Opening Remarks at the 2023 AGrow Expo by CEO, Heath Barnes:

I have been in agriculture my entire life and have stood before many crowds and opened a speech with the same sentence that I am about to deliver. We find ourselves in challenging times in the agriculture community. While the challenges I am referring to today are different than the ones I have pontificated on in the past, they are still very real. The challenges I am referring to are encapsulated in a quote I read the other day from Dan Schultz a self-described Agribusiness psychotherapist.

He said “In agriculture, we have become price takers and story followers. Instead, we need to become conversation changers.

Indeed we have challenges. When we look at what is happening in the rest of the world. The Netherlands is attempting to shut down farms, all in the name of becoming climate neutral. Agriculture is a massive sector of their economy. These same thought processes are coming to our shores and could forever alter the American agricultural landscape. For too long, we, as farmers and integral members of the agricultural sector, have often found ourselves beholden to market prices, adhering to the narratives and trends that are dictated to us in forcing our choices and actions. Yet, this quote impels us to break free from this cycle and become agents of transformative change.

Let’s for a moment talk about the fact that “In agriculture, we have become price takers…” These words capture the reality that many of us face. Agriculture is profoundly interwoven with global markets, and we often feel helpless in the face of fluctuating prices. We’ve allowed ourselves to be at the mercy of these prices, leading to challenges such as price volatility and unpredictable incomes.

But the real challenge that I am referring to is that we are “story followers.” In today’s world, narratives wield significant influence over our perceptions and decisions. Be it consumer preferences, market dynamics, or sustainability concerns, we tend to adhere to the stories crafted for us. Yet, these narratives can be restrictive and may not fully reflect the vast potential of our livelihoods. We have so often had conversations around the fact that agriculture is bad at telling our story. We often get defensive and say things like, “Well to heck with them. We produce the food, let them starve and see how they like it.”

We create divisions within the agriculture community. My own father, who I view as a fairly progressive person, hated anything organic. The reason for the hatred is the organic community attacked the conventional farming community. The lesson that we need to learn is that there is room for both practices in our market place. And this preference is driven by the consumer.

So, rather than battle within the agriculture community about organic, non-gmo, sustainable, regenerative, carbon credits, the list goes on and on – we must band together as agriculture and tell the powerful story of how agriculture feeds the world while also protecting the ecological environment. Because there is not a farmer I know that is not a steward of his land. It is a powerful story.

Today the perception of farming is being driven by the politicians, the mega agribusiness companies with alphabet names and the food companies. It is very reminiscent of the marketplace that we found ourselves in during the early 1900’s when the ABC companies dominated the agribusiness landscape. A landscape that farmers, like your parents and grandparents, felt like they were being let down because they were price takers and the ABC’s took advantage of their market position. Out of that weak position, the cooperative was formed. Farmers banded together to shift more market power back to their side of the equation. I think it is appropriate to review the seven principles of the cooperative system because they are as relevant today as they were a century ago when agricultural cooperatives were born.

The Seven Principles of the Cooperative System

  1. We embrace voluntary open membership.
  2. This membership is guided by democratic control.
  3. This membership is also guided by our members’ participation.
  4. We fiercely cherish our autonomy and independence.
  5. We provide education and training opportunities for our members.
    1. We have provided such opportunities even within the last year most notably through our grain education series, as well as this very event where you are going to hear from a  host of speakers and commentators.
  6. Cooperatives also contribute to the success of our local communities through donations and employee volunteerism at various events throughout the year.
  7. We work for you, our member owners, and the sustainable development of our communities.

And because of your ownership in this company, this cooperative, you reap the reward of profitable operations through patronage.

Years ago I worked for a CEO at a cooperative that did not grow up in agriculture and had no experience with cooperatives. I will never forget his recollection of his first fiscal year end. The auditors presented the final numbers and they discussed the patronage payout. He asked for some more clarification around what this patronage thing was. They explained that it was a distribution of income back to the patrons. He said we make all this money and then we just give it back. His favorite quote was we aren’t communist, but we are slightly pink. While we had varying views on patronage, let it be known that here at Mercer Landmark, we never forget or take for granted that this is your company and we are here to steward it for you the owners.

And lastly, all of these principles mean nothing if we don’t earn your trust and business every day.

Let us get back to our quote and finish out this conversation with the solution to our challenges. The quote ends with “Instead, we need to become conversation changers.” This is a call to action, a challenge to seize control of our destinies and reshape the conversations that shape our industry.

Becoming Conversation Changers in Agriculture

To become conversation changers entails taking the initiative to redefine the narratives surrounding agriculture. It requires advocating for sustainable farming practices, sharing our stories of resilience and innovation, and engaging in conversations that underscore the vital role of agriculture in nourishing the world while safeguarding our environment.

It involves taking the lead in discussions about the future of farming and food production. It means actively collaborating with policymakers, consumers, and the broader public to mold policies and perceptions that align with our vision for a more sustainable and prosperous agricultural sector.

We must proclaim to the world that we are not merely price takers and story followers, but knowledgeable and resilient individuals with the power to transform our industry for the better. We must tell our story. The most powerful story on the planet. The story of how we have feed the world for centuries and how we will continue to feed it for centuries more. Your cooperative is an integral part of making that happen.

As Kenneth Ruble aptly stated in the book “Men to Remember” from 1948, “A cooperative organization must be a leader rather than a follower. It cannot rest on the successes of years gone by.” This may seem daunting, but each of you holds the key to unlocking the potential inherent in the cooperative system that you and your forefathers have created and own.

I stand firmly with the remark that my friend, Harold Cooper from Premier Cooperative in Indiana, made about the responsibility that the cooperative system has in providing alternatives in any agriculture marketplace across the country. It is our duty as stewards of the cooperative system to unleash its potential by being the leaders of conversation change.

Empowerment. Sustainability. Prosperity.

I will leave you with this statement. As an industry we have immense power, and we must use our power to shift the narrative, lead the conversation, and shape the future of agriculture. Let us no longer be passive observers of our industry, but active participants and leaders in determining its destiny. Together, we will rewrite the story of agriculture, transforming it from one of dependency into one of empowerment, sustainability, and prosperity. Your cooperative is focused on telling your story and pulling value from the supply chain back to your farms bottom line.

Thank you for your time, and may we all rise to the challenge of becoming conversation changers in agriculture.