Celebrate South Dakota’s cooperatives: Member-owned and member led for almost a century

Farm Forum

HURON — For many of South Dakota’s rural communities, cooperatives have served as a lifeline to technology, products and services which have allowed local farmers, ranchers and businesses to grow and thrive.

“Co-ops have played an important role in our state’s progress,” explains Doug Sombke, President of South Dakota Farmers Union. “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.”

Supporting the cooperative mission by providing policy support, as well as cooperative education, to rural youth is a large focus of S.D. Farmers Union.

Throughout the month of October, the grassroots organization celebrates the valuable role cooperatives play in the state by hosting a number of activities including: Dime Days at fuel stations Oct. 16, 2014 at Kusler’s (602 S Main St) in Aberdeen and Oct. 23, 2014 at Cenex C-Store (1601 9th Ave SE) in Watertown. During Yellow Dime Day, for every gallon of E-30 that drivers purchase, they will receive a yellow dime in return.

Farmers Union will also be hosting harvest lunches for farmers at Prairie Ag Partners in Lake Preston, Southeast Farmers Elevator in Elk Point and Wheat Growers in Andover.

View for event details.

Like the farm, cooperative involvement has been a part of Sombke’s family for several generations. “My grandpa, Alvin, was a founding member of the Farmers Union Oil Company of Ferney. He told me the story of how the farmers joined together to form it because there was no local access to fuel,” says Sombke, a fourth-generation Conde farmer. “During a recent annual meeting, my dad, Dallas, who is 76, held up his $20,000 patronage check to remind all the young farmers that when they do business with their co-op, they are investing in their future.”

Investing in the future has become a large focus of many South Dakota cooperatives, explains Don Truhe, General Manager of Southeast Farmers Co-op. “As our farmers become bigger and faster, so does our cooperative. With our purchasing power, we can buy the best equipment and technology to meet today’s needs and tomorrow’s challenges,” Truhe says.

Headquartered in Elk Point, Truhe explains that across the state, communities have seen their local cooperatives merge to expand their purchasing power and increase the speed and efficiency of their facilities.

This purchasing power goes beyond inputs, Truhe explains. For the member-owners of Southeast Farmers Co-op, it means access to equipment to solve current issues like weed resistance. “The window of time we have to spray is quite small now that many weeds have developed glyphosate-resistance; farmers can no longer go out and just spray one product on all their fields and not worry about drift,” Truhe says.

Which is why, the cooperative is investing in top of the line custom spray equipment.

Looking to the future, his agronomy team is also in the process of purchasing a drone to scout members’ fields. “The information this drone can provide to our growers, such as nutrient deficiencies, after only 10 to 15 minutes of scouting, is impressive – and can be used to improve yields during the growing season,” Truhe says.

Still Relevant

Membership in South Dakota cooperatives continues to remain strong with more than 80,000 South Dakotans owning shares in more than 160 cooperatives state-wide.

These cooperatives serve a diversity of needs from telecommunications, banking and marketing to fuel, home-heating and electric services, and providing farmers and ranchers with inputs and supplies.

“People continue to see the value in owning what they use,” explains Brenda Forman, Executive Director of South Dakota Association of Cooperatives. “The principles of member-owned and member-used, upon which all cooperatives are based, resonate today just as they did well over a century ago when South Dakota’s cooperative movement began. I liken cooperatives to farmers taking care of the land for the next generation. Cooperatives are here for the next generation.”

To remain relevant, cooperatives have had to adapt, explains Jeff Dragseth, General Manager of CBH Cooperatives, headquartered in Sturgis with several fuel, home heating, feed and agronomy locations throughout South Dakota’s Northern Black Hills.

“The cooperative business model continues to change. I don’t care what your cooperative does or where it’s located, the cooperative has to evolve with the needs of its owners,” says Dragseth, who started with CBH in 2005.

At that time the cooperative was at $12.5 million in sales. Today, the cooperative has expanded from serving just community members, farmers and ranchers to serving commercial businesses as well. In 2014 the cooperative brought in $70 million in sales.

“As we grow, change and look for new opportunities, our members reap the benefits through patronage,” Dragseth said.

Educating the next generation of cooperative members has been key to S.D. Farmers Union youth education curriculum. Each year more than 2,000 South Dakota youth attend district and state camps where they learn about how cooperatives work and the value they bring to their local communities, explains Truhe.

“The youth programming Farmers Union does provides great value to cooperatives throughout the state because by the time these youth are members, they will understand the importance of getting involved in the leadership decisions and direction of the cooperative business they own,” Truhe says.

To learn more about Cooperative Month Activities and South Dakota Farmers Union Youth Programming, visit