Report from the Cooperative Education Networking Forum

Phil Kenkel

Bill Fitzwater Cooperative Chair

Oklahoma State University

The CHS Foundation, CoBank and other regional cooperatives helped to bring cooperative academic specialist together at the recent NCFC Washington Conference.  The forum reinforced the need for knowledge and human resources and identified some key challenges.  Food and agriculture are critical to the U.S. and world economy.  Agricultural cooperatives are a key part of those industries and as cooperatives grow larger we need to develop knowledge and business leaders.  Cooperative education has a rich history, originating with the Rochdale Pioneers in England.  The partnership between academic cooperative specialists and industry is one piece of the puzzle.  In the U.S. cooperative education has ebbed and flowed.  It is rewarding to see that several new cooperative positions are being established or have recently been established in the U.S.  Oklahoma State University and a few other institutions led the way in re-establishing cooperative research and education, and perhaps the success of these programs has helped to encourage other efforts.  New programs are underway in Iowa, Oregon, Idaho, Montano and South Dakota. The key factor in all of these efforts has been the support and investment by the cooperative industry.

One challenge to cooperative education and research, which may come as a surprise to managers who feel that they are constantly responding to surveys, is the lack of data on cooperatives.  Most investor owned corporations are publically traded which generates daily stock price information.  Non-profit firms file annual financial reports which are available for public access.  Cooperatives are more similar to family run businesses in that financial data is only available with permission.  Cooperative managers and board members have been very accommodating with access to firm data but the level of national research on cooperative firms still lags that of other business forms.  Oklahoma cooperatives excel in their willingness to participate in research, so this topic is preaching to the choir.  The cooperative industry will continue to need information on benchmarking, best practices and new structures.  Researchers are the combines to harvest that information but they will continue to need the data to feed in the front end.

Another interesting discussion at the Washington forum was the different approaches to incorporating information on cooperatives into undergraduate programs.  Some programs concentrate on agricultural cooperatives while other focus on credit unions and other consumer cooperatives.  Some focus on the economic and business aspect of cooperatives while others concentrate on public policy and social dimensions.  There is consensus that exposure to cooperative leaders and internship opportunities are key success factors.  One outcome from the forum was a project to share cooperative instructional material and case studies.

The success of cooperatives is increasingly dependent on knowledge and human resources rather than physical infrastructure.  It is rewarding to see national organizations such as NCFC, CHS and CoBank appauld the university-industry partnerships that have been fostered by state councils and local cooperatives.  The next generation of cooperative leaders are entering universities.  We just need to connect with them and prepare them for the challenge.