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September 16, 2013
By Matthew J. Lohr, Commissioner, Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services 
Contact: Elaine J. Lidholm, 804.786.7686

A few weeks ago I had the honor of speaking at the National Institute of Cooperative Education Conference at Virginia Tech. Preparing for that speech started me thinking about the successes and benefits of coops, and I realized this was an aspect of agriculture where we don’t always give enough credit.

Sometimes these coops spring up due to adverse circumstances such as the closing of a dairy, processing plant or livestock market. Often they are created out of a desire for a group of farmers to market their products more efficiently and profitability. Combined with the reason for creating a coop is often the desire to provide a high level of customer service with a face. Exhibit A in this latter group is the Shenandoah Family Farms Cooperative that proclaims on its homepage, “We want to be your farmer for generations to come.”

I believe it is that personal touch that gives farmer-owned cooperatives their unique and special appeal.

While I am focusing on farmer-owned coops today, let me say from the start that I also am a big supporter of other kinds of agricultural coops. Whether they sell seeds and farm equipment or provide electricity in rural areas, these organizations do much to enhance the quality of life in our farming communities. But for now, I want to stick to the farmer-owned and operated coops.

Almost 10 years ago in Virginia, April 2004 to be exact, a large national company announced it was going to sell or close its turkey operations in Virginia, sending nearly 170 farm families and 1,800 employees into an alarming quandary: what do we do now? Without a contract to grow turkeys, their financial future was in jeopardy, and the window to find a solution was short. The company needed a buyer by early fall.

Growers decided to take the search for a solution into their own hands. They made a financial commitment to form a farmer’s coop to purchase the plant rather than let it shut down. They were able to staff the plant and buy turkey poults to place on members’ farms. Known originally as the Virginia Poultry Growers Cooperative, they forged a unique market strategy to sell meat to other further processors and began processing turkeys in November 2004.

Today, as the VPGC, LLC, the coop sells breast meat to high end deli producers and exports dark meat overseas. The farmers that make up the cooperative have been growing turkeys for decades. Many of these farms have been passed down through generations. Today the only difference is that they grow an even better turkey and the farmers keep the profits. See for more information.

Now let’s flash forward a few years. A new coop has just formed within the last month that brings together farmers from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley who left their larger coops in order to focus on marketing locally. Very soon, they will begin offering fluid milk, ice cream and butter to their customers and later add yogurt, other cultured products and possibly cheese.

Shenandoah Family Farms is a 100 percent farmer-owned dairy cooperative located in the historic Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. It specializes in producing high-quality dairy products for local distribution. Currently, 21 farm families participate, all of which are located within an hour or two from the plant in Hagerstown, Maryland.

These farmers produce the highest quality milk from grass fed cows on small herd, family farms. They use natural and sustainable heritage farming practices. Key to this operation is their philosophy; their customers play an important role in how product offerings and plans for the evolution of the cooperative are determined. In other words, the people buying the products have a say in the kinds of products the coop offers.

Shenandoah Family Farms is very proud of its heritage as dairy farmers. Their parents were dairy farmers and so were their grandparents and great grandparents. Some of the member farms are five generations deep. “Our children want the chance to be farmers too, and we want that for them,” they say. See shenandoahfamily for more information.

The Shenandoah Valley seems to be a breeding ground right now for new cooperatives. A little more than a year older than the dairy coop is the Shenandoah Beef Cooperative. Members are quick to point out that where they are located matters. The Shenandoah Valley is ideally suited for raising animals on pasture. Much of the ground is too rocky for tilling, but the soil is rich and the rain is abundant, so the native grasses grow quickly.

There is an economic benefit to this location. Many places require up to 70 acres per cow but in this lush valley it can take as little as two, enabling farmers to produce more beef on less land.

Member Kevin Craun of Van Ike Farms says there is “a sense of ownership and pride that goes along with being a small local coop.” That pride comes through loud and clear as members tell you that they believe flavorful meat starts with the spirit of the soil. Sometimes they sound almost mystical about their calling to raise beef humanely and to protect their local natural resources. They want to ensure that the meat their customers enjoy at dinner makes a positive contribution to the community.

In February 2012 the coop began selling ten whole carcasses every other week to a major meat distributor in Washington, D.C., with the majority of the product going to a single restaurant. To date, 11 producers have supplied cattle to the coop. All cattle originated in Virginia and most were fed on farms in the Shenandoah Valley. The restaurant has expressed interest in more steak cuts, so the coop is looking for an outlet for the remaining cuts. Their Business Plan calls for selling the whole carcass so they don’t have to freeze and inventory product.

These cattle are naturally raised under the following guidelines: antibiotic free, hormone free, no ionophores or growth promotants, no by-products and grain-finished with carcass weights of 700 pounds and heavier. See for more information.

The benefits of buying from a farmer-owned cooperative are many, starting with buying a quality product at a fair price. But there are other benefits, too, such as sharing common values, knowing your producer personally and realizing that his or her commitment to the land and the community is as great as yours.

For the coop owners, I think most of their success comes from the good, old-fashioned principle of always acting responsibly because your customers are also your friends and neighbors. I am very proud to have coops such as these for beef, poultry and dairy in Virginia and I wish them much success now and in the years ahead.

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