Co-op store meets rural community needs

So far Dennis Flowers has resisted the temptation to post a sign reading, “If we ain't got it, you don't need it” in the co-op store he manages in Sudan, Texas. He has resisted, but he probably could and not be far from accurate.

The Farmers' Co-op Association of Sudan has, over the past few years, tried to supply residents of this West Texas town of about 1,000 souls with merchandise that's no longer available within 50 miles.

“We've lost a lot of businesses here since 1972, when we moved here,” says Clyde Flowers, Dennis' father and general manager of the co-op until his recent retirement.

“Population has declined and Main Street has dried up,” he says.

The Conservation Reserve Program struck a hard lick, Dennis says.

“The program took a lot of acres out of production. We had fewer farmers and less cotton to gin. Young people moved away because there was no work for them.” The coop will gin more than 60,000 bales of cotton this year.

Folks who stayed, including farmers, still needed equipment, fuel and basic living supplies.

“As businesses went out, we tried to fill the gaps and provide the merchandise,” Dennis says. We've been fortunate to have an understanding board of directors. They put their stamp of approval on everything we did and put a lot of money back into the business as we expanded.

“That's has kept us out of debt, a key to survival in hard times.”

The coop store started with just a 1,200 square foot building. “We've expanded to more than 9,000 square feet Dennis says. “The coop has had fuel available for a long time, but we started adding a few other things as members asked for them.

We wanted to supply our growers with all the materials they needed to make a crop, from planting through ginning. We added more crop chemicals, started a consulting and a custom spray service. All the expansions evolved from that.

“The hardware store went out, so we added hardware; the auto parts store closed, so we put in auto parts.”

They started carrying lawn and garden materials and pet food. “The store evolved as we saw a need,” Dennis says. “We're still expanding and want to carry items that are less seasonal things folks buy all year.”

Western wear, including shirts, jackets and jeans may help. “Some folks have started calling this the Sudan Mall,” Dennis says.

He says the store serves the whole town as well as coop members. “We also get customers from surrounding areas. As they lose businesses to hard times, we try to take up the slack.”

They have a small selection of farm equipment parts, do some mechanical work in an on-site shop, provide an on-farm tire service and can custom order most anything a farmer or rancher needs.

Dennis says the cotton gin still holds the key to the coop business. The gin has operated her since 1935 and was included three gin plants, according to Clyde Flowers. “Without the gin, there would be no use for a store,” he says.

“It makes sense to have a store here, as part of the cooperative. The money we make from the store goes back to farmer-members in dividends. If they buy all their production materials here, they get part of it back. “Still, we have to price our stock competitively.”

The store allows the co-op to retain 15 full-time employees year round. “When the gin is busy, we shift labor from the store to run the gin,” Dennis says. “When the gin's idle, we move them back to the store. All our employees are flexible.

“It's a big benefit to keep them on all year. We try to treat them well and we get good, loyal employees in return. It's hard to find and keep good workers in rural areas.”

He says most of the co-op's workers “grew up in or near Sudan.”

The coop includes just more than 300 members. In addition to ginning, they also have access to the consulting service.

“I do a lot of the consulting and have one full-time agronomist on staff,” Dennis says. “We do pest management work, advise on varieties, fertility and defoliation. We work mostly with cotton but also have peanuts, alfalfa, corn, sunflowers, whatever farmers are growing.”

The co-op also helps with marketing, through the Plains Cotton Cooperative Association. Dennis says the stress factor that could have been the most damaging to the co-op may have helped it grow.

“We were afraid that CRP would hurt us,” he said. “But as it drives smaller gins out, we picked up the business. With modern harvesting and ginning equipment, it's no longer necessary to have a gin in every cotton-growing community.

“With modules, we can transport cotton a long way without too much trouble.”

He also credits the honesty and integrity of local farmers and other customers with the store's success.

“The main pitfall with a co-op store is unpaid bills,” he says. “A lot of co-op business relies on unsecured loans. We've been fortunate to have folks who pay their bills.

“Expanding the store was a bit risky, but any success comes with some risk.”

Dennis says the coop still has room to grow. “We realize we have just so many people in the area, but that's why we're expanding into year-round consumer items. We carry livestock and pet rations so folks don't have to drive to Lubbock to get a bag of dog food or a part to fix a toilet.

“We can't stock everything but we'll try to get what folks need.”

Future expansion, however, will depend largely on “how agriculture goes.

“We'll have a record cotton crop in the area this year, but it's still 38 cent cotton. If prices improve, the store will do better. As long as commodity prices are low, farmers will be conservative about spending money. They are close with a dollar and that's why they're still in business.”

Until the ag economy turns around, the coop also provides another service. A snack area offers coffee, soft drinks and a few munchies for farmers to enjoy as they sit around and discuss crop prospects and complain about the government.

“This is where farmers congregate. We'll have 50 growers in here some mornings.”

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