Center for Cooperatives kicks off 3-year student cooperative project

By Joy Bauman
Program Specialist, Center for Cooperatives

The CFAES Center for Cooperatives staff is excited to have started a new project funded by North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NCR-SARE). 
The project incorporates teaching sustainable production and marketing using the cooperative model for the student-managed school farm cooperative at the Ohio Valley Career and Technical Center (OVCTC).  

In November, the project team met at OVCTC near West Union, in Adams County, Ohio to make plans for the three-year project, which formally kicked off with the students on January 8.  The project team, led by Hannah Scott and Joy Bauman from the Center for Cooperatives, includes OSU Extension Direct Ag Marketing Specialist Christie Welch, retired co-op executive and consultant Dennis Bolling, Bill Wickerham, Adams County Soil and Water Conservation District Conservation Specialist and Adams County farmer marketing grass-fed beef, as well as OVCTC Agriculture Business Management Instructor and FFA Advisor Luke Rhonemus.

Since 2016, the CFAES Center for Cooperatives team has worked with Mr. Rhonemus and his 11th and 12th grade students to restructure the management of the school farm. The Center staff taught students the basics of the cooperative business model, met with students to learn about their farm, and helped students explore the ways their farm could be operated as a co-op. The team worked directly with a small group of students to develop the co-op’s bylaws and board structure. In October 2018, students began operating the 300-acre farm under a cooperative structure. Students contribute an initial membership fee of $20 or six hours of labor on the farm to become members of the co-op. Their membership makes them eligible to vote, run for the co-op board, and receive patronage refunds from the co-op. Student members are expected to contribute labor to the farm, which they track in the FFA’s Agriculture Experience Tracker project management system.

Currently, the students produce beef cattle, market hogs, meat goats, corn, soybeans, hay, firewood, maple syrup, and honey. Major decisions for the farm are made through the co-op board. Mr. Rhonemus is a memberof the board and helps guide the students in their decision-making. Income from the farm will ensure that the farm is economically viable. When surplus is generated, the board can choose to return the surplus to student members based on the labor they have contributed to the operation.

The purpose of the NCR-SARE project is to enhance and examine the impacts of a student cooperative learning program. The Center for Cooperatives will educate OVCTC students on the cooperative business model and best practices in co-op management.  Collaborating with retired cooperative executive Dennis Bolling will provide real-world perspectives on co-op management.  “With many co-op managers nearing retirement, training the next generation of co-op leaders is critical to the cooperative community,” said Bolling.

Agricultural marketing specialist Christie Welch is teaching students about marketing concepts like pricing, packaging, and customer demographics using MarketReady® training. Welch has conducted two learning sessions with the students and they have begun developing and implementing a marketing plan for the numerous products produced on the school farm.  “After the very first session the students began putting what they learned into action in order to market freezer pork from 20 market hogs they will send for processing in February and March,” said Welch.

The Center will also collaborate with local farmers and agricultural leaders to share their experiences using innovative marketing and environmentally sustainable production practices.  Farmer and SWCD Conservation Specialist Bill Wickerham will lead and coordinate the education around those topics, collaborating with other area farmers and ag and conservation specialists.  Wickerham explained that his goal is to expose students to innovative approaches and develop their agricultural knowledge. He will be guiding the students as they develop environmental management plans for the school farm. 

“By assisting the students in developing the marketing and environmental plans for their enterprise, it will help develop the students’ planning and business management skills, while hopefully increasing farm profitability,” said Joy Bauman who will be working closely with the students throughout the project.  She explained that students will then implement these plans on their cooperatively managed school farm using seed funding from this project. 

Center staff will collaborate with students to monitor project activities and outcomes to determine successful strategies for teaching young people about the cooperative model and fostering entrepreneurship in rural communities. Team members will assess the success of these strategies on the school farm by tracking activities and examining the farm cooperative’s financial health. Changes in students’ knowledge and attitudes will be examined and feedback will be gathered on the education techniques. Using this information, the team plans to develop a digital toolkit for cooperative developers, educators, and Extension professionals to create similar cooperative learning programs for youth farms, greenhouses, and gardens.

With the OVCTC farm in its infancy as a student cooperative, Mr. Rhonemus and his students are interested in increasing their knowledge about best practices in cooperative management, developing their understanding of agricultural marketing.  The cooperative business model is a promising opportunity for school farms because of the stable nature of the model and the possibilities it affords students. Cooperatives are owned and controlled by their users and provide benefits to their users, often by returning financial surplus to user-owners. Co-ops can be avenues for reaching new markets and realizing efficiencies.

Bauman concluded, “Enhancing students’ knowledge of cooperative best practices and providing them with real-world experiences in cooperative management will help them to better understand the agricultural supply chain, prepare them for career opportunities in agribusiness, develop their practical business skills, and to expose them to an innovative business model.

“As members of a cooperative, students have a personal interest in doing what is best for their farm co-op,” Bauman said. If the farm is productive and profitable, the students personally benefit through patronage refunds that they receive based on the hours of labor they contribute to the farm, but only after they ensure the financial viability of the operation. Not only do students have the opportunity to earn some money for college or other expenses, students who may not have an agricultural background can develop practical agricultural knowledge and skills. All of these experiences are valuable in a rural, Appalachian community where opportunities for students can be limited.