National Co-op month has special meaning for Wisconsin

During October, both Milwaukee and Madison will observe National Co-op Month, celebrating the state’s jointly owned and democratically controlled cooperative institutions.

But really, any month is a good one to celebrate Wisconsin cooperatives. Wisconsin and Minnesota are the top co-op states. From the houses of latter-day hippies to board rooms of massive financial institutions, co-ops cover the Wisconsin map.

During National Co-op Month, Milwaukee will host its second-ever Co-op Fest, a gathering of members from more than 10 cooperatives.

The first Co-op Fest was held three years ago, says Erin Christman, who serves on the board of the Riverwest Cooperative Alliance, which is helping to organize the event set for Oct. 7–8. The alliance itself is a cooperative, made up of other Milwaukee co-ops.

One reason for the festival is “to celebrate the fact that our neighborhood has so many co-ops,” says Christman.

The event will be centered in and around Garden Park, on the corner of East Locust and North Bremen streets. The festival will recognize the fifth anniversary of the Riverwest Public House and the 15th anniversary of the Riverwest Food Co-op.

“And there’s a learning option for people to see how they can be involved, what a co-op can do and what a co-op can do for them,” Christman says.

Madison will also celebrate National Co-op Month with Co-op Connection. Twenty co-ops join together Oct. 1, just off Capitol Square. Family activities, prizes and product samples will be featured.

One of the event’s sponsors is the Willy Street Co-op — a grocery chain that captures the dynamism of cooperative organizations. Nicknamed for its longtime home on the city’s Williamson Street, it’s soon opening its third area location.

“The support of our owners is the primary reason we grow,” says director of communications Brendon Smith.

“We literally would not exist without our owners,” he adds. “That’s one of the great things about cooperatives — they are formed because of the needs of a group of people and, as long as the co-op is fulfilling that need, they’ll be around. They won’t get bought out by another business or leave town.”

Cooperative Wisconsin

The Badger State boasts more than 770 cooperatives — only Minnesota might have more.

Wisconsin’s Dane County has more co-ops per capita than anywhere in the country. Vernon County, with cooperative-friendly towns such as Viroqua and Westby, is close behind.

Combined, Wisconsin co-ops gross more than $17 billion annually. They provide food, housing, electricity, phone service, insurance, financing and much more.

Yearly Wisconsin co-op wages total more than $1.5 billion.

These impressive figures come from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Cooperatives. Supported in part by UW Extension, the center’s mission includes research, outreach and education, reaching across co-op types and industries.

“Cooperatives not only create good-paying jobs, they also give employees and local communities an opportunity to be directly involved in business decisions,” says U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis. He and U.S. Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., recently organized the bipartisan Congressional Cooperative Business Caucus to help lawmakers enact cooperative-friendly legislation.

Co-op means …

Besides a place to buy granola or bulk bulgur, what, exactly is a co-op?

According to the International Cooperative Alliance, “A co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise.”

“It’s a business model,” says Courtney Berner, cooperative development specialist at the Center for Cooperatives. A cooperative is a kind of incorporation under state law. Some co-ops are tax-exempt, a status determined at the federal level.

Virtually any kind of business activity can be organized as a cooperative.

Most co-ops fall into one of the following categories:

A marketing cooperative allows its members to bundle their products together to get access to larger markets, negotiate pricing and advertise. Examples of this type of co-op include Land O’Lakes, Ocean Spray and Sunkist. Wisconsin’s Organic Valley, based in La Farge, is America’s largest organic farmer-owned cooperative.

Consumer, purchasing and farm supply cooperatives are organized to combine demand so members receive specialized goods or services, better variety or pricing. Examples include credit unions, housing co-ops, some phone and electric companies, and grocery co-ops. Members of some purchasing co-ops are likely mistaken for franchises or chains, such as Best Western hotels and True Value hardware stores. “It’s behind the scenes,” Berner says. “People just don’t know.”

Worker cooperatives are made up of members who are not necessarily end-users of the business’ goods or services. Profits are distributed to workers who own, control and directly participate in the business. Madison’s Union Cab is an example.

Finally, multi-stakeholder cooperatives combine various kinds of members who share a broad goal. They can include individuals, businesses, consumers, producers, workers and even investors. Wisconsin’s own Producers & Buyers Co-op, which brings together food producers and institutions that need food, is an example.

American as apple pie

In 1752, Benjamin Franklin founded the first cooperative in what would become the United States.

Co-ops followed settlers as they traveled west. Sometimes referenced in Wild West movies, The Grange was founded in 1867 to promote community and agriculture. The movement spread rapidly and the organization survives today.

“Once cooperatives are up and running, they tend to last longer than other businesses,” Berner says. “They tend to be more resilient in the face of downturns.”

Scandinavian settlers especially were receptive to co-op organization, and so a longtime hotbed for co-ops has been Vernon County, home to Vernon Electric Cooperative, Vernon Communications Cooperative, Organic Valley and more.

“I think it was a matter of European culture but also necessity,” Berner says. “A lot of the early co-ops in Wisconsin, in the early 1800s, were dairy and cheese cooperatives, and the next co-ops were for other agricultural commodities. Part of that is that farmers weren’t getting fair prices. Power was in the hands of the processors. You’re really in a spot if someone does not come to pick up your milk.”

Whatever their nature, co-ops tend to observe the Rochdale Principles. That name comes from the English community where they were originally outlined in 1884 by a consumer cooperative in response to the abuses of the Industrial Revolution.

The Rochdale Principles forbid discrimination and require that cooperative membership be voluntary. Cooperatives must be run democratically and they must provide education and training to their members. Above all, cooperatives must cooperate between themselves; many startup co-ops have been given a hand by older, established ones.

“We’ve helped new co-ops get started or provide help to other co-ops, and they’ve helped us, too,” Smith says.

On the WEB

For more information on cooperatives, visit the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives,

For more information on the Milwaukee Co-op Fest, visit

For more information on the Madison Co-op Connection, visit

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