In 2009, the Jackson Electric Cooperative decided to make use of eight acres of long-idle farmland behind its headquarters in Black River Falls, Wisc.
The co-op offered use of the land to a chapter of FFA, a student organization that teaches agricultural and other career skills. The students then worked with three other local cooperatives to launch a test plot program, through which they are doing scientific research, making money and learning about cooperation first-hand.
The effort has been honored with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s 2011 National Community Service Award for Youth Programs. It has also attracted inquires from a handful of other electric co-ops with land to spare.
This attention should be no surprise, as the story of this student co-op provides an example of how to gain multiple benefits from a dormant asset: Just add cooperation.
A Student-Driven Cooperative
The students were encouraged to carry out the plan themselves. Carol Blaken, communications specialist for Jackson Electric, noted that the students took initiative from the start, including the recruitment of the other cooperatives.
“We just suggested it,” said Blaken. “We gave them a little push but didn’t want to do the work for them.”
Brad Markhardt is an agricultural education teacher and the advisor to the local FFA chapter at Black River Falls High School. He recalls that he liked the idea when presented, but also knew that the students had to take initiative. So he asked them to come up with a plan to seize the opportunity.
“I put it to the kids,” he said. “I knew if it’s going to work it’s got to be kid-driven. I told them they had to make a plan by such-and-such a date.”
Co-op president Will Peasley was one of those students. He is a sixth-generation dairy farmer and a third-generation cooperator. His co-op experience is helping him understand the experiences of his father, who is on the boards of both Federation and Jackson Electric.
“It’s helped me understand more what my dad does with his co-ops, and all the different aspects of running a co-op,” said Peasley. “It’s opened my eyes quite a bit.”
Sixth Principle Delivers the Goods
Markhardt notes that student cooperatives are not a new idea. But Jackson Electric could not have done this alone, and it’s the level of cooperation among co-ops that makes this effort unique.
The Co-op Credit Union provided financial advice and a grant that was used for the initial purchase of seed and fertilizer from Federation Cooperative, which assisted with crop and fertilizer choices. Hixton-Fairchild Cooperative educated the students on grain storage and marketing.
This winter these co-ops’ support paid off; they were joined by the Black River Falls FFA Student Cooperative, which grew out of the FFA project. The co-op currently has 14 members, who will share profits based on hours worked once the co-op has its first annual meeting in December of 2011.
Since the program began, the FFA students have raised two crops, harvesting twelve kinds of corn in 2009 and comparing brands of soybean in 2010. The crops were then sold to a local marketing cooperative, enabling the students to analyze their business gains and expenses.
“We got support [at first] from local co-ops, but now we purchase our own seed and our own fertilizer,” said Peasley. “Analyzing the profit between corn and soybeans, we decided to go with soybeans.”
Growing a Cooperative Future
The 2011 growing season has been off to a slow start, with snow still falling in late April. Still, the co-op’s members are undaunted as they prepare for another crop of soybeans.
The co-op is also helping create opportunity that will help keep these students in farming. “If we can teach them about how a cooperative operates now, we’ve already got a head start on educating them as they grow,” Blaken said.
Peasley is looking forward to college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he plans to major in agricultural business. There, he will have a cooperative perspective that many students lack, and which will help launch him into a promising future. He says he might return to the family dairy farm but also can imagine managing another cooperative.
“There are lots of things I can do with this,” he said.
And Markhardt has already seen a change in the students involved with this co-op.
“These kinds of authentic real-world opportunities are just so invaluable, and as a teacher it’s my job to help to facilitate these kinds of activities,” he said. “And when the students take them and run with them and are responsible for their own education and they feel ownership of their own education, well that’s just the top of the world for a person as a teacher.”
“The kids know this is real world,” said Markhardt. “That makes them really step up in the way they handle responsibility. They know this isn’t just the grade book.”