Fleeing the co-op Carroll County: Farmer cooperative closings reflect changing needs of agriculture.

February 05, 1997

ANOTHER FARMERS' CO-OP in Carroll County is preparing to close and already one hears the chorus bemoaning the loss of another agricultural tradition and a way of life. That's misguided sentimentalism.

It's the member-farmers who are making sound economic decisions for change, based on today's conditions and competition. Small local cooperatives that served them well in the past may no longer be as effective.

If the members vote this month to close the Southern States co-op in Woodbine, they will merge with and be served by a larger, newer store in Mount Airy that is 10 miles away. The financially troubled Westminster co-op closed its doors in December, leaving members with the option of doing business at the Hampstead Southern States.

Many of the member-owners of the co-ops are retired, with less of an interest in maintaining operations than the active farmers who rely on its services and products. That's certainly a factor. It is also true that the daily operations of the Southern States co-ops are managed by a parent corporation in Virginia, which may have a greater concern for financial performance than for retaining a community service.

But consolidations and efficiencies of scale are taking place in all aspects of agriculture. Local co-operatives that were important to farming may no longer be so, with larger, more efficient providers of supplies in place. People who farm are used to traveling greater distances for all sorts of personal and professional needs.

The various Southern States co-ops around Maryland have adjusted their merchandise and marketing to meet changes. Some of them in the Baltimore region specifically target suburban gardeners and even apartment dwellers with their displays of potting soil, barbecue grills and pet supplies.

Co-ops of all types typically evolve from hands-on, volunteer-labor, member-consumer groups to larger, impersonal organizations selling to everyone and managed by hired professionals. Co-ops have to compete with other businesses on quality, convenience and price. When they don't serve sufficient public need, their members have to make a hard decision, just as any business owner must.

Pub Date: 2/05/97

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