What does community mean to you?

Community is a buzzword that gets tossed around quite a bit these days. The term is used broadly by marketers, brands, event organizers and social media managers. Community seems to be a catchall phrase for anything that has to do with a collection of human beings, from the tangible to the abstract.Community is a buzzword that gets tossed around quite a bit these days. The term is used broadly by marketers, brands, event organizers and social media managers. Community seems to be a catchall phrase for anything that has to do with a collection of human beings, from the tangible to the abstract.

Historically, the definition of “community” is based on physical location—literally your place in the world. It could be the spot-in-the-road town where you grew up, the city where you settled and raised a family or the neighborhood where you chose to retire.

I was raised in the Valley Home community in southeastern Tennessee. Once upon a time, it was home to a popular tourist attraction called “Wonder Cave,” long since closed to the public. Today, it’s just a no-stoplight farm town people pass through if they’re taking backroads between Nashville and Chattanooga. The only way you know you’re in Valley Home is a weathered metal road sign and the arched entrance to what was once the school, now home to the volunteer fire department.

These same types of communities dot MFA territory. I drive through them during my travels for Today’s Farmer. Unfortunately, like Valley Home, there’s often no reason for passersby to stop in these communities today. But that’s OK. What holds them together are the people who live there and continue to care about their place in the world. 

Location aside, there is so much more to the concept of community. A true community is based on like-minded values, common interests and shared experiences. It could be a group of people who have the same hobbies, support the same causes, follow the same sports teams or belong to the same clubs.

In this sense, community is not merely something that you fit into. It’s more than where you live. It’s a choice. It’s participatory. It’s active rather than passive. October is Co-op Month, and this year’s theme is “By the Community, For the Community.” That’s what inspired this column and got me thinking about what community means to me. I believe it’s all about connections. Relationships. Interactions. Merely living near other people doesn’t mean you’re part of a community. Neither does belonging to a club if you never attend a meeting. To be part of a community, you have to take part in that community.

When I got married and moved to Missouri almost three years ago, I was plunged into several new communities—new town, job, church, school, kids’ activities. At first, I felt like an outsider. I had to find my place in this new world, making connections, building relationships and finding ways to contribute.

So, I volunteered to teach Vacation Bible School at church. Helped with Cub Scout and Girl Scout events. Signed up for concession-stand duty at our son’s elementary school football games. The more I got involved, the more central Missouri began to feel like my community.

Indeed, the more we have invested into the success of our communities, the more we feel a connection to those groups. What we give, we get back with a sense of home and family, belonging and shared identity. In a community, the sum is bigger than the individual parts. 

Sound familiar? Sounds like co-ops.

On page 12, I wrote about the 100th anniversary of MFA Cooperative Association No. 2 in Washington. I felt no hesitation in using the word “community” to describe this cooperative. When I asked folks why they thought the co-op had survived for a century, I heard it time and time again. MFA is actively part of the community, and the community is actively part of the co-op in return. 

The same is true across the MFA system. In fact, concern for community is one of the key principles upon which cooperatives are founded. Co-ops don’t just exist in a given location. They’re woven into the very fabric of their communities and the lives of their members and customers.

This Co-op Month is the perfect time to become more active in your MFA community. Attend annual meetings. Consider running for the board. Stay up-to-date on what your co-op has to offer—new products, programs and services. Share the story of cooperation with others.

Think about what you can contribute to your co-op and your community, however you define it. Then make it happen. When you strengthen your communities, you’ll strengthen yourself in return.

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