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With Billions in Sales, Some Co-Ops Are Big Business

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When Brent Heuth and a team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin decided to measure the economic impact of cooperative-owned businesses in the United States, they didn't figure it would be too hard.

After all, co-ops have been around for centuries, and tens of millions of Americans are either members of a co-op or, at one time or another, customers.

HealthPartners is a co-op. The organic milk you buy at the grocery store likely came from Organic Valley, the Wisconsin-based co-op that's on track to do $700 million in sales this year. Depending on where you live, the electricity powering your home or business might be coming from Maple Grove-based Great River Energy, a cooperative that is itself owned by 28 co-ops.

REI, the popular outdoor retailer based in Seattle? Co-op.

But Heuth's team found that nobody, including the U.S. Census Bureau, had ever really tried to quantify the co-op economy.

"There was no longitudinal data at all," said Heuth, a professor of agriculture and applied economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "So what we came up with is a snapshot of how big the cooperative economy is today."

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