Farmers Union celebrates a century of cooperative leadership in South Dakota
February 13, 2015
Owen Jones, 77, can clearly remember the day electricity came to his family's Britton farm. "It made a big difference when we went to milk cows because we could turn lights on in the barn and didn't have to worry about tipping over a lantern," says the third-generation farmer, referencing the kerosene lantern which hung on a wire that ran the length of the barn. For light, Jones, his dad and brothers would simply slide the lantern along as they did chores.
Jones was 12-years-old when Lake Regional Electric Cooperative brought electricity to rural Marshall and Day Counties. His dad, Arthur, was among the founding members responsible for the co-op's development. "Dad was a strong cooperative-minded person. Early on, he realized that if he wanted a better lifestyle in the country, he would have to work for it and organize cooperatives."
It's no surprise that Arthur was also actively involved in his local Farmers Union Chapter. Cooperative development was the original mission of Farmers Union when South Dakota farmers and ranchers established the organization in 1914. "Cooperatives are the reason the Farmers Union organization began. Its founders felt they didn't have a real good market for their products, so they decided to collectively market their products together," explains Doug Sombke, S.D. Farmers Union President. "At that time, some received more for their grain than others, so by coming together they had a better chance of higher prices."
This basic concept that uniting farmers could obtain better prices for the products they grew and raised is what drove National Farmers Union founder and its first president, Newt Gresham. According to historian, Lynwood E. Oyos' book The Family Farmers' Advocate, "He (Newt Gresham) constantly reiterated that family farmers needed a voice and an organization to fight for their rights and survival. Farmers, Gresham argued, were continually being exploited by non-farmers."
Gresham and the organizations' 10 founding members established the Farmer's Educational and Cooperative Union of America near Point, Texas, in 1902. According to Oyos' account, by 1914 the message was carried to South Dakota by Nebraskan member J.K. Weinmaster. The first farmer he visited with about Farmers Union was Knute Strand who farmed about 8 miles southwest of Mitchell.
Strand became the first paid-up South Dakota Farmers Union member and loaned his buggy to Weinmaster to spread the message to his neighbors. On Feb. 6, 1914, Strand was among the state's 17 charter members.
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The message of "together we can accomplish what we can't alone" resonated with farmers across the state. Soon, what had begun in Davison County spread and within two years, the state boasted the required 5,000 dues paying members to receive a state charter recognized by the national organization.
Less than a decade after receiving their state charter, Farmers Union grain, livestock, insurance, wholesale and retail marketing cooperatives were serving their member/owners in several South Dakota counties. By the 1930s Farmers Union oil, cream buying stations and credit union cooperatives were also established in rural townships and communities across the state.
"Co-ops have played an important role in our state's progress," explains Sombke, a fourth generation Conde farmer. "When companies didn't want to invest in the infrastructure necessary to bring electricity, telephone service, fuel and agriculture inputs to the countryside, our state's farmers and ranchers banded together to form member-owned cooperatives."
"Farmers Union helped people understand that there were things they could do together that they couldn't do by themselves," explains Jones, who has served on several cooperative boards throughout his farming career and currently serves on the American Coalition of Ethanol board.
Along with providing needed services, cooperatives created marketing competition in what was a monopoly run by off-farm interests. According to Oyos' book, by the 1880s South Dakota's grain producers were at the mercy of "an unfair price structure determined by milling magnates and commodity firms in the Twin Cities and Chicago."
This issue extended to livestock producers who faced their own set of corporate competitors explained Jim Woster, a retired stockyards buyer, who today spends his time advocating for many South Dakota agricultural organizations.
"I started working for Farmers Union Livestock the morning after I graduated from South Dakota State University in 1962. In those days, most livestock farmers didn't sell that many cattle. When they did sell, they were not in the position to compete with corporations like Morrell's, so commission firms like Farmers Union Livestock played a valuable role in getting those producers a fair price," Woster said.
The competition cooperatives bring to today's marketplace, whether in purchasing inputs for their owner/members or marketing grain, is important even today, explains Dave Andresen, CEO of Full Circle Ag, a full service agriculture cooperative that serves ag producers in 12 counties in northeast South Dakota and southeast North Dakota.
"In the last few years we've seen a lot of money come into production agriculture from outside interests – Wall Street, Silicon Valley and international players like China and Japan. If you do business with an international corporation, the profits leave the country," Andresen explains. "Whereas when you do business with your local cooperative, the money stays in the community and profits are returned to the farmer/owners."
Andresen appreciates the role Farmers Union continues to play in supporting cooperatives through youth education and lobbying state and national government. "Only 1.7 percent of the people serving in D.C. have any ties to agriculture, yet they are setting our policy," he says. "If it had not been for Farmers Union and other farm organizations stepping up and lobbying Congress during the recent rail crisis, I don't think we would have seen any resolution."