Ag co-ops across the nation had a record $246 billion in sales last year, a 4% gain over 2012, according to a report released last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It was the third straight annual increase, reflecting the strength of agriculture overall.
The sales total includes farms, ranches and fishing ventures that sell their products through co-ops, along with co-ops that provide goods and services, such as seed and fertilizer, to these producers.
This business model allows members to pool their resources with the goal of getting a good price for their crops or livestock products.
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It is a substantial part of the farm economy: The USDA estimates $482 billion in total gross farm income this year, including producers who sell through channels outside the co-ops, such as family-owned or publicly traded companies.
The USDA released its annual list of the 100 largest ag co-ops as part of its announcement. Some highlights:
No. 1 by far is CHS Inc. of St. Paul, Minn., which deals in crops, energy and farm supplies and had $44.5 billion in sales in 2013.
No. 2 is Land O'Lakes Inc., also based in St. Paul, at $14.3 billion. Its holdings include a cheese plant in Tulare.
No. 3 is Dairy Farmers of America, based in Kansas City, Mo., at $12.9 billion. It has 309 member dairies in its Western Area (California, Nevada and western Arizona).
No. 6 is California Dairies Inc., at $3.9 billion. It is the product of a 1999 merger between California Milk Producers, Danish Creamery and San Joaquin Valley Dairymen, creating the state's leading dairy co-op and No. 2 in the nation only behind Dairy Farmers of America.
California Dairies has three plants in the central San Joaquin Valley. The one in Fresno's Chinatown, formerly the Danish Creamery plant established in 1895, has dryers and extensive butter churning and printing lines, according to the co-op.
The one in Tipton is one of the largest plants in the nation. Capabilities include powdered milk, butter and production of a variety of condensed product.
The one in Visalia is equipped with the largest single evaporator-dryer in North America.
No. 25 is Blue Diamond, at $1.2 billion. It processes Central Valley almonds.
No. 32 is Sunkist Growers, at $1.1 billion. The 121-year-old co-op represents more than 6,500 citrus growers in California and Arizona
Although business generally is good for co-ops these days, the model is not foolproof. Tri Valley Growers, once a dominant canner of tomatoes, peaches and other fruit in Modesto and elsewhere, filed for bankruptcy in 2000 after years of losses. Other companies took over some of the plants, but the blow to the canning industry was substantial.
Back to the 2013 numbers from the USDA: It reported that ag co-ops had record net income of $6.2 billion last year after deducting costs from the sales income. Co-ops use these earnings to upgrade their operations, and they share some of it with their owner-farmers.
The USDA also reported that about 136,000 people worked full time for co-ops last year, up 5% from 2012.