West central Minnesota newspaper editors showcase history of rural cooperatives in 'Cooperatives 100' exhibit
Two rural newspaper editors created an exhibit featuring 150 photographs and narratives telling the story of 30 different cooperatives in Minnesota as part of the 100th anniversary of the
GRANITE FALLS — Residents of west central Minnesota may not give it a lot of thought, but cooperatives provide many of the goods and services that are central to their daily lives. Filling up a vehicle at the local Cenex, picking up a jug of Land O'Lakes milk, or flipping the light switch on at a home powered by the local cooperative power association are all done without a thought to what made those little reliances possible.
But two editors of rural Minnesota newspapers give cooperatives a lot of thought, and are now telling the story of why others should, too, shifting the lens to the reasons why cooperatives were founded and the people behind them.
Jessica Stolen-Jacobson and Scott Tedrick created an exhibit featuring 150 photographs and narratives about 30 different Minnesota cooperatives. Their exhibit tells the story of what makes cooperatives special.
The exhibit is in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Capper-Volstead Act, which is often called the “Magna Carta of Cooperatives.”
Andrew Volstead, one of the authors of the law, was a congressman from Granite Falls and an advocate for farmers. The legislation he co-authored with Arthur Capper, of Kansas, provided farmers with exemptions from antitrust laws that were preventing them from forming associations to market their products or buy the goods they needed.
Stolen-Jacobson is the editor of the Granite Falls Advocate Tribune, Montevideo American News and the Tri-County News in Cottonwood. Tedrick is a former editor of the Advocate Tribune, and current editor of the Renville Register in Olivia. A Legacy grant awarded by the state arts board allowed them to devote many hours in the past year to visiting and photographing the member-owners of 30 cooperatives in the state.
The 30 cooperatives they feature are but a slice of the 1,023 cooperatives active in Minnesota. There are more than 29,000 active cooperatives throughout the United States.
They wanted to show some of the variety of what cooperatives do, and found plenty of it. Cooperatives are created to address all manner of issues and needs — from a book store launched by anarchists (May Day Books) to an arts cooperative (Black Table Arts) committed to helping Black artists in the Twin Cities to a senior housing cooperative (Gramercy Park) in Rochester.
Stolen-Jacobsen and Tedrick traveled many rural roads to explore the wide-ranging roles of cooperatives in farm country. The Farmers Publishing Company in Bagley has been publishing a weekly newspaper in the community since 1918. The Tyler Lumber Company has been supplying the materials to build homes and farms in a large swath of the southern Minnesota prairie since 1903, or just one year after Volstead was first elected to Congress.
Volstead’s focus in the legislation was on farmers, and Stolen-Jacobson and Tedrick found lots of examples of farmers putting the new law to good use. The Cottonwood Cooperative Oil Company, founded in 1921, was the state’s first oil cooperative.
Locally, west central Minnesotans are familiar with the many farmer cooperatives that market grain or process crops, such as the Farmward Cooperative and Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative. Land O'Lakes, Bongards and the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company are also among the cooperatives which have seen growth and success after humble beginnings.
Renville-Sibley Cooperative Power Association, headquartered in Danube, delivers electric power to just over 1,900 accounts throughout Renville County, and also to households in Sibley, Chippewa, Kandiyohi, Redwood and Nicollet counties. Electric cooperatives serve more than 1.7 million Minnesotans and supply just under 23% of the state's electricity, according to figures from the Minnesota Rural Electric Association.
Both journalists said they returned from their visits with a sense that cooperatives will continue to be a big part of the region's future. Craft breweries, a cooperative to market the perennial grain known as Kernza, and a cooperative devoted to building a rural, fiber-optic system for broadband are just a few examples of more recently founded cooperatives.
No matter the cooperative, the editors said they quickly discovered a common denominator behind each.
“There’s an incredible sense of pride and ownership in it,” Tetrick said, adding, “that sense of service to the community.”
Truth be told, cooperatives are not easy to start, he said. The founders of the cooperatives they visited all shared a passion and motivation to create economic enterprises that also create a better community.
“It’s hard not to fall in love with people driven by that,” said Tedrick.
They also credit the cooperatives they visited with being true to the seven principles of cooperatives, which call for open and voluntary membership and democratic member control.
The full exhibit includes photographs and short narratives on the individual cooperatives. It opened at the K.K. Berge Art Gallery and Bluenose Gopher Public House, both in downtown Granite Falls. Stolen-Jacobsen and Tedrick are hoping to bring the exhibit to other venues in the months ahead, and have also produced a digital version for viewing by use of a QR code.