Student-operated cooperative now managing 300-acre farm at OVCTC

By Joy Bauman
Center for Cooperatives Program Coordinator

The CFAES Center for Cooperatives team has been working with the Agriculture Business Management students at the Ohio Valley Career and Technical Center in Adams County, Ohio to form a student-operated cooperative to manage the school’s 300-acre farm. The farm is a learning laboratory, providing valuable opportunities for students to gain hands-on experience managing and operating a farm. 

The students and Mr. Luke Rhonemus, the Farm Business Management program instructor and FFA advisor, have developed a relationship with the OSU South Centers staff over the past few years, starting with Joy Bauman who is currently a program coordinator with the Center for Cooperatives. Joy assisted the program in developing a working business plan for the school farm when Mr. Rhonemus first became the OVCTC Agriculture Business Management instructor in August 2016. Joy conducted farm business planning workshops and provided guidance to the students as they developed their farm business plan, which enabled the school farm to receive a $25,000 agriculture development grant from the Southern Ohio Agricultural and Community Development Foundation for infrastructure improvements and equipment purchases. At that time, the school farm comprised just over 100 acres. 

Recently, the district purchased an additional 200 acres to allow the students to expand the farm operation. Presently, the students raise beef cattle, meat goats, market hogs, corn, soybeans, and hay. For many years, tobacco was raised on the school farm, but presently, the students only raise tobacco seedlings in the program’s greenhouse to be sold as transplants. In addition, the students manage 300 taps for maple syrup production. The students sell the syrup, as well as freezer pork and hay. Mr. Rhonemus, who is in his 17th year of teaching high school agriculture and is a lifelong farmer himself, wanted the students to get as much practical experience as possible, including making management decisions, hands-on production, and marketing. 

The CFAES Center for Cooperatives staff members have been working with the students to develop a student-operated farm cooperative using the worker-owner cooperative model. The students learned about agricultural cooperatives and cooperative principles through lessons taught by Hannah Scott, Joy Bauman, and Ivory Harlow. Staff members used Co-op Mastery, the Center’s online cooperative educational platform, along with its companion workbook to help the students develop their cooperative’s bylaws and to begin the business planning for the cooperative.

Students can become members of the farm cooperative by paying a membership fee or by working six hours on the farm. The cooperative members can choose to be affiliated with one or more of the farm production and management committee areas, including livestock, crops, specialty products, and ag mechanics. Each committee recently elected two representatives to the cooperative board of directors to make business and management decisions for the farm. 

“This will give the students hands-on experience with running a business, particularly a cooperative, and serving on a board of directors,” said Bauman. Meanwhile, all of the student co-op members have the potential to earn money and/or receive farm products based on their personal share of the work contributed to the co-op.

Bauman explained that being a farm co-op member and working on the school farm can be part of a student’s FFA Supervised Agricultural Experience project and help them meet the qualifications to earn their State and American FFA Degrees. The student members of the cooperative keep track of their hours spent working for the farm cooperative in the FFA’s online record-keeping system. At the end of the fiscal year, if the farm makes any profit and the board decides to return a portion of the profit to the members, patronage (surplus profit) can be returned to cooperative members to share in the profits or products from the farm, based proportionally on the time invested by individual members. But first, the student-managers must make sure that adequate resources remain to keep the operation going.

“Much like real-life farming, there is no guaranteed profit,” Mr. Rhonemus told his students. There is a chance that no patronage will be returned if the board determines that there are insufficient resources to do so at the end of the cooperative’s fiscal year. As with any farm or business operation, there is risk involved. “For our students, that primary risk is their time investment,” Mr. Rhonemus explained.

The students in the Agriculture Business Management and Ag Mechanics programs at the OVCTC have always worked on the school farm, caring for livestock and crops as well as working on equipment and performing routine maintenance. By forming a student cooperative to operate the farm, the students get to be involved on a new level. “We really do care about the management decisions we make and how that relates to the farm’s profitability, because that will determine how much each of our members financially benefit,” said junior, Kamden Crum, one of the co-op members. “It’s helping us to really see how important it is to operate our farm efficiently,” said senior, Jaycee Baldwin, another student member.

Bauman has enjoyed working with the OVCTC students and instructors. “Having students learn about the cooperative business structure, along with hands-on management of an agricultural cooperative just adds to the vast amount of practical experience the students receive in the OVCTC ag programs,” she concluded.