Making a Difference in Rural Economies with Cooperatives

Ed. Note: Champions of Change is a weekly initiative to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping our country rise to meet the many challenges of the 21st century.

I was honored to be able to participate in the Champions of Change series at the White House on July 6th. The theme of the week was Rural America and a group of rural leaders from across the country joined in a conversation with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Melody Barnes the head of the White House Domestic Policy Council. We were all pleasantly surprised to have President Obama drop-in for a visit. I was pleased to know that the President takes rural issues so seriously.

As a life-long farmer from western North Dakota, I have found that cooperatives have made a huge difference in our rural economy. I have used cooperatives in my farming business during my whole career. I have served on several cooperative boards and am currently the board chair of CoBank, a cooperative bank serving rural America headquartered in Denver. CoBank as part of the Farm Credit System serves rural America by providing credit and financial services to farmer owned agricultural cooperatives and related businesses, certain farm credit associations, and rural infrastructure businesses including rural electrics, rural communications providers, and rural water and waste water systems. CoBank also provides export financing of agricultural products. The Farm Credit System is a government-sponsored entity and as such has a mission to serve rural America which we take very seriously. CoBank has been active in the renewable fuels sector such as ethanol, solar, and wind.

I’ve always felt that cooperatives are the way for farmers such as me to achieve the scales of economy that allows me to compete in a global market. My farm is served by supply and marketing cooperatives, rural electric and communication cooperatives. I rely on Farm Credit and credit unions for financial needs and even insurance needs are largely through mutual insurance companies.

I have been interested in the rural economy and adding value to the farmer’s share. I was involved in the start up of Dakota Growers Pasta Company which was organized in the early 90’s as a farmer owned cooperative. We started with an idea and sold shares to farmers through out North Dakota and a few neighboring states, got financing through the cooperative bank, and built a state of the art factory in Carrington, North Dakota. 1,100 farmers came to own the third largest dry pasta manufacturing business in the country.

I have also been involved in the start up of a biodiesel plant which didn’t turn out as well. One of the lessons learned with this project is that I believe that our country needs to have a comprehensive energy policy. If we are to attract investors to commercial sized renewable fuel projects, they need to have a reasonable assurance of long term viability. Waiting for Congress to do a yearly extension doesn’t impress the investing community. If we are ever to be energy independent we need to address this comprehensively as a country and support with a long term commitment.

Niche marketing is another way to bolster the local economy and add value to farm products. I helped organize an identity preserved marketing cooperative, Dakota Pride Cooperative. Members grow specialty crops such as hard white spring wheat, non GMO soybeans, etc. These products are harvested and stored separately so that the end used is assured of a pure product that can be traced back to the field.  We have found a market for the non GMO soybeans in Asia and the white wheat is marketed through the North Dakota state owned Mill and Elevator. The white wheat flour is used to make whole wheat bread that naturally is lighter and without the tannins found in ordinary whole wheat bread. The market tells us that this is a better tasting whole wheat bread with the same nutritional value of other whole wheat bread.

There is a lot more to do but I believe that if we work together we can get great results for rural America which will flow to the rest of the country.

Everett farmed all his life in North Dakota and taught high school while farming for a few years. Nowadays, Everett is a full-time farmer and a leader in co-operatives with farming.

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