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October is cooperative month

With school back in session for a couple of months now, FFA students are researching and writing the speeches they will give for the Missouri Institute of Cooperatives Speech contest held each October in celebration of Cooperative Month. The contest topic revolves around how cooperatives work.

Local winners will advance to district contests and from there to the annual meeting of Missouri Institute of Cooperatives in late winter when an overall winner will be announced.

For me, it is interesting to hear these speeches each year because, in the course of their research, FFA members often drill down to the fundamental tenets of cooperatives.

One fact that seems to earn attention from contest speakers each year is the scope of cooperative businesses in the United States. If you look at the numbers, it’s not hard to see why.

The United States is home to more than 40,000 cooperative businesses with some 350 million members. It is a successful business model. According to the USDA, nationally, these cooperatives generate $514 billion in revenue and more than $25 billion in wages. That’s an impressive number. While MFA’s primary focus is to provide value-added products, services and expertise for the benefit of our member-owners, we take pride in being the largest employer in many of the communities in which we do business.

Another cooperative fundamental FFA speakers tend to talk about is community involvement.

MFA is often one of the more visible businesses in small towns, too. Providing the infrastructure and employees to distribute products and services you need to farm is a capital-intensive endeavor. That’s a challenge for cooperatives in the sometimes thin profit margins of agriculture. But that investment is appreciated by cooperative customers. According to studies from USDA and cooperative think tanks, customers want to do business with companies that share their values.

In the community around any given MFA location, you will see those values shared through MFA-sponsored uniforms at youth baseball games, entries in holiday parades, food at community dinners and livestock buyers at the local fair. I would tell you that MFA’s ties to local communities are even deeper. You’ll find MFA employees on boards and committees that make our communities better places. These are values that last for generations.

What else do FFA speakers consistently tell us? Cooperatives generate jobs in their communities, keep profits local and pay local taxes to help support community services.

Another thing I’ve heard from FFA speakers is that cooperatives remain as relevant today as they were when MFA was founded. And for the same reasons. Cooperatives don’t have to answer to outside shareholders. Our focus is on meeting our members’ needs. Cooperatives are governed through democratic control. In our case, that means local voting delegates can act on issues at MFA’s annual meeting each year, and crucially, the MFA Incorporated board of directors is comprised of 14 farmers elected by their peers. The board helps determine the strategic direction of the organization and hires executive leadership to handle day-to-day business.

By now, I have attended the Missouri Institute of Cooperatives annual meeting for many years. And I’ve seen the winning FFA speech each time. If I could summarize them, I’d tell you that students see agricultural cooperatives as an important part of agriculture. These young people recognize that cooperatives are a farmer-focused ideal to ensure an enduring and competitive agricultural industry through giving individual farmers the ability to own and lead organizations. I agree with them.

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