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Farmers Take Control of Crops

Trademarked soybean oil big step toward consumer

January 30, 2003 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Thumb Oilseed Producers cooperative refinery and trademarked, nongenetically modified soybean oil.

Vern Reinbold wasn’t satisfied selling his organic soybeans at four times the price of conventional soybeans. He knows the real money — and the only way to get off the “get big or get out” treadmill of large-scale agriculture — is to take his soybeans a few steps closer to the consumer.

“There are companies out there that are taking that soybean that sells for $18 a bushel organic, or $4 conventional, and turning it into hundreds of dollars per bushel,” Vern says. “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. I’m saying, let’s go get some of that.”

And that they are. Vern and 209 other soybean farmers in Michigan’s Thumb area created the Thumb Oilseed Producers Cooperative in 1997 to turn the crops they used to hand over to middlemen into higher-value food products.

The cooperative is part of a new generation of farm cooperatives in the United States that do much more than just buy members’ crops and sell them in large commodity volumes at low global market prices. Instead they are developing and marketing products from their raw materials.

The Thumb Oilseed Producers Cooperative has developed its own trademarked, nongenetically modified soybean oil and is positioning itself to take custom processing jobs through its new certified-organic refinery. “Doors are swinging open to us now because we can give that organic assurance to those customers who want it,” Vern says.

Jo Ann Rutkowski, the cooperative’s chief operating officer, says this focus on consumer demand is a dramatic shift in traditional thinking for Michigan’s row crop farmers.

“I used to work at a feed mill, where we watched the crops go in the rail car and never thought about them again. Now I’m seeing a whole new side of it. I’m excited to go in the store soon and buy soybean oil under our NexSoy® trademark.”

Vern says the cooperative’s members simply decided to take control of their situation. “We said, ‘Instead of griping about low prices, why don’t we spend the same energy and try and improve the value of the crop?’”

Contacts: Thumb Oilseed Producers Cooperative, 866-658-2344, www.thumboilseed.com ; Jim LeCureux, Michigan State University Value Added Agent, 989-672-3870, lecureux@msue.msu.edu

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