By Dianne Cornish
When Deanna Ringelberg sat down to compose an essay about co-operatives, the Troy area farm girl felt she had a bit of an edge because she’s a member of the Gay Lea Foods Co-operative. But even given her firsthand involvement with co-operatives, the 17-year-old Grade 12 student at Hamilton District Christian High School didn’t shirk from rolling up her sleeves and doing the research needed to write a 500-word piece on “Co-operatives in a Global Environment.”
She completed the task, then sent off her essay for judging in a provincial contest, hosted by GROWMARK, Inc., a regional co-operative providing agriculture-related products and services. That was in March, and Ringelberg had pretty much forgotten about her entry until she learned a few weeks ago that she had been named as provincial winner of the contest.
“I was pretty shocked,” she confided last week during an interview at Fennema Holsteins, a 175-acre dairy farm owned by her parents, Jake and Janet Ringelberg. “I thought I didn’t get it (the win) because it was such a long wait.”
As the contest winner, she will receive a $500 scholarship from GROWMARK at the Hamilton-Wentworth 4-H Association’s award banquet, Dec. 7, at Marritt Hall in Ancaster. In honour of Ringelberg’s win, the local 4-H group will also receive a $300 award to help future students.
The essay contest was open only to Ontario high school students who are members of a 4-H Ontario Association. A member of the Hamilton-Wentworth 4-H Association for the past six years, Ringelberg has learned a lot about farming from the group, but her “passion,” she said, remains with the dairy sector of agriculture. She shows the family farm’s dairy cattle at about 10 shows a year, the most recent being during the TD Classic at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto in early November.
Ringelberg is considering a career in agriculture or nursing after completing her post-secondary education. She has applied to both McMaster University and the University of Guelph and plans to put her essay contest winnings in the bank until she begins university next fall.
Ringelberg said her mother alerted her to the contest, which was promoted on the Internet, and she entered it just a week before its entry deadline. She was motivated by a desire to broaden her horizons, she said, and to learn more about co-operatives outside the agricultural sector. In her essay, she noted that co-ops can be found in a variety of sectors, including credit unions, mutual insurance companies, housing, child care, car sharing, retail and milk transportation.
Defining co-operatives as “a farm, business, or other organization that is owned and run jointly by its members, who share the profits or benefits,” the latter of which includes sharing its profits, creating employment and giving their members greater control over their operation.
They play an important role in farming, Ringelberg said, explaining that farmers can diversify by becoming co-op members. “Instead of buying retail and selling wholesale, farmers can integrate,” she said. “Co-ops are one way for farmers to become vertically integrated; instead of only selling agricultural products wholesale, farmers now have ownership in a company that retails their product, sells them inputs or trucks their goods.”
There are over 1,300 co-ops in Ontario with a collective membership of 14 million. They generate $30 billion in assets and employ 15,500 people.
Despite the important role they have played in Canada for the past 150 years, co-ops and their benefits have gone largely unheralded. “The success of co-ops is one of the best kept secrets in Ontario,” Ringelberg wrote in her essay.
But with United Nations having declared 2012 as the International Year of Co-operatives, there’s renewed hope that the benefits of co-operative membership to its member-owners will gain more public profile, encouraging more to join.
Ringelberg is ready to do her part to champion the cause. “I think it’s great how co-ops help fund other people involved with co-ops and how they support youth in their life’s journey,” she said.
The farm, where she has lived since her birth, has benefitted from its involvement in co-ops. Fennema Holsteins is a member of Gay Lea Foods, FS Partners, EastGen, Bluewater Milk Transport and North Waterloo Mutual Insurance.