Tennessee Farms Cooperatives

Johnny Sparkman can take a look around the dairy farm he owns in Sparta and see all sorts of benefits from belonging to cooperatives.

There are the obvious things such as electricity, telephone service and, more recently, access to the Internet. There is the additional farm he purchased not long ago through money he borrowed from Farm Credit Mid-America. Even his daily business dealings are linked to a cooperative.

“We have marketed our milk through a co-op since 1984,” says Sparkman, a fourth generation farmer in White County. “That got us really involved in the dairy industry.

We like to have input with what’s going on with our business, and by being in a co-op you have that. You can get educated on how milk is marketed, things like that. All aspects of our business pretty well relate to co-ops.”

Tennessee Farms Cooperatives

Reaping the Benefits

Tennessee has some 200 cooperatives, from large organizations like the Tennessee Farmers Cooperative and the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation to small, individually owned outfits. Cooperatives are different from other types of businesses in that they are owned and controlled by those who use their products and services. Members have input in a cooperative’s operation and can share in its successes.

While cooperatives play a key role in helping farmers and others in agriculture throughout the state, their impact is felt by everyone living in rural communities.

“That’s exciting to me being from a rural community, to see all of these organizations getting together to further Tennessee’s economy,” says Keith Harrison, marketing, advertising and promotions coordinator for TFC.

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Harrison is the TFC’s representative and vice president on the Tennessee Council of Cooperatives, a nonprofit made up of various cooperatives from across the state. Through conferences, training and scholarships, the Council works to promote the benefits of being a part of cooperatives.

“It’s a real good thing for our organizations to be working together to promote that cooperative spirit, that business model created years ago,” Harrison says. “It still has a tremendous application, even in the complex world that we live in today.”

Tennessee Farms Cooperatives

Education and Training

Rural communities across the state can benefit from grants provided by the USDA Rural Development program. These support public facilities and services such as water and sewer systems, housing, health clinics, emergency service facilities and electric and telephone service. From fiscal years 2009-12, Tennessee received nearly $3.4 billion in funding from the program, according to USDA figures.

Charles Curtis, president of the TCC who retired from Farm Bureau at the end of 2013, has seen a lot of progress being made as a result of cooperatives.

“Life has changed so much because of what the cooperatives have done,” says Curtis, a farmer in Overton County. “When I was little, we didn’t have electricity in the house. A lot of people can’t imagine that, but it was later coming in the rural areas. We’re trying to educate people on what the co-ops do.”

The TCC hosts an annual training workshop for co-op employees and sponsors six college scholarships for agriculture students from each of Tennessee’s four year ag programs.

Part of that education also comes through the TCC’s Young Leaders Conference held each year. It’s a weekend where participants learn about the benefits of cooperative business.

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“We get together with young folks involved in cooperatives, help to train them in leadership, and improve their knowledge of cooperatives,” Harrison says. “And it’s an opportunity for them to get together and socialize. You never know what business will come from that.”

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