Cooperative takes proactive approach to recruiting young board members
This interview posted above is from SDPB's daily public-affairs show, In the Moment, hosted by Lori Walsh.
With several current board members looking to retire from Central Farmers Cooperative when their terms are up, the full-service agriculture co-op headquartered in Salem decided to try something new.
It’s cooperative month in South Dakota. It is an opportunity to focus on a South Dakota cooperative taking a proactive approach to the challenge of getting young farmers to serve on the board of directors.
This February cooperative members will have an opportunity to elect another young farmer. After participating in the apprenticeship program Andrew Streff said he feels confident about his ability to serve as a board member and will put his name on the ballot.
“We felt it was important to get younger people involved with the co-op. Sometimes it's hard to get them to participate and be active. So, we thought we should start the apprenticeship program so they would be ready to be a board member when election time came,” Jim Wahle said.
Jim Wahle is a Salem crop farmer who has served on the Central Farmers Cooperative board of directors for nearly 15 years. With intentions to retire from the board of directors in January 2023, Wahle came up with the idea of establishing a board apprenticeship. Interested farmers fill out an application and current board members select the apprentices.
“A guy can’t just come into the board room and say they are ready to go. It takes some time to get up to speed on how all the businesses are structured and the finances,” Wahle said.
Board members are encouraged to recruit area farmers to fill out apprenticeship applications. Wahle was among the first board member to recruit a young farmer to the apprenticeship program. But he says he won’t be the last. Six board members are expected to retire in the next four years.
Matt Eichacker was the first young farmer Wahle recruited. Eichacker is 29 and farms with his dad, uncle, and cousin. The family raises crops and cattle near Salem.
He said he appreciated the opportunity the apprenticeship program gave him to better understand the business structure of Central Farmers Cooperative before he committed to putting his name on the ballot to run for a board position.
“It’s nice to be a bit behind the scenes to see the numbers, see how things go, see how the meetings go before you are sitting there putting in your opinion. Because you are the “young buck,” you have new ideas, but if you can just sit in for a little bit and understand how things work and get the flow of things before you are expected to vote, it’s nice to understand the flow of meetings while you are green behind the ears per se,” Eichacker said.
The cooperative business model is unique. A cooperative is owned by the customers or members who do business with the cooperative. When the cooperative earns profits after re-investing in infrastructure, those profits are returned to member-owners as dividends.
By the time Eichacker was elected to the board in February 2022, he said he was ready to take on the responsibilities of a board member.
“Being on the Advisory Board before being on the actual board was a bit of an eye-opener and really helped me understand it,” Eichacker said.
Andrew Streff agreed. He is the second young farmer Wahle recruited. Streff is 24 and has been farming full-time with his parents since 2020.
“Right now, I don’t have the experience or overall knowledge of the co-op, to make actual decisions. So, learning how to read the different balance sheets and cash flow statements and then learning the wage process behind a business such as this – with multiple locations – there’s quite a learning curve. Through this process I’ve learned how to ask questions and understand which ones I need to ask,” Streff said.
The feedback Streff and Eichacker share about their apprenticeship experience serving on the Advisory Board tell Mark Finck the apprenticeship program is working.
Finck serves as General Manager of Farmers Cooperative. He said the diversity the young farmers bring to the boardroom is important.
“You’re getting different perspectives. I wouldn’t want a board that was made up of all farmers who are retiring. And I wouldn’t want a board that is made up of all young farmers either. It’s good to have that mix and blend of different viewpoints within the boardroom,” Finck said.
Like many ag-based cooperatives, the bylaws of Central Farmers Cooperative mandate that only farmers actively involved in production agriculture can serve on the board of directors.
“The cooperative board of directors set the overall direction for the company. They oversee and vote on everything from policies to anything that deals with equity and equity distribution and patronage,” Finck said.
Because of the new apprenticeship program, Wahle said when he retires in January, he is not concerned about the future leadership of the board.
“Gives you a sense of comfort, you feel like these guys are up to speed and they know what they are doing, and the co-op will carry on just fine,” Wahle said.