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Stronger together

Cocke and Sevier Farmers Co-ops merge into a new cooperative
Story by: Glen Liford 3/22/2019


Smoky Mountain Farmers Cooperative Chairman Rodney Hardin and Manager Clint Hodges discuss the next moves for the Co-op at the new cooperative’s Sevierville location.
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The members of Sevier Farmers Cooperative and Cocke Farmers Cooperative have voted to merge the two businesses into a new Co-op, which will operate as Smoky Mountain Farmers Cooperative. The merger took effect March 3.

The newly merged Co-op will maintain its existing store locations in Sevierville, Newport, Morristown, and Waynesville, N.C., as well as the crops center in White Pine. Smoky Mountain Farmers Cooperative will be headquartered in Sevierville.

“Together, I believe our new Co-op will better serve all segments of our business throughout the trade area,” says Clint Hodges, Smoky Mountain Co-op manager.

The move is the culmination of a two-year process that began with discussions among a number of East Tennessee Co-op managers and directors aimed at finding new ways to work together. While the other Co-ops elected not to move forward with the idea of a merger, the directors of Sevier and Cocke Farmers Cooperatives believed their Co-ops should explore the idea of combining the businesses, says Smoky Mountain Farmers Chairman

Rodney Hardin.

The similarities between Cocke and Sevier Farmers made the idea of a merger a good fit, says Rodney, who served as Sevier Farmers Cooperative board chairman during the talks. The Co-ops operated in similar environments that were heavily impacted over the last few years by the decline in tobacco production and a decrease in the numbers of dairies. Sevier County, specifically, was feeling pressure from increased land prices as it became more profitable to grow houses than crops, says Rodney. Much of Sevier Farmers’ ag business was centered around the Waynesville, N.C., area where it operated a branch store.

“Both of the Co-ops were looking for ways to grow the business and better serve our farmer members,” he says. “The new Co-op will have increased buying power, making it more competitive, and should provide increased services for its members.”

“We were receptive to the idea from the first,” agrees Mike Anders, who served as Cocke Farmers Co-op president and is now a director of Smoky Mountain Farmers. “I think the merger will give us more opportunity to grow and help us provide better service to our customers. Co-ops have plenty of competition. They’re going to have to band together or get left behind.”

Conversely, the Co-ops’ differences complement each other as well, says Clint. The Sevier store has a strong walk-in customer base and a product mix tailored to fit the needs of such customers. But the Co-op needed to find ways to grow its ag business to better serve its professional farmers. Cocke Farmers, on the other hand, relied on a heavy agricultural base but should benefit from a strengthened retail presence after the merger.

“At the Hamblen County store, we’re looking forward to offering our customers an expanded hardware line and more power equipment choices, along with a small engine repair shop,” says Eddie Harville, manager of the Co-op’s Morristown store. “We just want to offer our customers more merchandise and help the farmers from the smallest to the largest with their needs.”

The agreement was not entered into lightly, stresses Mike, noting that the discussions were long and detailed as the boards looked at the possibilities of the new venture — both pro and con — from every angle.

“I think we have our i’s dotted and our t’s crossed,” he says. “I think it’s a good deal and a fair deal for everybody.”

The initial board of directors will be made up of four members from Cocke Farmers and five members from Sevier Farmers. They will serve a two-year term. After that time, the Co-op’s nine-member board will be elected with no restrictions on area by the membership at large.

During the discussions, Clint says the boards and management tried to evaluate each portion of the agreement with three goals in mind. First, would the move

benefit the farmer-owners? Would it strengthen the Co-ops’ business? And finally, would it be good for the Co-ops’ employees?

“Whenever we had to make a decision, we went back to those three areas, and it led us to a successful solution,” says Clint.

Clint says he is looking forward to watching the two groups grow together as one cooperative. The new business will have 2,256 members (1,232 from Cocke Farmers and 1,024 from Sevier Farmers) and combined sales of $25 million.

The new name was chosen to reflect the Co-ops’ trade areas, says Rodney, but also to make it easier to make changes should neighboring Co-ops show interest in joining the new venture in the future.

“We believe this merger will better position our Co-op for the future, improve services, and benefit our membership,” says Clint. “Much will remain the same, however, as customers and business partners will continue to see the same folks they have always worked with, and there should be very few differences when they walk through the doors of their local Co-op.

“We’re excited about this new stage in our cooperative history, and we look forward to working with our farmer-owners and all the customers who rely on Co-op for their needs.”

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