A historic friendship: The strength of membership helped shape MFA
In the April 2014 issue of Today’s Farmer, we printed an excerpt from Proud Past, Bright Future, MFA Incorporated’s First 100 Years. That installment focused on long-time MFA president Fred Heinkel. This month, we print a third installment. In this issue, we visit MFA supporter Bill Stouffer and the evolution of management at the behest of MFA members. These excerpts are from Chapter 7 of Proud Past, Bright Future. You can purchase a copy of the book by visiting http://www.todaysfarmer.com/shop.
From Chapter 7:
To this day, former Missouri State Senator Bill Stouffer bleeds MFA red, white and blue. His father was an MFA delegate; his grandfather a member. Stouffer grew up knowing MFA was built by farmers for farmers. In the early 1960s, he received an MFA scholarship to attend the Missouri Institute of Cooperatives. He received the first college scholarship offered by the Marshall MFA Exchange. His first off-farm job was at the MFA Exchange in Columbia, part-time while he attended the University of Missouri. MFA was in his blood.
Back home in the 1970s, after finishing his degree in ag economics, Stouffer chaffed each time he visited the exchange for his farm inputs or to deliver his grain. That irritation blossomed into full-blown anger at a seed meeting at Marshall put on by a salesman of the MFA seed division. The salesman compared two of MFA’s best hybrids to “a good Pioneer and a real Pioneer dog,” said Stouffer. The salesman said the comparison proved MFA’s average was better. “I knew all four seeds. I went straight to the manager and asked why my cooperative was lying to me.”
Bob Ferguson was the man Stouffer confronted. Ferguson managed the Marshall exchange at the time. Years later he would rise to regional manager. Without saying much of anything, Ferguson simply directed Stouffer to another individual who had similar complaints. After talking to that individual, who pointed Stouffer to yet another dissatisfied MFA member, Stouffer found a group at St. Joseph, a group in the southwest, a group around Boonville; Stouffer would find brush fires pretty well all over the state, he said. Fred Heinkel’s strategy, said Stouffer, was to keep all these brush fires contained locally.
Not one to let matters drop, Stouffer went straight to the top. “I’ve always been one to work within the system,” he said. “I don’t throw bombs from outside.” He made an appointment in the spring of 1979 with Fred Heinkel in MFA’s headquarters to talk about his
concerns. Heinkel welcomed the young man into his office and listened to his complaints.
“He brought in the head of the division,” said Stouffer, “and basically I was told I didn’t know what I was talking about. Meeting Heinkel was like meeting a prize-fighter. He kept dodging and weaving.”
The individual in charge of the seed division told Stouffer the seed comparison was “just the way you do business.” Stouffer turned away from the division head and said, “Mr. Heinkel, if this is going to be Heinkel Feed and Grain, I’ll go home and I won’t say another word. But if it’s truly Missouri Farmers Association, that’s not the way my cooperative is supposed to do business. I want you to be straight with me.” He left without a commitment.
Upset but undeterred, Stouffer told his wife he wanted to talk to the individual whose firing as vice president of the exchange division had caused such uproar. “I’m going to call this devil up,” Stouffer told his wife, “and see what he looks like.”
Bill Stouffer called Bud Frew. A life-long and historic friendship began.
Stouffer arranged to meet Frew at a local restaurant, where he explained his frustrations and asked for Frew’s insight. “Frew sat right there and drew out on a napkin what MFA ought to look like,” said Stouffer. “I don’t know how long we talked. It was probably an hour and a half. But from that time on, it was very evident that the company’s direction had to change.”
Bill Stouffer found a mission.
He went home and organized a meeting to be held on his farm outside Napton. He invited all the farmers he’d visited with who shared his concerns. Two dozen from all over the state showed up.
After hours of conversations, both at that meeting and at meetings that followed, the group decided on a course of action. They would run themselves or support those running for seats on the MFA corporate board of directors as long as those running reflected their desire for change. On the ballot in 1979 were Carlton Spencer, Faucett, Mo.; David Hortenstine, Brookfield, Mo.; L.E. Manson, Brunswick, Mo.; Everett Billings, Green Ridge, Mo.; Adrian Murray, Ash Grove, Mo.; Bill Stouffer, Napton, Mo.; and William Umbarger, Fairfax, Mo. Seven men determined to fix their cooperative, eerily reminiscent of another meeting of seven farmers 65 years earlier.
It wasn’t MFA employees rebelling, Stouffer insisted; it wasn’t a disgruntled Frew pushing for change in leadership at MFA as payback. “It was member-driven,” he said. Period. The millions of dollars MFA spent on lobbying and governmental issues, he said, were showing up along with costs from an outdated organizational structure. Farmers were paying the bill. It was the farmers’ money MFA was mismanaging, Stouffer said. That had to stop. “We had a 1950s distribution system” supporting a 1979 agriculture, he said.
Stouffer’s next step was to approach Ray Young and ask if he’d run against Fred Heinkel. Everyone at the time knew Young’s strength as a businessman and knew he was the glue holding the business together. It wasn’t the first time Young had been asked. Several influential MFA leaders had posed the same question before (some quite a few years before), Young recalled. In fact, over the course of the 1970s, Young had been approached three separate times. As Young reported in his book, he refused each time, saying, “I did not want to run against Heinkel, with whom I had worked almost 40 years.” Nevertheless, Young would not oppose efforts to unseat Heinkel. Young knew firsthand the 81-year-old Fred Heinkel should retire—should, in fact, have retired years ago.
In the midst of all this, Eric Thompson was fuming on the sidelines. Thompson was director of employee relations at MFA. He’d heard farmer rumblings and manager grumblings. Thompson had done some of both, himself. “You have to understand,” Thompson said, “the countryside was riled up.” And so were exchange managers. Frew had been very popular. Thompson, as well, considered Heinkel’s undercutting Frew’s authority as a kick in the face to anyone paying attention. Thompson paid attention. He found out Bill Stouffer had contacted Young. So Thompson sought out Stouffer.
“We were looking for a candidate,” said Stouffer. “By the first of July, I was meeting with Eric.”
Thompson then approached Young at his home to find out the depths of his loyalties. Specifically, Thompson wanted to know whether Young would stay on if Thompson were to unseat Fred Heinkel. Young said he knew enough about political moves to keep things vague. Young would only say this: “I’m an organization man. I’m in this for the good of MFA. I’m not here to serve individuals, either you or Heinkel. That’s all I’ll say.”
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