bankers, and an old-line farmers' co-op, now called Accelerated Genetics, offers cattle-breeding services to its members.
And then there's Westby's most storied cooperative business, the Westby Cooperative Creamery. It dates back to 1903, when dairy farmers in the surrounding area each pitched in $10 to form a co-op that would provide a stable and competitive market for their milk. Today, around 220 local dairy farm families share ownership of the co-op, many of them third-, fourth-, or even fifth-generation "patrons," as they're known locally.
Every day, a dozen gleaming silver tank trucks transport both conventional and organic milk from these local family farms to a brick creamery roughly the size of a small supermarket on Main Street. The creamery employs about 130 people and generates $50 million in revenue for the local economy, turning out products ranging from cottage cheese and yogurt to sour cream and French onion dip. You can buy Westby-brand milk products at the small store on the premises or at selected outlets throughout the region, from the Piggly Wiggly in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, to the Hy-Vee in Owatonna, Minnesota. They're also now available online.
Darin Von Ruden, an organic dairy farmer and the president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, says he joined the coop in 1991 because "it's still a true cooperative." He's pleased that it's not controlled by highly paid executives who live somewhere else, but by active local farmers like him who "[milk] cows morning and night." As a part owner of the co-op, he is not only paid for his raw milk, but also shares in the revenue the creamery earns from selling milk and milk products to food processors, retailers, and the public.
All in all, Westby is a corner of rural America that's still modestly prosperous. And while its legacy of locally controlled cooperative businesses isn't the only reason, it's a big part of the story. Local farmers are not totally at the mercy of giant agribusinesses when they bring their products to market. Their ownership of the Westby creamery allows them to cut out middlemen and bargain collectively with food processors and retailers to get a fair price. The rest of the town benefits as well from the creamery and the other locally owned co-ops, as money and power that would otherwise flow to the absentee owners and managers of distant corporations instead stay within the community.
But Westby is the exception, not the...