North Carolina’s cooperative ecosystem is building inclusive, equitable and resilient communities


From the misty peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the sandy shores of the Outer Banks, North Carolina showcases how the power of cooperation across multiple industries can nurture a thriving environment and encourage empowerment in communities.  

At its core, a cooperative ecosystem represents a symbiotic relationship between entities and people, working together towards shared goals for mutual benefit and collective prosperity. In the context of North Carolina, this concept extends beyond traditional notions of cooperatives as we know it and gives us an idea of how we can use this state as an example to set the standard for cooperatives across the country and beyond. 

As advocates for collaborative initiatives and champions of building cooperative ecosystems, NCBA CLUSA’s Strengthening Cooperative Communities project recently embarked on a journey to the heart of North Carolina to attend Small Farms Week at North Carolina A&T State University and the Cooperative Council of North Carolina’s Cooperative Conference and 2024 Annual Meeting, a gathering of cooperative leaders and stakeholders committed to advancing the cooperative movement. This convergence of events provided a unique opportunity to witness firsthand the collaborative spirit and collective vision driving North Carolina’s cooperative ecosystem forward.  

During our time, we celebrated the resilience and innovation of North Carolina’s agricultural community, where small-scale farmers were honored for their invaluable contributions to the state’s agricultural heritage and met with many members of cooperatives across North Carolina to discuss the future of cooperatives, and how we can make an impact. Here are a few things we learned. 

Cooperatives Power North Carolina—Literally

North Carolina’s 26 electric cooperatives employ more than 1,300 lineworkers across the state, connecting 106,000 miles of line between rural and suburban communities. [photo courtesy NCEC]
There are 26 local electric cooperatives throughout the state of North Carolina, and Charlie Farrell, Manager of Business Insight at North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives (NCEC), gave us deeper insight into NCEC’s commitment to community empowerment, economic development, energy efficiency and sustainability. NCEC provides power to roughly 2.5 million North Carolinians, covering 45 percent of the state’s land mass and serving 24 percent of its population.  

“Electric cooperatives are locally owned, operated and governed, which means they are directly in the communities they serve,” Farrell said. “When you call your local electric cooperative, you’re talking to somebody who is familiar with the geography, the community, the schools and what matters most to the people who live there. And that alone is what sets us apart from other privately owned electrical companies,” he added. 

This is especially important for the rural areas North Carolina’s electric co-ops serve, considering the changes in demographics, demand and needs in those areas. “It’s about being a voice and advocating for those who are underserved and typically forgotten. Demand is constantly changing, and it’s on us to stay ahead of the curve and provide not only quality service, but education as well,” Farrell said. 

“There’s also a lot of educational aspects we focus on with the General Assembly and our legislative partners. We’re talking with them about the challenges and the needs for people across the state and their constituents, because we must plan for the future.” In this way, Farrell is ensuring rural electric cooperatives are always at the forefront of change for North Carolinians and their energy demands.

Cooperatives Can Be Used to Implement Change 

There’s a mutual connection between the way cooperatives operate in Ghana and in the U.S.—by using cooperatives as an engine to implement change. Dr. Osei-Agyemang Yeboah, professor and director at the L. C. Cooper, Jr. International Trade Center at North Carolina A&T State University, explained the similarities between both countries. 

“In 2022, I was in Ghana and during a community forum, farmers complained about not getting access to fertilizer, and even when they get it, the season has passed. So, I told them, ‘The only way they will take you guys seriously is to form a cooperative and put pressure on the local government,” Dr. Yeboah said. In this way, creating a cooperative that acts as a lobbying entity in foreign countries helps provide farmers a safety net that is not provided in the way they are in the U.S. through organizations such as the Risk Management Agency from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). 

For cooperatives in the U.S., Dr. Yeboah explained how they can be used to generate market power. “The benefits of a cooperative for farmers are you save a lot at the input market so your average production cost can go down, and then in the output market, you have bargaining power. Going to the farmer’s market alone, you give the buyer the power, but coming together gives you the power to control the market.”

North Carolina A&T Cooperative Extension named Patrick Brown of Brown Family Farms and James Hartman of Secret Garden Bees as Small Farmers of the Year, part of the 38th annual Small Farms Week held March 24-30.

Amazing Relationships Can Be Built Over Food 

Across North Carolina, small farms play a major role in just how important food, farmers and producers are. This was especially highlighted during Small Farms Week at North Carolina A&T, where farmers—many of whom are historically underserved—were honored for their work, in addition to being celebrated for feeding North Carolinians and Americans across the country. Abbey Piner, one of three project curators at Community Food Strategies at North Carolina A&T, works in this space through the lens of social justice and equity, with the hope of giving small farmers like those showcased at Small Farms Week an equal chance at success like that of larger farms.

“We work with community coalitions who care about changing how food happens. So, for us, that’s about changing systems and all the pieces involved,” said Abbey, who is also spending time educating local government officials and connecting them to those who are working in the food justice space, much like NCEC. “Right now, for example, there’s a lot happening with councils of Government in North Carolina, and we are supporting our conversation both with leadership in councils of government that care about how food happens, and local coalitions who are trying to connect with their regional councils of government to get resources to their communities. So, on our network calls, we’re bringing those conversations together.” 

Despite North Carolina having multiple regions with different needs and resources, giving them all the opportunity to come together in a physical space or even virtually, helps uplift their voices, build relationships, and give access so farmers can stay viable and build a regional food value chain. 

What is NCBA CLUSA’s role in the North Carolina Cooperative Ecosystem?

The Rooted Traditions Co-op received technical assistance from Carolina Common Enterprise, a partner of NCBA CLUSA’s Strengthening Cooperative Communities project. [photo courtesy Rooted Traditions]
In partnership with USDA, NCBA CLUSA is working to support the cooperative business development needs of historically underserved farmers, ranchers and their communities. Through our Strengthening Cooperative Communities project, we work with organizations across the country to provide training and technical assistance to strengthen the cooperative ecosystem for continued success. One of these organizations is Carolina Common Enterprise (CCE), an organization that focuses on working with cooperatives that address unemployment, poverty and other issues that struggling small, rural and urban communities face. In 2023, they received a grant to help cooperatives. One of the cooperatives that received this technical assistance is Rooted Traditions, founded by a group of Latina women who plant and harvest herbs and convert them into finished products such as soap and shampoo. “When we got the grant, we applied to be a vendor for Virginia and North Carolina and worked with Rooted Traditions to write and submit a proposal, and have been working with them to ensure their success and longevity since then,” said CCE Project Coordinator Gabriel Muñoz. 

Looking ahead, Muñoz wants to raise awareness about cooperatives in North Carolina and beyond. He is also on the Strengthening Cooperative Communities curriculum advisory board, building educational resources for those interested in creating a cooperative. “This is very needed, especially to advocate and so people can understand and learn how a cooperative works,” he said.

Leaders come from the Cooperative Space in North Carolina 

Emma Hayes, center, speaks at NCBA CLUSA’s 2023 Cooperative Executive Roundtable. Hayes is Chief Learning and Engagement Officer at State Employees Credit Union and serves on the Cooperative Council of North Carolina’s Board of Directors.

Through her work as chief learning and engagement officer with State Employees Credit Union and board member of the Cooperative Council of North Carolina, Emma Hayes brings her values of servant leadership into both of those roles through the lens of diversity, equity and inclusion. 

“I lead with service first because for whatever reason, my grandmother always told me that ‘idle hands are the devil’s workshop.’ So, I’ve tried to remain active, where I’m always looking for opportunities to volunteer or grow.” Her goals in her position include “mirroring the communities that we serve from top to bottom.” Hayes is also committed to leadership development, an effort she backs up by volunteering with the Council’s Cooperative Leadership Camp and, at work, ensuring employees feel prepared and confident enough to deliver quality service to their members. In this way, the overlap of working at a credit union and sitting on the Council’s board of directors helps Hayes ensure the leadership values in both spaces are guided by the spirit of cooperation. 

We departed North Carolina with a profound appreciation for the resilience, ingenuity and spirit of cooperation that define this remarkable state. From the verdant fields of family-owned farms to the bustling corridors of cooperative enterprises, the commitment to mutual support and shared prosperity is palpable. As advocates for collaborative action and champions of sustainable development, we left inspired by the stories of resilience and innovation we encountered during our journey. Moving forward, we’ll carry the lessons learned and the connections forged in North Carolina with us, as we continue our collective journey towards building more inclusive, equitable and resilient communities—both here and around the world. Together, we can harness the power of cooperation to create a brighter, more sustainable future for all. 

As advocates for collaborative action and champions of sustainable development, we left inspired by the stories of resilience and innovation we encountered during our journey.

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