Co-ops adapting as times change

Saskatchewan’s co-ops, many of which were founded more than a century ago, started as singular ventures in communities across the province, but as times have changed they have had to adapt.

In Saskatchewan there are currently 109 co-op associations operating in approximately 250 communities.

In the village of Dilke, northwest of Regina, the local co-op has a motion forward to dissolve after years of dwindling business. The community is located near Last Mountain Lake. During the summer the approximately 75 person community balloons to include lake goers and the co-op flourishes. The rest of the year that’s not the case.

Board president Trevor Maerz said they’ve looked into every option but in December it became evident the co-op wasn’t going to survive for much longer. They put notice out to the association members there was going to be a vote to dissolve. The vote is set for Feb. 8.

Janice Fuchs lives on a farm outside of Dilke. Her husband has been a member of the co-op for more than 40 years. The couple is concerned about the potential closure but hasn’t decided yet how they will vote.

“It is our own fault in a way that the grocery store never made any money. But the hardware we always thought was carrying it because we have a lot of farmers out here that buy their fuel from there and different things,” she said.

Next door in Bethune it’s a slightly better story for the co-op. Things weren’t looking great a few years ago but then construction began on the K+S Potash Mine Legacy Project which lead to an increase in business. But as construction activity winds down the future of the co-op remains uncertain.

“We realize that times are tough for these small places. The neighbouring co-op is just going through the process of what to do because they’re in trouble. It’s close enough to us that we will pick up some business there if they close,” said John Headford, board president.

In the past the Bethune co-op had looked into amalgamating with others but the associations they reached out to weren’t interested. The co-op’s infrastructure is old and the costs to replace it are high.

Not all single town co-op associations are suffering. Further east in Avonhurst the co-op is flourishing after a change in management.

“It’s been tough as people have kind of moved toward the city to keep open and keep business and compete with some of the larger co-op’s that are close to town but we had our struggles there a couple of years ago and things have really rebounded,” said Kurtis Kramer, board president.

When times became tough and the board told the members things weren’t looking good, they rallied together to support the co-op and keep it in business. 

Some co-ops have found ways to survive through amalgamation. In Milestone, the co-op association voted in favour of amalgamating with Prairie Sky Co-op based out of Weyburn. The amalgamation takes effect on Jan. 29.

“It was looking like a win-win for both. We were going to be able to expand our trading area and also improve the service levels that we could provide to the Milestone members,” said Don Kraft, general manager of Prairie Sky Co-op.

Milestone Co-op has been looking at upgrading some of its facilities and Prairie Sky has the financial ability to assist with that, Kraft said.

For the last four years Milestone has had a management agreement in place under which Prairie Sky has managed the Milestone facilities, making for an easier amalgamation.

Other co-ops have already amalgamated. In Regina, Sherwood Co-op merged last year with Loon Creek Co-op which and Montmartre Co-op, marking the first time three retail co-ops amalgamated at once in Western Canada.

Since the amalgamation Sherwood has been working to construct three new gas bars in Regina and has plans to build a new grocery and gas bar facility in Southey.

“Sherwood’s got a lot of resources and a lot of areas that we specialize in. So the ability to expand in those rural areas I think is greater when we’re all working together and working as one,” said Troy Verboom, general manager of Sherwood Co-op.