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Voyageur's Best Features of 2002

83 years of Co-operative effor

Eighty-three years of Co-operative effort
Times are good at Wright Farmers' Co-op Store and Feed Mill
by John Grones  |  July 16, 2002

One of the biggest reasons I live rural is the people. I like to call it 'Small Town Appeal'. It is that appeal that drew me into the Wright Farmers' Cooperative Store and Feed Mill this past week. It appears I'm not the only one who likes to visit the store.

After chatting at length with Farmers' Co-op Manager Deb Johnson, I soon discovered several people like coming to the co-op, especially those from out of town. "Those people from the cities that come up, just think it's great because we've got everything they want in the store," said Deb. "They come here and they can get their water softener salt, their dog food, their groceries, their clothes... we'll even give them a cup of coffee, if they want."

There is nothing like the friendly and cooperative nature of the store. Deb and her staff go out of their way to do what comes natural to them — offer friendly service. She said the people are surprised that they get their groceries bagged. "We'll even help them haul it out, if they want," she added. "We've been known to drop off groceries if somebody needs them."

The history of co-ops is very interesting and dates back to the early 1900's. According to the Finnish American Reporter (Nov. 2001), the Wright Cooperative was set up in 1919 and is just one of seven remaining, a small number considering there were 65-plus co-operative stores in Minnesota and Wisconsin by 1917. The store has gone through some ups and downs over the years, and Deb is happy to report they are on another upswing. "The store really hit a 'bummer' in '89 and '90," she said.

The bummer years probably weren't as bad as the bankruptcy years, which occurred early in the cooperative's history. According to Cooperative Builder, Sept. 18, 1969, it was families like the Andersons, Petersons, Johnsons and Wallis that kept the spirit alive. A total of 34 members took out personal bank loans to pay the first $3,833.33 installment in the bankruptcy settlement. This commitment by local families, some 80 years ago, seems a distant memory, but those that are still around can be proud, knowing the store and feed mill are on an upswing after making a profit last year.

Right now, there is no explanation for the improved traffic through the store and feed mill. Deb only hopes that it will continue. She encourages young people to learn more about how cooperatives work, which is exactly what she did for me. Like most younger people my age and below, we grew up on Super Value, Cub Foods, Target, Wal-mart and now Super Wal-mart — a habit for me that is hard to break. However, a few visits to the co-ops and I'm changing my ways. The 'Hometown Appeal' is a powerful draw.

I spent all of Tuesday morning, and part of the afternoon, at the store. It was there that I finally met my new neighbors across the highway, Kenny and Ina Peterson, who just happen to be Deb's parents. Kenny was in purchasing oil for the tractor, one of those items not easily obtained at Cub or Wal-mart. Ina was also in town to make some purchases and slip a birthday present in Deb's car. She turned 52 on July 9th. Her present was an angel statue for the garden. Ina commented to Deb, "Your garden needs all the help it can get."

During our conversation, I found out that Kenny and Ina have new Dachshund puppies available - this is certainly information I wouldn't have found at the mall. Before the Petersons departed, Kenny supplied me with contacts for the field work I'm planning in the fall. Again, more valuable information I probably wouldn't have received, had I gone to Target.

The morning was great. I had gotten an education on the co-operative system. It's quite complicated — yet simple — purchase at the cooperative and build equity. "Where do I sign up?" I asked.

"You don't," said Deb. "Just turn in your receipts at the end of the fiscal year. If we make a profit, your percentage of total purchases are computed and you get 'X' amount. We give 20 percent back in cash at the end of the year and post the remaining 80 percent on your card as equity."

She went on to explain that the equity just keeps building each year until we reach 70 years of age. "Then we pay back half of your equity and the other half you receive when you reach 80." Deb recalls that it used to be that it all got paid back when a person turned 80, but board members determined that it might be more useful if the members got money earlier, so they could enjoy it.

"I remember it passing at an annual meeting and by the first part of September, I had paid out nearly $49,000 dollars in equity. All of these people were between 70 and 80. All of a sudden they could get half their share. Well, I was writing checks left and right."

The fiscal year ends May 31st and most members turn in the receipts by June first. The members can expect their dividend check in December at Christmas coffee. The event takes place at the store along with cookies and fellowship.

Deb reminded me that it is not just the store purchases, but everything bought at the feed mill also. A visit I'd have to save for another day.

The Feed Mill

I met Jeff Hauser on a Wednesday afternoon at the Feed Mill. It was a hot summer day and there was a steady flow of traffic at the Mill. This was gonna be great. I was going to spend an afternoon watching something I had always wanted to do – operate a feed mill. Like the store, the mill is a great place to fellowship and pick up some excellent farming tips.

When I arrived, George Amundson was there picking up some baler twine, fence wire and fence staples. To no one's surprise, George was in good spirits. In fact, I don't recall ever running into George when he's not in a good mood. He was pretty happy to report that his number one son, Brent, was busy back at the farm making hay. As is the custom, when one stops at the mill, we chatted a bit more about farming before he departed.

Kenny Fairbanks walked in, before Jeff could sit down, with a request for horse and chicken feed. Jeff immediately snaked his way back between the sacks of feed and grabbed Kenny's order. While Kenny paid his bill, I took a moment to shoot a few photos of Jeff's stray pet sleeping on a stack of gunny sacks. Jeff refers to him as 'the feed mill cat.' When Kenny finished, Jeff was ready for his scheduled feed delivery to Jerry Line's dairy farm. I got to ride along.

On the way, I found out that Jeff actually lives six miles west of McGregor on Highway 210. He moved to the area in 1971, and worked with his father raising chickens. Their business was called Hausers' Poultry Farm. After that, Jeff went into dairy farming for ten years before going to school at UW-River Falls, where he received his bachelor's degree in Broad Area Farming.

He later worked for a couple of feed companies before working for the Farmers Home Administration (FHA) in North Branch and, later, in Grand Rapids. When the FHA offices decided to consolidate, it would have required a relocation quite a ways away. "My parents live up here and my wife's (Cindy) parents live up here. She wanted to stay in this area, so I had to find something to do. So I ended up at the co-op, here."

When we arrived at Jerry Line's, Jeff went through his routine of lining up the truck and backed the auger right through the grain bin door. Jerry receives feed for his dairy herd every two to three weeks. As I watched the auger move feed from the truck to the barn, I remembered the day my father got his hand caught in one, when I was a child. Fortunately, the auger had a small motor and it stopped turning. With some help from our neighbor and what seemed like hours, we managed to free his hand intact, but he was lucky.

It didn't take long before we were on the road again, and Jeff mentioned the wide variety of feeds the mill has. From cattle to pigs, chickens to horses, they have it. In the fall, deer feed is popular and Jeff will go through plenty of whole or cracked corn.

With the increase in business has come more requests for larger items, such as fencing materials. "We had two requests in one day for a fencing product we didn't have," said Deb Johnson. "We had to send them to Fleet Farm." (That's exactly where I've been going the past six or seven years, and I didn't build any equity there or pick up any farming tips.)

With this in mind, Deb did some checking around and has found a product she feels will be priced competitively with Fleet Farm. The mill now stocks more cattle panels, insulators, steel T-posts and a wide variety of high tensile fence materials. They also have metal gates, four to sixteen feet, in two foot increments. My corrals and paddocks were beginning to form before my eyes, but my dreaming was interrupted when we arrived back at the mill.

Ivona Risacher was waiting for some water softener salt pellets. Jeff grabbed his dolly and was back in action. Before closing up, Robert Besch stopped in for some fencing materials. It was quite an afternoon and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Jeff says that some days can be extremely busy and others can be slow, but one thing is for sure — business is improving. What to attribute the increase at the feed mill to is not known. We both speculated the increase in small-family, hobby farms might be on the rise. I do know it is in the works for me and I can't wait to stop and visit Jeff, grab a couple salt blocks and purchase my first bag of feed. I'll be ready for some fencing material, and I'll probably have some questions for Jeff as I go along.

Jeff wants to be flexible and meet the customers' needs. "The original idea behind co-ops was to buy as a group and get a better price," he says. No problem. I'll be putting up a fence next year and at the same time, supporting my local business and building equity.

This article first appeared in the July 16, 2002 issue of the Voyageur Press.