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An urgent need

Co-op founded by farmers seeking dependable source of basic farm supplies
By Glen Liford 1/6/2020

It’s difficult for those who have had access to a local Co-op their whole life to fully understand what it was like before Co-op was established. In this time, when we have the world accessible via our smart phones and the Internet, it’s hard to imagine an era when it was difficult to find a source for the items a farmer needed.

“There were few options in many communities,” explains Paul Binkley, Tennessee Farmers Cooperative director of training and one of those key employees charged with telling and retelling the Co-op story in his educational sessions for trainees and member Co-op directors.

There are few of those who were around when TFC was established and not many truly understand how novel the concept was at the time and how it has shaped Tennessee agriculture, he says.

In the beginning, there was only the idea that working together would work, says Paul. And the early organizers must have been pretty good salesmen to entice their farmer neighbors to invest in an unproven and unfamiliar concept, at least to rural Tennesseans.

Charles Atkins, the retired Tennessee Farmers Cooperative vice president of sales and 2019 James B. Walker Cooperative Spirit Award recipient, shared his earliest memory of the Co-op while being interviewed for the Walker Award presentation. He was a five-year-old child when neighbors came to his dad’s farm to persuade the elder farmer to invest $30 in the business they were starting, which would become Monroe Farmers Co-op (today a part of AgCentral Farmers Co-op). That $30 doesn’t sound like much, but in today’s dollars that would be asking for nearly $450, not a paltry sum especially in those difficult times.

“Dad’s first question was ‘What’s a Co-op?’” remembers Charlie.

As Co-ops were getting started, farmers banded together and set out to ask their neighbors to make an investment in their common future by buying stock in the business. The organizers of Monroe Farmers Co-op, for example, were seeking 100 investors who were willing to risk that $30 to get the business started. What inspired those farmers to take the risk was an urgent need — a need for a reliable and trustworthy source of farm supplies basic to their operations, like seed and fertilizer.

In the Co-op history book, “Tapestry of Success,” published in 1995 on the occasion of TFC’s 50th Anniversary, author Forrest Bradley cited many of the early directors and employees who experienced those times first hand.

He quoted Allen Thomas of Parrottsville, one of the early TFC directors, who recalled that the impetus for starting TFC was the fact that farmers across Tennessee could not get the supplies they needed. He explained:

“The big companies wouldn’t make fertilizer with the analysis that the University of Tennessee recommended that we use on the farm.

“Seed was in about the same situation. They just brought it in and cleaned it and sold it to you. The seed wasn’t certified. You just hoped you got what you were paying for.”

That wasn’t always the case. Charlie relates a story his mentor James Walker, then TFC’s director of sales, told about one of his early jobs as a high school student working for a local farm supply business. The business was selling lespedeza seed. The employees would run the seed through a cleaner and hold on to the debris that was left. Then, when they filled a bag of seed, they would place a stove pipe down in the center of the bag. The seed would fill in around the stove pipe, and then they would fill the pipe with the leftover debris from the cleaning process.

“They were fooling the inspectors because their sample would be from the good seed,” explains Charlie. “But the farmers would be cheated.”

When the Co-ops were getting started those unscrupulous suppliers were among the first to protest, and there was often active opposition to the organization process.

Quoting again from “Tapestry of Success,” Allen explained:

“Businesses that handled what we were buying were against us forming a cooperative here in Cocke County. They called us everything but something good to eat — communists, fascists.

“We told them we would never run anybody out of business as long as they handled good stuff. It took several years before the wholesalers would sell to us, because businesses that handled what they were selling would quit buying from them if they started selling to the Co-op.”

“Dad bought into the [Co-op] idea because he recognized the need,” Charlie continues. “The farmer was at the mercy of the local merchants. My dad realized that farmers needed to control their own destiny.”

As men came back from World War II, many wanted to farm when they returned home.

“The need was exaggerated at that time,” says Charlie. “The need was greater then that it was even in the 1930s.”

That need has been filled by the Co-op for now 75 years and counting.

“Mr. Bailey [W.E. Bailey, former TFC chief executive officer] used to say, and it really stuck with me, that a need fulfilled was often a need that was totally overlooked,” says Charlie. “I’ve used the example of the polio vaccine. Now that we have the vaccine, how many people don’t even talk about it being a problem anymore. In agriculture, there were all kinds of problems. There were problems with finance, with supply, with quality. And that’s what the Co-op was organized to do — take care of those needs of quality, availability, service, and know how.”

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