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New director of Center for Co-ops want to expand knowledge of co-ops’ impact and operations

Cooperatives are a popular way of doing business in Wisconsin and Minnesota. But whether they”re in the business of agriculture, health care, finance or food – even those involved in co-ops don”t really know how important these unique business operations are to the U.S. economy.

The new director of the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives (UWCC) aims to change that.

Until basic research can describe the nature of co-ops in terms that make sense from an academic perspective, the model will continue to be ignored in textbooks and in social science courses, says Brent Hueth, who took the reins at UWCC on July 1, succeeding longtime director Robert Cropp.

“For example, most business students won”t learn about co-ops as a business model, because the model is poorly understood by the core business academic disciplines of economics, management, finance, and accounting,” says Hueth, who is also an assistant professor of agricultural and applied economics. “Right now, cooperative principles are taught at just a handful of locations in the United States.”

As the principal investigator of a $700,000 grant from the USDA Rural Business-Cooperative Service and matching sources, Hueth will lead the Center to focus on cross-sectoral research and education.

The first order of business will be to evaluate the relative economic importance of cooperatives across all sectors of the U.S. economy.

It”s information that”s badly needed, because the global marketplace has put additional pressure on co-ops to remain competitive, says Brad Barham, chair of the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics.

“There is a need for careful thinking about their options to improve performance for both their members and their customers. But pursuing the deeper questions can”t happen until you get a clear representative view [of the industry as a whole],” says Barham, who is a co-investigator on the new cooperative research project.

People involved in cooperatives are eager to learn more about the basic nature of their businesses, says Hueth. He believes that a better understanding the role of cooperatives in the U.S. economy could help influence policy that supports cooperative business activity.

Barham is excited for the kind of core expertise that Hueth brings to the department and the Center.

“He brings his reputation as a rising star for his work in contract design issues, and that ties a lot into cooperatives,” Barham says, “since co-ops themselves can be thought of as a contract among the members.”

Before coming to Madison, Hueth spent seven years as an assistant professor of economics at Iowa State University where he specialized in agricultural contracting and agribusiness. Since he arrived on campus July 1, Hueth has been busy getting to know the UWCC”s constituency and collecting research questions from the co-op community.

Hueth has put together a major research plan and built collaborations right out of the gates, Barham says.

“People in law, sociology, business, economics and other schools and departments will find his work and his expertise invaluable,” he says. “He will bridge our department to other well-respected units on campus.”