Back in 1921, several Douglas County farmers formed a cooperative to secure needed farming supplies and to save money in the process. They named the co-op the Douglas County Farm Bureau Cooperative Exchange.

Those farmers were plagued by the lack of a steady and reliable source of essential supplies such as seed, livestock feed, fertilizer and equipment. They figured if they bought in bulk, they would not only save money, but also get a better response when ordering.

It proved to be a successful venture.

While there have been ups and downs through the years, today, the Roseburg-based business, now known as the Douglas County Farmers Co-op, continues to be viable. It had sales of $20.7 million in 2018, $21.7 million in 2019 and $22.9 million in 2020.

This month, the co-op is celebrating its 100th year.

“There’s not very many businesses in Roseburg that have made it to 100 years,” said Guy Kennerly, chairman of the co-op’s five-member board. “The plan is to keep it going.”

“The co-op has adapted to its customers needs through the years,” said Melvin Burke, the cooperative’s general manager for the past 19 years.

The co-op has proven to be a survivor, having endured through the Great Depression, World War II, the Roseburg Blast in 1959, some major floods and snowstorms in the county and most recently the COVID-19 pandemic. The blast leveled the co-op’s building on Southeast Washington Avenue. The business re-opened three days later at three temporary sites. A year later, the co-op returned to its newly constructed building on Southeast Washington Avenue.

The co-op expanded in 1977 by opening a fertilizer storage and sales facility in Wilbur. Further expansion followed when 5 acres of land alongside Northeast Stephens Street was purchased. A 24,000-square-foot store, convenience store and deli, and fuel station were built and opened to the public in 2003.

In 2013, the co-op expanded into Winston, leasing what had previously been a hardware store. The positive customer response to that store led the co-op to purchase 4.7 acres of land on the west edge of Winston. Plans call for ground breaking and the start of construction this month on a 16,000-square-foot retail store, a 5,800-square-foot convenience store and deli, and fuel station. The product inventory in the new store will be similar to that of the Roseburg store.

“There’s not very many businesses that can talk about and celebrate 100 years,” said Burke. “It’s just a good success story. There have been years that were lean, but through loyal customers the co-op has been able to survive. We’re going to celebrate that success and that 100-year milestone all year.

“Building the new store in Winston is part of the 100-year celebration,” Burke added.

Because of restrictions due to the pandemic, Burke said no grand celebration is planned at this time, but there are prize giveaways through social media.

While the co-op was started by farmers and focused on their specific needs, the business’ inventory has broadened through the years and so has the store’s visitors. In addition to large and small farm and ranch owners, the co-op caters to those who work in their yards and gardens.

Douglas County Farmers Co-op has almost 6,000 members, but it is open to anybody who is in need of livestock and pet supplies, lawn and garden supplies, hardware, plumbing and irrigation products, seed and fertilizer, fence materials and clothes.

The membership fee is $50. Members receive an annual financial return based upon their purchases and the co-op’s net profitability. In 2020, $169,000 was returned to members.

Helping the co-op’s management staff make decisions is the board of directors. They are Kennerly, vice-chair Kurt Spencer, secretary Troy Michaels, Richard Holcomb and George Sandberg. All five are involved in agriculture in Douglas County.

Burke said the co-op has made changes in its product inventory according to the needs of customers.

“We know what customers are willing to buy from us and we have to have those products when they are wanted and at a competitive, affordable price,” he said.

Sandberg agreed that the store’s clientele has changed over the years as there are more small property owners and different product needs.

“The co-op is there to supply what we need, whether you are country or city,” he said.

There was concern early in 2020 that the pandemic would significantly impact sales. However, three factors – people realizing they were going to be homebound for an extended time, stimulus checks and the spring sun coming out – resulted in many outdoor projects. Burke said people bought products for building or fixing structures, landscaping and planting gardens, resulting in record sales and profitability for the co-op in 2020.

The co-op has 104 full- and part-time employees with a payroll of $2.9 million in 2020.

“We have always had the best employees in Douglas County,” Sandberg said. “They’re very helpful and knowledgeable. If you need a specific question answered, they will provide it or find someone who will.”

Burke said many of the employees are livestock owners or gardeners themselves so they can provide valuable advice from their own experiences.

“If we treat people well on their first visit, they’ll come back again and again and again,” Burke said. “Our loyal customers and employees have helped us be here for 100 years and we’re going to be here for the long term. Without either of them we wouldn’t be in business.”

Craig Reed is a freelance writer and former employee of The News-Review.

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Though having record sales in 2020, Douglas County Co-op still applied for and received $548,800 in federal Paycheck Protection Program money on April 13, 2020 for the 95 employees claimed on their application.

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