A Culture of Cooperatives and Entrepreneurial Spirit

Vernon Economic Development Association

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Vernon County, Wisconsin is known for its culture of cooperation. Home to a wealth of cooperatives, this can-do community embraces innovation and opportunity while holding on to rural values and neighborly support.
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“It is a very entrepreneurial region,” says Vernon Economic Development Association Executive Director Sue Noble. “People are used to collaborating to get things done. We have a deep history of innovation and cooperation.”

The county’s homegrown businesses build positive outcomes for the entire community. “Creative, innovative people start their own businesses and create their own economic solutions—they start a business, create jobs and grow the tax base.”

Vernon County’s cooperative business development “started back in tobacco days,” Ms. Noble shares. “Small producers pooled their crops and resources together and started selling as a cooperative, meaning a group of people own and manage the business instead of a sole owner or developer.” The concept spread quickly and today Vernon County’s more than 30 cooperatives cover a remarkably wide variety of sectors including utilities, communications, farmer feed and supply, financial institutions and credit unions, retail food, artisan products, music, health, counseling, and woodland management.

More than 40 percent of Vernon County’s economic activity is directly linked to agriculture, contributing $258 million to its total income. Naturally, many of the community’s most successful co-ops operate within this industry. Most significantly, Vernon County is home to the national headquarters for CROPP/Organic Valley, the largest farmer-owned organic cooperative in North America and the best-selling brand of organic dairy products. The 25-year-old organization hit $1 billion in sales in late 2015, making it the world’s first billion-dollar organic-only food company. Fifth Season is a nationally recognized multi-stakeholder co-op that coordinates moving local food into institutional markets, while Westby Co-op Creamery has been bringing local dairy farmers together for over a century.

Located in scenic southwest Wisconsin, Vernon County offers a mix of farming styles, “from Amish farmers still milking by hand, to vegetable and fruit growers, to grain farmers using their GPS units. Our unique geography of steep hills and coulees have historically constrained farm size to smaller than the average for Wisconsin, creating favorable conditions for small and medium-sized farms.”

The county works hard to preserve and protect the land on which these small farmers depend. “We recognize the value of our land and water as critical resources that form the backbone of our agriculture and tourism as well as the quality of life for everyone that lives here,” Ms. Noble explains. “We have a strong history of conservation and land stewardship practices.” For example, Vernon County was the first testing site for contour farming, a special practice developed by Aldo Leopold that protects against soil erosion.

As stewards of the land, local farmers continue to rely on a variety of conservation practices including crop rotation, nutrient management and integrated pest management as well as perennial grazing practices, planting of cover crops and creation of stream bank buffers and prairie strips to protect environmental resources and provide habitat for wildlife. The Valley Stewardship Network organization provides outreach and support to land owners—including farmers and recreationists—on how to protect their soil and water supply and keep Vernon County a prime farming location. Alternative energy projects, including wind and solar, also demonstrate a commitment to managing resources sustainability.

Many local, conservation-minded farmers choose to farm organically. “Vernon County’s organic farming industry has become the region’s core competitive strength,” Ms. Noble reports. The county is home to over 220 organic farms, the largest number of organic farms per county in Wisconsin and the Midwest. In addition to the Organic Valley co-op, Vernon County boasts 30 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) enterprises that supply seasonal produce, meat and fruit directly to consumers. The community’s top commodities are milk and dairy, cattle, vegetables, and grains, including organic feed crops (corn, soy, peas).

With so much fresh food in the county, food processing has become a thriving local industry. “This region can grow almost anything that a food processor would want to package,” Ms. Noble points out. “We also have shovel-ready land to build on, and the Food Enterprise Center to lease space in.” Located in the City of Viroqua, the Food Enterprise Center is a unique, multi-tenant food processing facility owned and managed by Vernon Economic Development Association. The 100,000 square foot Center creates opportunities for local food entrepreneurs and social investors by providing infrastructure to help food and wellness-related businesses start up and expand. Businesses benefit from onsite technical assistance, personalized business counseling, access to resources, peer mentoring, and the synergy of co-locating with other innovative minds.

“The Food Enterprise Center is nurturing an innovative, entrepreneurial environment and building wealth in the region by engaging local entrepreneurs in their own economic solutions,” says Ms. Noble. “It is an economic development strategy based on community development. The Center’s goal is to turn the food movement into action. We have a facility and a network that welcomes investors, grows food businesses and attracts entrepreneurs to a very cool place to locate a business!”

Vernon County’s food processors have had great success with niche products such as organically certified specialty butters and cheeses, maple syrups, artisan brewed beverages and fermented vegetables. World class award-winning cheeses and butters and many local niche brands are seen on grocery store shelves throughout North America. “Growing top quality foods and adding value through processing makes our products attractive to major local, regional, national, and international markets.”

The community is also home to manufacturers that are unrelated to the food industry. For example, Nelson Global Products designs, manufactures, and markets a wide variety of high performance OEM and aftermarket products for the global commercial vehicle, on-highway and off-highway markets and the outdoor recreational vehicle and power markets. S&S Cycle is the world’s largest manufacturer of after-market motorcycle parts, while Borah Teamwear is one of the leading custom sports apparel companies in North America.

Tourism is another important Vernon County industry. Many attractions center around the community’s scenic beauty and strong agricultural heritage. Foodie tours are popular, with plenty of farmers markets, co-ops, restaurants, music festivals, microbreweries, and wineries to visit. Agri-tourism invites travelers to stay on a family farm and try their hand at traditional chores while learning how their food is grown. Many tourists come to Vernon County to visit Amish farms and shop for handmade quilts and furniture.

Nature lovers flock to Vernon County’s wooded hills and valleys for deer and turkey hunting as well as world-renowned trout fishing. Canoers, cyclers, hikers, snowshoe enthusiasts, and cross-country skiers enjoy the community’s network of trails and streams, especially those running through the scenic Wildcat Mountain State Park and Kickapoo Valley Reserve. Boating and fishing of all kinds is enjoyed in the mighty Mississippi River that defines the western border of the county.

Vernon County still has room to grow, and the community is ready to welcome incoming businesses. Ms. Noble has identified several sectors that would be a particularly good fit for the community, most of which would build off of the local agricultural industry. Food waste recycling or recovery businesses that would complement local vegetable and fruit production are in demand. Beverage manufacturers and food processors—especially frozen food enterprises—would also be well positioned in the community. Manufacturers related to recreational sports would also be a good fit.

“In addition to Vernon County’s famously cooperative culture, incoming businesses can rely on multiple means of support,” Ms. Noble points out. Technical support for small business development is provided through Vernon Economic Development Association, the Small Business Development Center at UW-La Crosse, Western Technical College, and local chambers of commerce. Local resources include TIF (Tax Increment Financing) districts, Revolving Loan Funds, strong financial institutions who support business development, local investors who are interested in building local wealth, and business accelerators such as the Food Enterprise Center and Coulee Region Business Center, which work cooperatively together.

The community is excited to continue building upon its cooperative, hard working foundation. “We take pride in the quality of the things we grow and make here. We produce products of such high quality that people all over the world want them, from butter and cheese to motorcycle parts and music. We’re proud to grow local and ship global,” says Ms. Noble.

“We see a bright future for Vernon County arising from our innate entrepreneurial spirit and the culture of cooperatives that has helped our county and our region to grow and prosper,” she summarizes. “Our future is being sustainably built on our innovative agricultural growing practices and our cooperative business culture. Together these world-leading capabilities position Vernon County for continued success.”

September 23, 2017, 3:53 PM EDT

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