Happy National Cooperatives Month! As a cooperative communicator, October is full of educating people about and emphasizing the benefits of cooperative membership.
Last year at this time, I wrote in this column about the history and value of cooperatives. To recap, we are fortunate to have robust, mature, and stabile cooperatives build on the foresight of our ancestors.
During my recent travels to the Baltics with Kansas Farm Bureau’s Casten Fellows Program, building my cooperative knowledge was one of several highlights.
A little context is important here. The Baltic countries all have relatively “young” farms started from scratch with a history of less than three decades because they were only liberated from the USSR in the early 1990s. That liberation came with the collapse of their existing system of agriculture, supply chain as the USSR utilized collective farms where the state mandated regions specialize in a few pieces of the system. In the Baltics the freedom to own land, farm independently and conduct free-market business has been tempered by the challenges of lack of infrastructure and capital, and inexperienced farmers and landowners.
It should not have been surprising but my jaw dropped the first time a farmer shared that they were the proud member of a 2-year-old grain cooperative with 30 members. The farmer was also excited to share they were one of 10 farms starting a beef cattle cooperative. Even small cooperatives in Kansas have seven or eight decades of history and dozens to hundreds of members.
I was primed with all kind of questions when we arrived at our first cooperative. It was the closest opportunity I would get to travel back in time and question my organization’s founders. I was not disappointed as both the general manager and chair of the board, who was also one of the founders, were both there to meet with our group.
There were many similarities with us, like sourcing seed and fertilizer for members, grain storage and constantly exploring opportunities to add value for members. We also saw farmers having coffee, confirming that is a universal ritual of cooperatives. We all laughed when the chair told us we could not leave without discussing crop yields and land prices as he couldn’t return empty-handed to his neighbors.
In contrast, we observed how being new altered their business. The cooperative had rented a barge and took on risk for grain until it reached northern Africa. It was exploring processing grain for domestic demand that was not being met. We were also reminded that their farmers had real skin in the game because they didn’t have past sales to build equity and capital. Their farmers had to buy-in with a membership fee assessed on how much ground they farmed.
One of my most important take-aways for the trip came from this visit. I was curious about how they market the idea of cooperative membership to get people to buy-in. The chair’s response was a bit shocking. He said it was easy to sell the cooperative but they don’t really actively seek new members. He went on to say they could sign-up new members who would benefit from the cooperative but not be a good fit for the community. Their core group of members are neighbors who want to work together, not just for their own profitability but for the community. They are a small committed group. They work together, socialize together and grow together. Having that community mindset is more important than any other benefit when seeking or evaluating new members.
Farmers in the Baltics reminded me that cooperatives are all about community. They are a community of people who act, risk their resources, and do things that benefit themselves and their neighbors, children and the industry. That mindset of working toward a common good and investing in the community not for shellfish gain sometimes feels absent in our lives here.
As we celebrate Cooperatives Month, I challenge us all move away from the complacency that comes with our well-established roles in the community. Maybe taking new eyes to your community will help you to see needs and find ways to build something new or at least supporting something for the greater good.