Co-op Month: A celebration of our members

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Each October, many cooperatives across the country — including the local cooperative that provides your electric service — celebrate “National Co-op Month.” It has been observed nationally since 1964, when U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman proclaimed October as “Co-op Month.” 

By highlighting the cooperative business model one month each year, we have the opportunity to celebrate the fact that it’s the members at the end of the power lines who own their electric cooperative and elect the board members who direct the co-op’s policy. 

In the United States, there are more than 900 consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives that serve more than 42 million people in 47 states. These cooperatives consist of 834 distribution and 63 generation and transmission co-ops, with assets worth $175 billion and employees numbering 71,000. Cooperatives serve nearly 13% of the nation’s electric meters and deliver 11% of the total kilowatt-hours of electricity produced each year. They also own and maintain 42% of the nation’s electric distribution lines, covering 56% of the nation. Electric cooperatives, collectively, comprise a huge financial and land-mass enterprise that is not-for-profit, member-owned and member-governed.

Beyond the electric industry, the cooperative business model has grown and expanded into many different sectors of our society. A cooperative is broadly defined as “a business owned and democratically controlled by the people who use its services and whose benefits are derived and distributed equitably on the basis of use” (Stephanie Mercier, agweb.com). Cooperatives fall into four different categories — consumer, producer, worker and purchasing/shared services — and they exist to serve the needs of their members. In the agricultural (producer) arena, organizations such as Riceland Foods were set up as cooperatives.

 Many of you know that Riceland provides marketing services to farmers in Arkansas and Missouri who grow rice and soybeans. Riceland serves more than 6,000 farmer-members in these two states, and its employees provide storage, transportation and marketing services for up to 2.5 million metric tons of grain. 

Riceland can also tout its position as the world’s largest miller and marketer of rice, and a major exporter. It is also one of the largest soybean processors in the Mid-South. Riceland exports these agricultural products to more than 75 foreign locations. The list of other agricultural marketing and supply cooperatives include: Land O’Lakes, Ocean Spray, Sunkist, Welch’s, Sun-Maid, Florida’s Natural, Blue Diamond, Sue Bee and Organic Valley. 

In the United States, there are more than 40,000 cooperative businesses with more than 350 million members, some of whom belong to more than one co-op. According to a study conducted by the University of Wisconsin, cooperatives generate more than $514 billion in revenue and more than $25 billion in wages each year. A National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) resource states that the cooperatives in our country provide 2 million jobs. 

Beyond electric and agricultural cooperatives, there are consumer goods and services cooperatives such as REI — Recreational Equipment Incorporated — that has stores across the country and in Japan. There are also preschool and childcare cooperatives, the first of which was established at the University of Chicago. Since then, cooperative preschools have flourished all over the world. Even the U.S. Senate has the Senate Employees Child Care Center, which operates as a cooperative. In the housing area, there are more than 1.5 million families who live in more than 6,400 housing co-ops in major urban areas, such as New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Detroit, Atlanta, Miami and San Francisco. 

Over the decades, and throughout many different sectors of society, the cooperative business model has demonstrated democratic principles and economic success. Cooperatives have flourished and allowed projects to succeed and communities to thrive and prosper. Cooperatives are “the great equalizer.” And that is true for the Arkansas electric cooperatives. Our member-owned, member-driven cooperatives belong to you and are here to provide you with reliable, affordable electricity. And that is the cooperative difference. 

Sandra Byrd is vice presiednt of public affairs and member services for Arkansas Electric Coopertive Corporation (AECC) and Arkansas Electric Cooperative, Inc. (AECI).

 

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