Thanks to the state’s agricultural cooperatives, Montana farmers and ranchers – including those in the state’s most rural areas – have a strong support system that gives them a leg up when it comes to finding a market for their products.
Many of these ag co-ops continue to thrive with assistance from the Montana Cooperative Development Center (MCDC), which promotes and develops cooperatives to benefit the rural economy and strengthen communities across the state. It also partners with the Montana Council of Cooperatives on several joint projects that support and promote Montana’s co-ops.
“Agricultural cooperatives make a lot of sense in small towns where grocery stores that follow the traditional corporate business model might not be economically viable or successful,” says Janice Brown, MCDC’s executive director. “For example, community members can invest in co-ops, they give local producers a place to sell their goods and they give residents access to foods and other items that might not otherwise be readily available. As a result, we do our best to support our state’s ag co-ops, and we accomplish that by assisting boards of directors with governance, offering training for co-op managers and helping the entire co-op team work together to leverage the best prices from distributors.”
Along with supporting existing co-ops, MCDC is instrumental in helping new co-ops get off the ground. The organization recently helped establish Montana’s first industrial hemp co-op, the Bitterroot Hemp Co-op, located in Hamilton and operating as a cooperative association – that means both producers and nonproducers can be active, voting members.
“With funding from MCDC, the Ravalli County Economic Development Authority supported the creation of the Bitterroot Hemp Co-op,” Brown says. “They’ve been highly successful with support and interest from both industrial hemp producers and those who would like to use the crop to make value-added products.”
Other successful ag co-ops across the state include the Western Montana Growers Cooperative, which is a coalition of growers in the Flathead, Jocko, Mission and Bitterroot Valley that operates as a cooperative agricultural marketing association, as well as the Montana Organic Producers Co-op. Montana has plenty of new co-ops, too, such as the Yellowstone Valley Food Hub, which aims to link small farmers with a market for their products.
“The co-op model ensures that each member only has one vote, no matter the size or scope of their operation, and that makes it a very democratic business model,” Brown says. “In rural states like Montana where we take great pride in our independence and patriotism, co-ops make perfect sense; they embody those core American values and guarantee that everyone has a voice. With that in mind, there’s no doubt ag co-ops will continue to thrive across the state.”