Co-op Education

Tour helps co-op concepts
‘come alive’ for future
cooperative leaders

By Maria Miller, Director of Education
National Farmers Union

he next generation of co-op leaders is taking time not only to learn the history of cooperatives, but also what really makes them work in today’s economic and social environments.

Nearly 100 students from nine states came together recently in Minneapolis, Minn., to learn about cooperatives from co-op experts, employees and – perhaps most importantly – co-op members of all ages. The students were participants in the College Conference on Cooperatives, sponsored by the CHS Foundation and hosted by the National Farmers Union (NFU) Foundation.

“The conference provided me the opportunity to gain a very broad perspective of youth involvement in the U.S. cooperative moment,” said conference attendee and speaker Mingwei Huang of Illinois. “I come from a student housing co-op background – a very small niche of the co-op movement. I learned a lot about agriculture, retail, food and rural electric co-ops, credit unions and rural community economic development.”

Huang agreed with others that to foster a vibrant generation of co-op leaders, it’s necessary for youth to understand all kinds of co-ops and to learn from leaders in the various cooperative businesses.

The Feb. 20-22 event included participants from Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Kansas, Iowa, Illinois and Colorado. Many of the participants are attending a community college, working on a bachelor’s degree or pursing a master’s degree, for which an understanding of the cooperative business structure is important.

To make cooperative education come alive for the participants, students visited the headquarters of CHS Inc., one of the nation’s leading agricultural cooperatives. “Don’t limit your learning to your current education,” said William Nelson, president of the CHS Foundation. He challenged the visitors to “get involved in things that you cannot complete in your own lifetime” as a way to truly make a difference.

The students also visited REI, a consumer cooperative that is one of the nation’s leading sporting equipment retailers. Other stops on the tour included Mississippi Market Natural Foods Co-op and 7500 York Cooperative. The latter is a retirement housing cooperative where residents said they appreciate being able to play an active role in determining their living environment.

“The conference expanded my knowledge of cooperatives,” said Angie Koch of South Dakota. “Meeting speakers and others in attendance allowed me to make many connections.”

Presenters included members, directors, employees and managers from traditional and value-added agricultural cooperatives. Attendees also gained perspectives from electric, housing and worker-owned co-ops, as well as consumer cooperatives, such as credit unions. Representatives from USDA Rural Development and the Peace Corps provided perspectives on cooperative development in the United States and abroad.

“Cooperatives are corporations where people work together to solve common problems, seize exciting business opportunities and provide themselves with goods and services,” said Greg McKee, assistant professor and director of the Quentin Burdick Center for Cooperatives on the North Dakota State University campus. “Coops are here to stay.”

By touring cooperatives and being able to quiz co-op leaders, members and government experts, participants walked away with a better understanding of the current challenges facing today’s co-ops and the future opportunities for co-op structured businesses.

Twin City co-op industry leaders attended the conference luncheon, giving the attendees a chance to network. Amy Gales, central region president of CoBank, also addressed the group.

Conference coordinator Cathy Statz, education director for the Wisconsin Farmers Union, said the activities of Farmers Union involve cooperation, education and civic activism. “Our own history is closely tied with the cooperative movement,” said Statz. “Cooperatives were made possible by legislative activity, and brought to life in communities both rural and urban. Events like these bring these topics together.”

Additional supporters of the conference included CoBank, The Cooperative Foundation, SPIRE Federal Credit Union, CHS Inc., MAC Education Foundation, Federated Youth Foundation and FUI Foundation.

“Cooperatives are corporations
where people work together to solve
common problems, seize exciting
business opportunities and provide
themselves with goods and services.”

For more information about NFU and its programs, visit:

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