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Co-ops: quiet players with big role

The grain silos of small-town co-ops are like beacons for travelers crossing the Corn Belt and High Plains wheat country. They're so common they're easy to take for granted.
But Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC), wants the public to know how important they, and the less obvious players in the nation's farmer cooperative system are. 
Recently Conner and Jeff Solberg, CEO of Growmark, Inc., stopped in Des Moines, Iowa, to promote the Year of the Farmer Co-op. NCFC's year-long outreach follows separate declarations last year by the U.S. Senate and the United Nations that 2012 is the International Year of Cooperatives.
At the NCFC annual meeting in Washington later this month, the group will be reminding the public about the importance of cooperatives.
"Nationally, we think co-ops are responsible for over 300,000 jobs," Conner told during his visit to Des Moines.
Local and regional co-ops such as Growmark, are part of that sector of the economy. So is the Farm Credit System. It includes many familiar consumer brands, too--Welches, Ocean Spray, Blue Diamond, Sunkist and Land O' Lakes.
Yet, "It's an individual farmer behind this operations," Conner said. 
Like much of agriculture these days, Growmark, based in Bloomington, Illinois, is doing well.
Solberg said the co-op expects to have $10 billion in sales in its 2012 fiscal year that ends on August 31. A decade ago, its sales totaled $1 billion.
"Just the commodity prices of today have driven sales to a high level," Solberg said.
And the co-op is "probably as well capitalized as it's been in decades," he said.
"We feel really good about demand in this business, with ethanol, exports that continue to grow, and feed use," he said.
And, like everyone else, he's hoping the weather this summer will also be cooperative, coming through with enough rain for a much-needed 2012 crop.
A video the importance of co-ops is posted on the Year of the Farmer Cooperative announcement
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