Corporate-run agricultural co-ops are squeezing the very farmers they’re supposed to protect. Making them work again could help revive the heartland.
Should you ever find yourself crossing the Coon Prairie, you’ll come in good time to a place where the speed limit slows and a wooden sign reads “Velkommen til Westby.” Affixed below are insignias from the Jaycees, the Kiwanis Club, and other local fraternity groups, and a plaque reading “ ’78 ’85 ’86 State Football Champs.” Founded by Norwegian settlers in the nineteenth century, today Westby, Wisconsin, is a hamlet of 2,200, populated mostly by their descendants.
Unlike most farm towns across middle America, Westby is holding its own. South Main Street is graced by the Treasures on Main antique shop, Dregne’s Scandinavian Gifts, and Borgen’s Café, where a hanging sign promises “Good Food” to passersby. There’s also the handsome but unpretentious Bekkum Memorial Library, dedicated in 1986 with more than 16,000 books. Few, if any, rich people live here, but poor people are rare, too. Thanks in part to Westby’s strong support for its public schools, 90 percent of the adult population has graduated from high school and more than one in five has a bachelor’s degree or higher, roughly in line with national averages.
If you stay a spell in Westby, you’re likely to notice another of its distinguishing features. Most of the major businesses in town are cooperatives, meaning they’re owned by the same people who use their services. The local phone, cable, and Internet service provider is a co-op dating back to 1950, when local farmers, tired of waiting for distant monopolies to run wires to their homesteads, got together and formed their own telephone company. Similarly, the local electrical utility is a co-op formed in 1938 to bring electricity to the countryside when the power companies didn’t see enough profit in it. The Vernon Electric Cooperative, part of the region’s larger Dairyland Power Cooperative system, is still going strong as it expands into solar and continues to write checks to its 10,000 local owner-users for their share of its surplus revenues. Meanwhile, the Westby Co-op Credit Union offers Westby residents the chance to be their own bankers, and an old-line farmers’ co-op, now called Accelerated Genetics, offers cattle-breeding services to its members.