Co-ops — closer than you think

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David Callis serves as Vice President of Statewide Services for the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association

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Co-ops — closer than you think

by David Callis, Executive Vice President and General Manager for the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association

Our weekend shopping excursion had several oddly related purchases. Among them: butter, dog food, cranberry juice and running gear. All interconnected to each other. And all have something uniquely in common with your electric bill. The link?

For the first clue, we go to England. The year is 1844, and 28 weavers have just formed the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers. This group of tradesmen was able to collectively sell their products in a store that they could not have individually afforded. Yet working together, they prospered, eventually expanding into ownership of a mill and textile factory. The “Rochdale” principles they adopted eventually evolved into today’s Seven Cooperative Principles. Your electric cooperative still operates by them. And 2012 has been named the International Year of the Cooperative.

Residents of rural and suburban Tennessee are most likely members of an electric or telephone cooperative — often both. Occasionally derided as anachronistic relics of the Depression Era, electric cooperatives are anything but irrelevant. Nationwide, we’re leaders in energy-efficiency efforts, advanced metering infrastructure and alternative energy solutions. Member-owned and member-governed, we are nonprofits, operating as economically as possible and reinvesting margins back into the cooperative and the community.

“At a time when folks are losing faith in big corporations, the International Year of Cooperatives offers us a great opportunity to showcase many ways the local, consumer-owned and member-controlled cooperative form of business benefits communities all over the world,” declares Glenn English, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

The number of cooperatives is staggering: There are 900 electric cooperatives and 260 telephone cooperatives in the U.S., serving 42 million electric co-op members and 1.2 million rural telephone members. All told, the United States boasts 29,200 co-ops that run the gamut from insurance companies, food processors, daycare centers and apartment complexes to the better-known farmers co-ops.

Other familiar names you might not recognize as cooperatives are Ace Hardware, Blue Diamond Almonds, Welch’s, Nationwide Insurance, Sunkist, the Associated Press and Dairy Farmers of America. All are based on the same principle-driven model that forms the foundation for electric cooperatives.

So what co-op stops were on our shopping trip? The butter was made by Land O’ Lakes, the dog food came from Sumner Farmers Co-op, Ocean Spray made the cranberry juice and the running gear came from Recreational Equipment Inc. — better known as REI.
To quote Martin Lowery, longtime cooperative advocate and NRECA executive vice president of external affairs, “Co-ops empower people to take control over their own economic destiny. It’s in every co-op’s DNA to serve members in the best way possible. That’s why co-ops remain the best type of business around.”

For more information about the Rochdale cooperative, Benjamin Franklin’s cooperative effort and an international perspective, go to tnelectric.org.

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