Reflections on 30 Years Working with Co-ops

Advisory Committee Spotlight: David Trechter

head shot of David TrechterProf. David Trechter has long served cooperatives nationally though his research and teaching at University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Trechter joined the faculty in 1990 after earning his Ph.D. from Michigan State University and completing a six-year stint in Washington D.C., working first at the U.S. Department of Agriculture then at the Congressional Budget Office. In addition to his teaching responsibilities, Trechter is a statewide specialist with UW-Extension working in the areas of cooperatives and rural development. Trechter has directed the Survey Research Center at UW-River Falls since 2002, conducting surveys to gather reliable information for cooperatives, municipalities, non-profit groups, school districts, and other organizations. Since 2003, Trechter has provided guidance to the UW Center for Cooperatives through his service on the UWCC advisory committee. This summer, we had a chance to interview Trechter on his long career working with cooperatives.

Looking back over the past 30 years, do you have any comments on the most interesting trends in the co-op sector that you’ve observed?

It’s not a new story, but to me the thing that’s certainly true in food co-ops, and I get the feeling from talking to farmers that it’s similar in agricultural co-ops, and that is differentiation. You hear people asking:

  • “Why am I going to patronize my food co-op to get organic food when Walmart has a huge array of organic food, and probably at a cheaper price?”
  • “What’s different about buying my fertilizer from the co-op than buying it from some private dealer?”
  • “Why should I patronize this co-op? What’s in it for me? How is it different from its competitors?”

As co-ops have gotten larger and more professional, there are fewer directors and local ambassadors. I love co-ops and I am passionate about patronizing them. It’s how you tell the story of how you’re different. That’s what the owner wants to know. If it’s not organic, or they’re not going to differentiate the food from Walmart, what is it? Local, the service, whatever it is that makes the co-op different. It’s increasingly difficult to make that case, that we really are something special.

Do you have any advice for co-ops on how to differentiate themselves?

We give the member a competitive price on fertilizer and cauliflower, and they are going to share in the profit that the co-op has made based on their usage. It’s constantly reiterating, what is it that makes you different? It doesn’t just have to be patronage refunds. It could be tied to local producers and what that does to the local economy. Fewer road miles that it takes to get the brussel sprouts from the producer to your bin. Each business is going to have a unique approach, but it’s constantly telling the story about why the patron ought to spend their money there instead of across the street.

Are there any sectors that are ripe for co-op development?

Early in my career, I received a grant from the Kellogg Foundation to create co-ops outside of the traditional agricultural sector. We launched a co-op in Minnesota for emergency medical services (EMS) that now represents EMS locations across the country. Prior to the co-op, every EMS ordered a custom-built ambulance with different specifications often costing $85,000 – $100,000. The co-op designed a set of standard features and approached providers, “If we commit to buying 15 of these, how much will they cost?” It came to about $60,000. That got the attention of all these businesses. Finding places where the market is not meeting people’s needs is critical.

Affordable housing is likely to be a growth area. In urbanized areas across the country, people are suffering from a lack of affordable housing. A co-op could be something to address that.

The other area is rural broadband. We’re working on a project to test the feasibility of broadband co-op. We surveyed them to gauge interest in their very defined geographic region. We asked do they have internet now, if so, what’s their satisfaction level, interest and willingness to sign up for services around these particular parameters, if they’re interested in a co-op. 70 percent of the people who responded said they’d be very interested in joining. The co-op model certainly is a possibility.

Looking back at your career, what is one thing you would do differently, and thing you would do the same?

I’ve felt very blessed in my career and the things that I’ve been able to do. I don’t think I would do anything particularly different. When you start out you think, well here’s this ladder, I’ll use this strategy. But in reality, at least in my case, all these serendipitous things happened to me. If you’re flexible and willing to adapt, doors open that would not have opened before, and those doors often lead to something that’s really, really interesting. I don’t have any regrets. I’ve been extremely lucky.