Some kids walked into the Farmers Co-op in Wright on Monday, June 3, hoping to take advantage of the warm weather and their first week off from school for the summer.
They needed fishing bait — a common purchase at the small cooperative store for most of the last century.
The Farmers Cooperative Co. celebrated its 100th anniversary over the weekend with a cookout that drew about 150 people — about two dozen more than Wright’s estimated 2017 population of 128, according to store manager Tim Bury.
The co-op was founded by Wright residents in February 1919 and opened later that summer, but it almost immediately found trouble. Just three years later, the Farmers Co-op was in bankruptcy, owing more than $27,000 to its creditors.
“When they first started, customers were buying stuff on credit and not making good,” Bury said.
The young cooperative was also struggling to compete with other cooperatives in nearby Cromwell and Tamarack.
While those other cooperatives are now gone, Wright found its footing and for many years thrived on selling groceries and animal feed. It also moved from its original location just down Center Road to the former Twin Ports Creamery building.
The building was sold to Farmers Co-op for $1, which kept the store debt-free for most of the last 50 years.
The co-op has faced other crises since, however. When Bury took over as manager in 2013, it was again struggling.
“Things weren’t going well and everybody thought it was going to close,” he said.
Bury admits he “ruffled some feathers” with the changes he made, but they were necessary. Until 2016, the co-op was still making animal feed at the Wright location, but Bury decided to stop mixing the feed and purchase it from a producer in Floodwood.
“We needed to change,” Bury said. “Agriculture has changed around here. There were 500 dairy farmers in Carlton County at one time — now there are five.”
Bury’s changes helped the sales and revenue slowly turn around and begin to grow over the past few years. In 2017, Bury decided to build a 2,400-square-foot warehouse addition.
A carpenter by trade, Bury built the warehouse for just $42,000 by working on the building himself and with help from some community volunteers, but it also meant the co-op had a mortgage payment. There was also new competition on the horizon.
“For the first time in years, he had a mortgage payment and then Dollar General opened up,” Bury said.
In fact, two Dollar General stores opened up — one in Cromwell and another in McGregor. Bury said Dollar General sells nearly everything the co-op sells except fresh cut meat, produce and farm supplies.
Farmers Co-op was trending 6-10 percent growth in sales since Bury took over in 2013, but after the Dollar General stores opened in October 2018, the stores sales have dropped by nearly 25 percent. In May 2018, the co-op recorded more than $86,000 in sales, but in May 2019, the number dropped to approximately $66,000, according to Bury.
In spite of new nearby competitors, Bury believes the Farmers Co-op will survive the latest challenge and continue to serve Wright for generations to come.
“This isn’t the first time we’ve seen tough times,” he said. “We’ve made it through before and we will again.”