The boards of Ipswich-based North Central Farmers Elevator and Aberdeen-based South Dakota Wheat Growers are again asking their members to vote on merging the two cooperatives. The coops mailed ballots to all members on August 29. Members can submit their ballots in person to ballot boxes at each coop’s headquarters by 5 p.m. Wednesday, September 27; to a ballot box at the Eide Bailly office in downtown Aberdeen by 1 p.m. Thursday, September 28; or at the special coop meetings at the DEC in Aberdeen that Thursday afternoon, September 28. (Wheat Growers say their coop meeting is at 3 p.m. on the 28th; North Central says its meeting is at 3:15 p.m.)
Wheat Growers and North Central tried to merge two years ago. Wheat Growers members voted 61% to 39% (1,533 to 995) in favor of merging, but North Central members voted 51% to 49% (809 to 767) against. State law (see SDCL Chapters 47-15 through 47-21, specifically SDCL 47-18-1 and SDCL 47-15-8*) requires a simple majority vote of both cooperatives to approve a merger; thus, 42 North Central members out of 4,104 from both coops voting tanked the deal.
I have no idea how much the coops’ twenty meetings in their service areas, from Eldridge, North Dakota, to McLaughlin, Stickney, and Willow Lake may have moved the needle of member sentiment. An Anti-Merger Alliance lobbied against the 2015 merger online and in the press; a casual search finds no activity on that Facebook page this time and no apparent effort under a different group name.
I do notice, though, one small word choice. This time around, the boards seem to think it is very important not to say the word merger. In their letters to members, statements to the press, and advertising in the Aberdeen American News over the past month, leaders of Wheat Growers and North Central are keen to refer to the merger as unification. In their guest column posted this a.m. by AAN, coop chiefs Rick Osterday of North Central and Hal Clemensen of Wheat Growers say unification nine times. They use merge once, in a pejorative sense against the Big Ag dictators against whom they propose unifying:
There are those few who believe that the proposed unification somehow is anti-competition or will increase costs. Here’s the reality. The producer in today’s local ag economy stands in the towering shadow of several mega-merged organizations that all are intent on dictating the terms for how producers go to market. These profit-driven companies answer to directors elsewhere who have no stake in the performance of individual farmers in rural South Dakota.
To overlook the opportunities and benefits offered by this proposed unification is to ignore the lessons learned over the past 100 years. Unification offers us the best opportunity to step outside of that shadow and pursue the success of all our members. It is producer success that is at the core of why this unification is important [emphasis mine; Rick Osterday and Hal Clemensen, op-ed, “Co-ops: Merger Is for the Common Good,” Aberdeen American News, 2017.09.17].
Goliaths merge; Davids unify—someone must have focus-grouped these words and noticed all sorts of happy twitches at mention of the u-word. Throw in marginalization of the opposition (There are those few…) and antipathy toward outsiders (no stake… in rural South Dakota), and you have a finely crafted South Dakota campaign piece.
AAN columnist Gerald Krueger is apparently one of those few, and he’s not buying the rebranding. Krueger says the 2015 vote should have settled the matter:
“Bigger” doesn’t always solve the problem. What would make the difference if one or both co-ops get bought by some giant conglomerate? They are still too big.
Getting big means the little guys, which includes many of us, just get thrown under the bus. If you’re not big, don’t bother us. And getting too big to manage is always a fear that never really goes away.
…There should be a clarion call to join in the squelching of this really controversial idea. Calling this move a “unification” does not describe this change very well [Gerald Kruger, “The Little Guy Loses in Merger,” Aberdeen American News, 2017.09.17].
Coop members, you have a week and a half to pick your side and submit your ballots.
*Correction 18:53 CDT: I have corrected the statutory citation, which originally referred to the chapter on rural electric cooperatives. However, agricultural coops and rural electric coops are subject to the same requirements: a merger must be approved by majority vote of each cooperative’s members.