New Smoky Mountain Farmers Co-op in the works

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SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - New signs for Smoky Mountain Farmers Co-op could soon be on four different farm store locations around East Tennessee and Western North Carolina. In order to survive and remain competitive, Sevier County Farmers Co-op and Cocke-Hamblen Farmers Co-op are considering a merger.

Managers of both co-ops are not denying that competition is fierce these days with big box stores and even online retailers who offer farm-related products. They hope a merger will improve their buying power for lower prices for consumers and a better balance sheet that their farmer-owners will appreciate. They also boast customer service with extra help you won't find at a typical store.

"We make deliveries. A lot of those other places don't do that," said Cocke-Hamblen Farmers Market manager Eddie Harville. "We have knowledge."

Manager Clint Hodges at Sevier Farmers Co-op said times have been toughest recently for dairy farmers. Those farms going out of business have meant less business at the co-op. He says he's seen this type of thing before. "We used to have everybody had tobacco and raised tobacco. That went away. When we had a drought, a lot of part-time farmers sold their beef cattle cause they didn't have enough hay. Now we've seen the dairy market decline and seen their struggles."

Cattle farmer Roger Radel said a merger of the co-ops could help everyone involved. "And I just think it just gives his co-op a better opportunity to purchase additional things and keep our costs in line."

Managers say a merger should not mean any loss of jobs or store locations. In addition to Sevierville, Sevier Farmers Co-op Farmers Co-op has a store in Waynesville, North Carolina. The Cocke-Hamblen Farmers Co-op has locations in Newport and Morristown.

Co-op members plan to vote on the possible merger by the end of January.