HURON, S.D. — Getting young farmers to serve on the board of directors was a challenge facing Central Farmers Cooperative. To overcome it, the full-service agriculture co-op decided to take a proactive approach.
“We felt it was important to get some younger people involved, so we started an apprenticeship program to get them up to speed before they ran to be elected to the board,” explained Jim Wahle, a Salem crop farmer who served on the co-op’s board of directors for nearly 15 years.
With intentions to retire from the board of directors in January 2023, Wahle was the first board member to recruit a young farmer to the apprenticeship program. But he says he won’t be the last. “As I look around the board room at the other farmers, they look a lot like me. And like me, they want to retire from the board. We will have six guys retire in the next four years,” Wahle explained.
Matt Eichacker was the first young farmer Wahle recruited. Eichacker is 29 and farms with his dad, uncle and cousin. The family raises crops and cattle near Salem.
He said he appreciated the opportunity to serve in an advisory, non-voting role for several months before putting his name on the ballot and serving as a full-fledged board member.
“It’s nice to be a bit behind the scenes to see the numbers, see how things go, see how the meetings go before you are sitting there putting in your opinion. Because you are the ‘young buck,’ you have new ideas, but if you can just sit in for a little bit and understand how things work and get the flow of things before you are expected to vote, it’s nice,” Eichacker said.
By the time he was elected in February 2022, Eichacker said he was ready to take on responsibilities of a board member.
“Being on the Advisory Board before being on the actual board was a bit of an eye-opener and really helped me understand it,” Eichacker said.
Andrew Streff agreed. He is the second young farmer Wahle recruited. “Right now, I don’t have the experience or overall knowledge of the co-op, to make actual decisions. So, learning how to read the different balance sheets and cash flow statements and then learning the wage process behind a business such as this – with multiple locations – there’s quite a learning curve,” said Streff, who is 24, and has been farming full time with his parents since 2020. “Through this process I’ve learned how to ask questions and understand which ones I need to ask.”
The feedback Streff and Eichacker share about their experience serving on the advisory board tells Mark Finck the apprenticeship program is working. Finck serves as General Manager of Farmers Cooperative.
He said the diversity the young farmers bring to the boardroom is important. “You’re getting different perspectives. I wouldn’t want a board that was made up of all farmers who are retiring. And I wouldn’t want a board that is made up of all young farmers either,” Finck said. “It’s good to have that mix and blend of different viewpoints.”
Like many ag-based cooperatives, the bylaws of Central Farmers Cooperative mandate that only farmers actively involved in production agriculture can serve on the board of directors. “The cooperative board of directors set the overall direction for the company. They oversee and vote on everything from policies to anything that deals with equity and equity distribution and patronage,” Finck said.
Because of the new apprenticeship program, Wahle said when he retires in January, he is not concerned about the future leadership of the board.
“I feel like I am leaving the co-op in good shape,” Wahle said.