HURON, S.D. – Cooperative success depends upon member engagement, explained Kurt Pfeifle, Executive Director of the South Dakota Association of Rural Water Systems.
“Apathy is Kryptonite to cooperative success,” Pfeifle said. “When a cooperative suffers from lack of interest among its members, its foundation falters. Cooperatives that have been tremendously successful have strong member-leadership and provide outstanding service.”
Pfeifle was one of three panelists to discuss cooperatives and their value to rural South Dakotans during a recent Rural POWER seminar. The other panelists were Mike Traxinger, General Counsel and Director of Governmental Affairs, Agtegra Cooperative and Luke Reindl, South Dakota Farmers Union Communications and Legislative Specialist.
Rural POWER is a year-long leadership development program sponsored by South Dakota Farmers Union (SDFU) and hosted by the Billie Sutton Leadership Institute. As the POWER acronym suggests, the program is focused on “Powering Opportunities While Energizing Rural.”
“I have learned more than I anticipated from leaders from different cooperatives throughout the state,” explained Jordan Jones, Senior Associate in the auditing department for a public accounting firm in Rapid City.
Through his work, Jones works with cooperatives and initially joined Rural POWER to expand his knowledge and understanding of cooperatives. “This program has exceeded my expectations in the amount of information I have gained.”
Jones said he was impressed by what the panelists shared. “An underlying concept of Rural POWER is to encourage us to participate in the cooperatives we belong to. After participation in this program, I feel much more likely to look into doing that.”
Because cooperatives are member-owned and member-led, during the panel discussion Pfeifle said, “they are a testament to the power of people. We can accomplish so much together that would be impossible to achieve alone.”
Traxinger added that member-leadership is among the reasons he enjoys working for Agtegra. “We are a member-controlled, democratic system. It doesn’t matter how large or small your farm is, everyone has a vote. If you are a member, you can run for the board.”
In addition to working for Agtegra, Traxinger was recently elected to serve on the board of a local electric cooperative. “Don’t be afraid to ask how you can get involved.”
Pfeifle added that many times existing board members are seeking someone to take over for them. “Many say, “I have been on this board for 20 years, but I can’t leave until I find someone who is willing to replace me.’”
When it comes to running for a board position, Reindl also encouraged Rural POWER participants to step up. “Don’t be shy. Know that you will not know everything. Be OK with that,” he said. “Go into the position understanding that you can ask questions and learn. Be willing to serve, that is the biggest thing.”
Service to others is a focus of South Dakota Farmers Union. And because of the important role cooperatives play in ensuring essential services to rural communities, since its founding more than a century ago, supporting cooperatives is one way the grassroots policy organization serves family farmers and ranchers and their rural communities.
Jones said as a Rural POWER participant he has gained a strong understanding of the role cooperatives play in the communities they serve. “Understanding the functions of a cooperative and the business model is not something I learned in school,” Jones said. “So, I appreciate that after this experience, I have a better understanding and feel more competent when I sit down and talk with a General Manager of a cooperative or co-op controller.”
Jones is one of six rural cooperative members sponsored by South Dakota Farmers Union and selected to participate in the 2021-22 Rural POWER class. Other members include Sara Hento, Avon; Joshua Hofer, Parkston; Wayne Ducheneaux, Eagle Butte; Krecia Leddy, Stockholm; and Katy VanderPol, Platte.
To learn more about Rural POWER, visit suttonleadership.org.