CompanyWeek recently sat down with Bill Stevenson, Director of the Cooperative Development Center for Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, to discuss the organization, state of agriculture, and the efficacy of a cooperative business model utilized by his department.
Q: Rocky Mountain Farmers Union has a rich and century-old history of advocating for farmers. What exactly does RMFU do?
Rocky Mountain Farmers Union is the leading advocate for the interest of family farmers and ranchers and their communities in the states of Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming. RMFU is a progressive, grassroots, membership-based organization that is focused on bettering the lives of our constituents.
Q: How are you organized?
Our main organization is a 501(c)(5), a nonprofit under the internal revenue code. RMFU does policy and lobbying and legislative development work in those three states with respect to the executive legislative and regulatory branches. That 501 (c)(5) is also the board of directors for our 501 (c)(3), which is our RMFU Foundation. The Foundation has three main project areas, which are renewable energy and water resources, education and leadership in the rural Rocky Mountain West, and cooperative development. The third is what I do, helping to develop co-operatives and other small businesses established by groups of creative, difference-making individuals in our territory.
Q: What is the current state of the agricultural industry?
Agriculture is actually flourishing. Farmers of some size have certainly benefitted recently from very good export markets. But agriculture is very cyclical. Are we are at or near the top of the cycle? What is really exciting about the he future of agriculture is he idea of small farmers becoming financially successful and their operations becoming sustainable. Though we sometimes worry about an aging farming population, we so find a growing interest in farming and ranching on the part of younger people, and that is very exiting.
Q: Are there other opportunities on the horizon?
The biggest opportunity is buy local. The dramatically growing interest on the part of consumers to buy locally gives farmers some real opportunities to offer a greater variety of products.
Q: What challenges do farmers and ranchers face?
Water is a big challenge for farmers in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming because it is not that readily accessible. Other challenges for smaller farmers are the price of land and the cost of getting an operation up and running.
Q: Much has been written of the value of a coops - cooperative business models - for farmers. Your thoughts?
I think that the idea of economic democracy that coops represent is certainly timely in our country today and in the world. Coops serve the needs of their members and are a very sustainable business model. Coops are very empowering for their members and they enable people to do things they cannot do on their own. Individual and their own businesses combine to market and distribute their products.
In fact the RMFU Co-operative Economic Development Center exists to advance the co-operative model for fostering sustainable human and economic development in the Rocky Mountain West. We check the temperature of the folks who come to us with a desire to develop cooperatives. It is a long and arduous process that requires a great deal of passion, commitment and shared vision. We are quite schooled at arranging feasibility studies to determine whether people have a business idea that can work in the marketplace. We also assist with business planning. We find funding to pay for these studies and plans, oversee them, review them, vet them and provide counseling advice based on these studies to our clients. We also assist with articles of incorporation, bylaws, other types of agreements, marketing, board of directors, staff training for the operation of cooperatives and we tap into community resources to provide accounting and other professional services. We are real cheerleaders.
Q: As you look forward?
RMFU is over 100 years old. We have passed the test of time. We have managed to last through very difficult times as well the good times. We are an organization that is here to stay and we do make a profound difference.