Building cooperative longevity

Centennial farms are scattered around the state and are prominently marked with green signs indicating the same family has been on that farm for at least 100 years.

Greenstone Farm Credit Services is marking their 100th anniversary this year as they were established on July 17, 2016, when President Wilson signed the Federal Farm Loan Act into law.

And as MMPA continues to celebrate its centennial birthday, the automatic question is: how? How does a business last ten decades through wars, a depression and the ever changing social fabric of the farm and the consuming public?

Is it because the farmers who own the cooperative remain in control of it? Is it because the three-sided triangle of producers, marketing and processing have stayed in equal balance for the last century? Or is it simply because the people involved are in sync and are willing to sacrifice personal gain for cooperative strength?

Retired General Manager, John Dilland points to the people as the reason for the longevity of the cooperative. He wrote, “First and foremost for cooperative longevity, the co-op must have a loyal membership base, which believes their elected coop representatives and management are working in the best interest of all members.”

While the members make the coop and are the people who determine what happens with the cooperative, Leona Daniels of W-R-L Daniels Farm conveyed that the MMPA staff has not forgotten that they work for the individual farmer. She believes the secret to their longevity springs out of the communication of the MMPA leadership and its membership.

Jack Barnes, General Manager from 1959-1985 pointed to the enlightenment of the producer as one of the reasons for MMPA’s success. Up until the mid 1950’s members never inquired about or perused the financial statements of the cooperative. But Barnes noted that the expectations of the members changed as their general education level went up and they demanded more marketing information and more details about their cooperative.  The MMPA leadership delivered and they began publishing the annual report in the Michigan Milk Messenger.

Current General Manager Joe Diglio cast a light on the longevity of the employees of the cooperative and the responsible management of the financial foundation. He elaborated on the longevity of the employees and their knowledge of the industry on a national level that has helped build the strength of the cooperative. Diglio also said that there is a strength in this business and over the years the financial position of the cooperative has remained strong and has been managed very well.

CEO of Co-Bank, Robert Engel echoed the sound financial stability of MMPA when he commented, “The fact that Michigan Milk has endured for that long is a very unique accomplishment.  More important, over that period of time they have obviously done an awful lot of things right to be able to keep that membership support and to provide value to that member.

“You cannot exist for that period of time without strong financial stewardship.  But it’s also been in finding the balance of value as a customer and as an owner, how do we continue to drive the appropriate profitability and returns to our members while investing for a future that’s very different than it looked 100 years ago, 50 years ago, 10 years ago, even a year ago in a business that moves like this.” Engel concluded, “The fact that Michigan Milk has been able to do this, at the end of the day, points to one thing they’ve been very successful at and that is having the appropriate leadership. Leadership at the board level and leadership at the management level that have been great stewards of this organization.”

Leadership at every level has played an important role in the past 100 years and many of those leaders came from multigenerational farms throughout the state like Preston Farms of Quincy, Michigan.

As the fourth generation on Preston Farms, Brian Preston became involved with MMPA and has witnessed first-hand how the co-op has helped farmers for the past century.

“The co-op structure has given our farm a lot of stability,” Preston continued. “We’ve had a consistent place to send our milk and a consistent source of income. And we have the stability of knowing we can have a part of the decision making and an influence in where we send our milk.” Being a part of MMPA “gives a chance to producers to own processing further up the line and add value to their product and that’s really important in today’s agriculture.”

MMPA has not achieved perfection, nor has every decision been made with ease and agreement.  History has provided a solid blueprint for MMPA to use as a strong foundation but anticipating the trends of the future are important as well.  In Jack Barnes words, “You can’t drive far by looking only in your rear view mirror. It goes forward by looking ahead.”

–Melissa Hart

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of the Michigan Milk Messenger.