History: Co-ops In Virginia

Until the latter decades of the 20th Century, Virginia was mainly an agrarian and rural state. The majority of its citizens were either directly involved in the farming or forestry industries or in the processing of the raw products produced on the farms and fields throughout the Commonwealth.

Rural people by nature have a tradition of working together whether gathering to build a barn on a neighbor’s farm or teaming up to help harvest a neighbor’s crops before the first frost. So, it is not surprising that many of the first cooperative businesses in Virginia were organized to serve the needs of farmers by farmers themselves during the 1920s and 1930s.

Unhappy with the quality and price of crop seeds and fertilizers, fencing and other goods, farmers founded farm supply co-ops to pool their orders and purchase only the best products at a lower price.

To receive a fairer price for their products, dairy farmers formed co-ops to collect, process and market their milk collectively. Co-ops were also organized to market tobacco, grain, poultry, eggs and other commodities. Displeased with the service and credit terms extended to them by some banks, farmers with the assistance of the United States Department of Agriculture formed their own cooperative financial institutations such as production credit associations to pool their assets and lend money to themselves.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Virginia’s farmers and their rural neighbors took advantage of the newly-formed Rural Electrification Administration (REA) to obtain low-cost loans and assistance to form their own electric cooperatives and often planted their own poles and strung their own lines to extend electricity down every country road where the big utilities refused to go. Co-ops were also started to provide telephone service in rural areas – often using these same new poles.

In towns and cities, factory workers, teachers and others with shared interest formed credit unions which are cooperative financial institutions as an alternative to investor-owned banks.

Today, most of these original cooperative businesses have grown and still exist to serve new generations of Virginia’s citizens. They have been joined by many new co-op organizations ranging from daycare centers to artist co-ops to a co-op founded to provide broadband service to rural areas. And co-ops remain a vital part of the Commonwealth’s economy.