Election points to rural challenges – here’s how co-ops can be part of solution

Cooperatives are a proven and resilient strategy to empower rural Americans, ensuring that they own, control and benefit from the businesses they use. [photo: Cooperative Network]Cooperatives are a proven and resilient strategy to empower rural Americans, ensuring that they own, control and benefit from the businesses they use. [photo: Cooperative Network]In the wake of the 2016 election, political observers have paid a significant amount of attention to rural Americans who, as a group, had a deep impact on the results. Now that the election is over, it’s time to ask what types of policies would make the most positive impact for people who live in rural places.

In a recent piece published in Choices Magazine, I join my coauthor Mary Ahearn in examining the role that rural Americans had in the election, economic and societal trends in rural places, and pointing out some areas of public investments that could make a significant impact in rural places, such as expanded broadband. We conclude that now is the time to empower people in their businesses and their communities through the cooperative business model and other strategies.

The diverse economic profile of rural America makes it clear that solutions to rural development challenges are going to come from multiple policy areas including, and well beyond, farm income and price support policies. Although “rural” and “agriculture” are not synonymous, many rural places continue to rely on the agriculture economy and the reverse is even more common: the vast majority of farm households rely on the non-farm rural economy for off-farm income opportunities and the essential quality of life factors such as health care, education and entertainment. So it only makes sense that a renewed rural coalition of agricultural and non-agricultural stakeholders look for ways to work together on a rural agenda.

One proven and resilient strategy to empower people in their business focusses on utilizing cooperatives so that farmers and rural citizens can own, control and benefit from the businesses they use. There are relatively well-known examples in agricultural marketing (the major farm cooperatives), finance (through Farm Credit Institutions and credit unions), and utilities and energy distribution (through the Rural Electric Cooperative system, water systems and telecommunications cooperatives). And there are less-known examples of people coming together to solve community challenges, such as the need for a grocery store or home health care.

Cooperatives, democratically controlled businesses with each member-owner exercising representation in the firm, provide their members a platform to participate in major decisions of the business and creates an opportunity for rural households to band together to reach the scale needed to more effectively obtain goods or services or market their products.

As policymakers look at the next farm bill, infrastructure, tax reform and appropriations opportunities, they should consider focusing resources on programs that build the institutional capacity to strengthen cooperatives and other businesses that empower and serve rural people. This can be done through USDA’s Rural Cooperative Development Grant Program and through other federal research and business development programs in the Small Business Administration, Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Agency and throughout the federal government.

Beyond empowering people in their businesses through the use of cooperatives, policymakers need to look at old and new ways to develop leadership and meaningful opportunities for rural citizens to participate in the policy and investment decisions that affect their communities.

To read more about the rural implications and policy ideas in light of the 2016 election, see the full piece here, published by Choices.


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