The Future is Bright: Raising up the Next Generation of Cooperative Leaders
I had a great opportunity to speak on behalf of the CHS Foundation at the FFA State Officer Summit this week in Washington, DC. FFA stands for Future Farmers of America but has a broader mission to develop all kinds of future agriculture leaders, not just production farmers. The group I spoke with consisted of about 375 elected student leaders from each of the 50 states. It was an absolute privilege to speak with and meet these bright young agriculture leaders.
In this article, I’ll share a few of the ideas I shared with the group, and I’ll reflect on the interactions that followed.
The primary theme of the summit was agricultural advocacy. Specifically, the State Officers were learning to advocate for various agricultural issues with government officials. I thought long and hard about what topic would be complementary to that overall theme.
I decided that these future agriculture leaders needed to understand the power of cooperatives. Since CHS is the largest cooperative in the US, we hold a special responsibility to care for the health of the entire cooperative system. My time with the State Officers seemed to me like a critical opportunity.
Explaining the nuances of the cooperative system can get complex, so I committed to making it very simple and clear.
Ownership is what makes cooperatives different from other companies. Farmers that use the cooperative’s products and services gain ownership in the cooperative proportional to their use.
That ownership provides two outcomes: profit and control. All of the profits earned in the rural communities go back to the rural communities. That’s powerful. Even more, cooperatives are governed by directors that are full-time farmers and are elected among the members.
I can’t think of a more powerful force for the good of agriculture than cooperatives.
The past and the future
I also noticed that CHS and the FFA started right around the same time. 1929 and 1928 respectively. Is that a coincidence? No. What was going on in the late 1920s and early 1930s?
- The Dust Bowl: Farmers in the Midwest experienced widespread and sustained drought. It was an ecological and environmental calamity that we haven’t seen before or since.
- The Great Depression: The stock market crash devasted the economy for all Americans, especially farmers.
- The mechanization of farming: A technology revolution made farmers more efficient, but also more dependent on external sources of energy to run their farm operations.
Cooperatives were formed specifically to combat these challenges. This was not optional. This was a matter of survival. Farmers needed to cooperate in their communities leveraging their collective buying power and market access.
Additionally, they needed to raise up the next generation of agriculture leaders with new ideas to solve these never-before-seen challenges. That’s where the FFA came in.
Fast forward 95 years or so. We have environmental and sustainability challenges. We have economic uncertainty and ever-changing global trade dynamics. We are on the cusp of a digital disruption that will transform agriculture with technology.
These are difficult, but not threatening. Why? Because we were built for this. The cooperative system empowered by a strong leadership pipeline is the solution. We’ve got it covered.
I also covered some specific pathways to get involved with a strong call to action, so they knew what to do with the concepts I was teaching. That was the gist of my message and I believe it resonated.
Every speaker hopes for a healthy amount of meaningful interaction after a well-prepared presentation, and the FFA State Officers delivered. I had dozens of conversations. I’ll summarize a few themes:
- The non-farmers. I’m not a farmer. I didn’t grow up on a farm. It turns out that many FFA State Officers are similarly situated. They are passionate about agriculture and wanted to talk to me about careers that support agriculture in technology, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, business, sales, and accounting.
- The future interns. I talked up our internship program, and I think we’ll have a lot of FFA State Officers applying when we post our 2023 internships this fall.
- The future cooperative leaders. Most that I talked to had a general familiarity with cooperatives but were truly inspired with a new understanding of the power of the cooperative system.
- The podcast fan. One FFA State Officer stopped me in the stairwell and told me that he loves my podcast. I was shocked. These are 17–19 year-olds. I had no idea I had any reach with that audience. Even if he was the only one, that was still 100% more than I thought there would be.
The FFA is an impressive group with a worthy cause. These State Officers are among their finest. I can’t help but walk away with an overwhelming sense of optimism. These are the future leaders of agriculture. That future is very bright.