NFU Guest Commentary: Cooperatives Are the organization’s north star
WASHINGTON – National Farmers Union (NFU) President Roger Johnson explains in a recent USDA Rural Cooperatives Magazine guest commentary that cooperatives are a founding principle for NFU, and that they will continue to embody the heart and soul of Farmers Union.
“At NFU, cooperatives are not just considered a smart business idea; they are actually a founding principle that goes right to the heart of who we are and where we came from as an organization,” says Johnson.
Johnson points out that NFU’s roots go back to Point, Texas, where in 1902, farmers began organizing to find strength in numbers and a common voice in business and national policy. “The organization’s founders were responding to business practices that took advantage of farmers and used the concentrated power as buyers to not only treat farmers unfairly, but also to pit them against one another.”
He says that among the first actions taken by Farmers Union was to form cooperative warehouses to store its members’ cotton until market prices would improve. This concept grew, along with the organization, from the county level to the state and now the national level. The first major cooperative success stories happened in the 1920s and 1930s, when farmers were fighting both extreme drought and a huge slump in prices.
“It was during this time that Farmers Union members worked together in earnest to create supply and marketing cooperatives, better known as Farmers Union oil and elevator co-ops,” says Johnson. “The co-ops and Farmers Union county and state organizations were formed hand-in-hand, sharing the same leaders and members, which remains true even today. Farmers Union members believe in and belong to cooperatives, and cooperatives continue to embody the heart and soul of Farmers Union.”
Johnson also notes that the forefathers of Farmers Union did not stop at forming purchasing co-ops. “Our members also were organizers and leaders in forming credit unions, rural electric and telephone cooperatives and many other agricultural and rural co-ops. We were committed to the value of the business of working together, promoting both viability and sustainability long before those were catch phrases.”
Johnson says that another ideal shared by Farmers Union and cooperatives is the mutual commitment to education. “Together, we dedicate resources to educational programs that allow individuals to improve their personal and professional abilities. We put effort into programs that build communities.”
Johnson notes that as part of NFU’s education and outreach mission, it holds the annual College Conference on Cooperatives (CCOC), an event that was attended this year by more than 150 individuals from 25 states and Puerto Rico. “CCOC attendees learned how cooperative businesses are adapting to changing environments and heard from cooperative experts from across the nation on why member-owned businesses are thriving in industries ranging from senior housing to healthcare,” he says.
“Since the founding of Farmers Union 113 years ago, agriculture has become more, not less, concentrated and farmers still find themselves as price takers, not price makers. For this reason, cooperatives remain as important today as they were at our founding, and have not only built the foundation of our national organization to fight for family farmers, but also continue to serve as its North Star,” says Johnson.