A growing interest in farm co-ops got a boost late last fall from a $266,000 federal grant to the Georgia Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development. The grant will give Georgia its first statewide farm co-op development center.

The new Georgia Cooperative Development Center will be one of 20 such centers in the United States.

The GCDC will support fledgling co-ops and help farmers who want to form others, said CAED coordinator John McKissick. Before the grant, he said, there weren't enough resources to meet all of the needs.

The CAED, part of the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, secured the grant from the Rural Development program.

"The grant will focus on cooperative development and providing more services to those in agriculture who think they have a future to develop as a co-op," McKissick said.

It will fund two business development specialists and other resources. "It will enable us to do a lot more of what we've been doing," he said.

The CAED has played a key role in successful co-ops like the Sunbelt Goat Producers in Washington County and Farm Fresh Tattnall, a co-op of roadside markets and pick-your-own farms in Tattnall County.

Co-ops, McKissick said, are a way for business people to work together and do what they couldn't do separately.

The new center's steering committee has already approved new feasibility studies, board training, market analyses, business plans or other support for four co-ops:

• An ethanol production co-op among Georgia corn growers.

• The Sunbelt Organic Gold co-op of south Georgia poultry growers who want to make and market organic fertilizer from chicken litter.

• A Community Food Network that would match organic produce growers with markets in suburban Atlanta.

• A co-op that would match organic-minded markets with grass-finished beef.

"The center will improve new co-ops' success rates by making sure they have a good foundation from the start and giving them the necessary supplies to update business plans as needed," said Bill Thomas, a GCDC co-op development specialist.

A market analysis for a newly formed southwest Georgia agritourism co-op, for instance, showed that television advertising would reach its best audience. Without the study, Thomas said, they might have made some key marketing mistakes.

The 11 Resource, Conservation and Development Councils of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service are partners of the new GCDC.