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Growing to nowhere. Why I’m voting ‘no’ on co-op merger

November 6, 2015


More farm co-op mergers? I'll be voting "no" on the proposed merger of my farmer co-op, FC, the largest in Iowa, with another large co-op, West Central.

I've seen my local co-ops, Churdan and Farnhamville, merge in 1980 followed by many other mergers to create what we now know as FC.

Promises of more buying power and efficiencies have not proven true, I believe.

Some farmers I know buy their chemicals from private companies or other co-ops because of cheaper prices and the farmers feel no loyalty to FC whatsoever.

This isn't what our parents and grandparents had in mind when the original co-ops were started.

Like a lot of our institutions, the logic of gradual small changes through the years ends up with something we didn't anticipate, and reform will be needed.

I'd say that creating bigger co-ops has led to a loss of membership input and governance.

Decisions have been made that I don't believe helped members or their communities, and the provisions for member input just don't exist, even though multi-million dollar decisions can make or break these rural communities.

One example is FC's and West Central's feed service.

FC has only three feed mills for its huge territory and West Central has three or four. My neighbors and I can't buy feed in bags locally.

We have to travel 20 or 30 miles to get it. I've learned that even if I wanted bulk feed, FC would refer me to a private supplier because FC doesn't have smaller feed trucks in my area.

The problem is we've kept the same governing mechanisms of voting for a board of directors that worked fine when we knew virtually all the farmers in the community and had a chance to discuss our concerns.

I also remember when farmers weren't afraid to speak up at annual meetings.

Two years ago, and again this year, the FC ballot for district directors offers only one name to choose - this year, all incumbents.

With no choice, how can our vote be meaningful? Two years ago at the annual meeting when I questioned this situation, management said they couldn't find anyone else to run.

So in two years, nothing has changed? At that same meeting, a board member stood up and told me, "This is the annual meeting. This is no place to discuss issues."

So when could directors find out what the members think?

And yes, there's really no way for me to find out if others share my sentiments or have good ideas themselves.

In other words, I believe when co-ops get big, there needs to be a new model of governance. Democratic control is a bedrock principle of co-ops and will assure we won't lose years of investment.

Here are my, hopefully, constructive suggestions for changing co-op governance.

As with our local Farm Service Agency committee, a letter can be sent to all farmers asking for nominations. To become a member of the first Iowa Corn Promotion Board, I needed 25 signatures to get on the ballot. Co-ops could do the same.

Also, once or twice a year, smaller local districts could hold member-only luncheons where different ideas could be discussed about what needs changing or what new services could serve the farming community in that area.

We may need different services in our area than others half way across the state.

Resolutions could be passed and sent out to the membership to see what other farmer-owners are thinking so that good ideas are generated and can't be ignored.

Some people might stand out as potentially good board members. FC and West Central could both be better co-ops.

It's my stand that without such changes for member input and control, our co-ops are co-ops in name only, and I'll be voting "no" on any more co-op mergers.

George Naylor is a 40-year farmer in Greene County and a member of both FC and West Central cooperatives.



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