By Tim Leeds
State and federal officials with an interest in developing cooperatives were at Montana State University-Northern Tuesday for a special event.
They celebrated a $291,652 grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development agency to the Montana Cooperative Development Center.
"It's a huge day for MCDC," center director Ty Duncan said. "We've got a lot of work to do."
The money will be used to continue the cooperative development center's work, Duncan said. The center was created in 1999, and state Sen. Greg Jergeson worked in the Legislature to get a five-year appropriation of $65,000 a year approved. The center, a state agency, is housed at Northern.
The center assesses the marketability of cooperative concepts, promotes cooperatives, advises and assists prospective or existing cooperatives, helps with grant writing, and provides other resources and assistance.
Its new projects include helping groups on Rocky Boy's and the Fort Belknap Indian reservations investigate forming co-ops for selling Native American crafts. That may seem like a minor business, Duncan said, but in an area with high unemployment, "a small project can make a huge difference."
Unemployment was 16.5 percent on the Fort Belknap reservation and 23.1 percent on the Rocky Boy reservation in 2001, according to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.
State USDA Rural Development director Tim Ryan said cooperatives could provide a lot of help to Indian reservations, which could be a significant resource for the state's economy but present a great challenge.
The projects have included forming a cooperative in Wheatland County to supply Montana's Cream of the West Cereal Co. with grain, a value-added beef cooperative in Sweetgrass County where the producers own the beef from birth through processing, and a cooperative to supply Montana Biodiesel, which makes fuel from vegetable waste.
The possibilities of co-ops are extremely diverse, Duncan said. He's heard of groups of ranchers forming cooperatives to take turns watching cattle in a communal calving area. That would reduce the number of nights each rancher has to spend watching cattle, and reduce the expense of running operations at different locations.
Ryan said cooperative methods could benefit the state by grouping resources and efforts. An example is improving cellular phone service in areas of the state, which would improve security and emergency services.
Cooperatives could build cell phone towers in areas where phone companies do not because of a low number of customers, he said.
"I'm not sure you could get a cell phone company to put a tower in Ekalaka," he said.
The grant to the center fits into Rural Development's mission of improving the economy and quality of life in rural America, Ryan said. Rural Development can assist in communities of less than 50,000 people, which includes all of Montana except Billings, Great Falls and Missoula, he added.
"I think the state of Montana truly needs this grant," Ryan said.
The grant, one of 19 awarded in the United States, is competitive in nature, Ryan said. The center will have to be able to show successes to continue receiving the money. The center and the Mission Mountain Cooperative Development Center in Ronan received a joint grant of $299,400 from Rural Development last year.
Mark Lindberg, energy and agriculture officer of Gov. Judy Martz's Office of Economic Development, said the Montana Cooperative Development Center's efforts dovetail perfectly with the work of his office.
As a former high school and college athlete, coach and referee, Lindberg said, he understands the importance of teamwork, which is the hallmark of cooperatives and the goal of the Office of Economic Development.
Teamwork and hard work is the key to improving Montana's economy, Lindberg said.
"It would be nice to wave a wand and fix it overnight," he said. "It isn't going to happen that quick."
Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Conrad Burns sent letters commending the center for its work, which Ryan read at the event. Mike Waite of Rep. Denny Rehberg's Great Falls office presented a message of Rehberg's support for the center.