Heart to serve
A cooperative state of mind doesn’t always start on the farm.
“I don’t have an ag background. My dad was a minister and my mom was in education,” says Sarah Olsen, a Peabody, Kan., farmer ending her third year as director of Cooperative Grain and Supply based in Hillsboro, Kan. “I couldn’t even tell the difference between crops. But my grandpa had a farm and I knew he took his wheat to the elevator.”
Her career in restaurant management took Olsen to nearby Marion, Kan., where much of life revolves around the cooperative. Working two harvest seasons at the elevator and then marrying into a farm business with her husband, James, sealed the deal — and brought an objective new voice to the local co-op boardroom.
“I had served a year as an associate board member and then two director spots came open. I asked my grandpa, ‘Why did cooperatives start?’ And he said, ‘It really came down to the fact we couldn’t do it on our own.’ That struck a chord with me."
In the four years since Olsen joined the board, she has seen a failed merger vote; retirement of a general manager; and solidification of limited liability company partnerships in grain marketing, feed and propane supply. At the beginning, she says the average director age was 55 or 60 years old. “Now I think our average age is 40 or 42. I’m 32 and two directors are younger than I am.”
Finding new board members is a constant challenge, Olsen admits. But she credits previous General Manager Lyman Adams and current GM Jerry Fenske with helping the board broaden its thinking.
“We try to think outside the box when it comes to looking for new board members. It’s difficult because we’re asking people who are already busy and hardworking to be even busier and even more hardworking. The volunteer pool is small. Anyone who has the heart to serve can be spread pretty thin.”
Cooperative membership criteria will need to be addressed by many local cooperatives if they want to expand their candidate pool, she adds. Her cooperative allows joint membership, which makes both her and James eligible for a board seat since they are joint owners of their farm and their cooperative accounts. “We made that decision to ensure future transitions happen smoothly. And it allowed me to run for the board.”
Learning the cooperative business wasn’t always easy, Olsen recalls.
“There was a big learning curve when we started talking about equity and redemption. This has been the greatest learning experience of my life."
Olsen adds that being willing to speak up is critical for any director. “I’m pretty vocal in the boardroom and ask a lot of questions. Our role as board members is to make the best possible decisions with the information we’re given, so I like to have information.”
In her brief tenure as a director, Olsen has already seen more open-minded thinking about who should be cooperative board members. “At the beginning when we went to LLC meetings, I was the only female. But now there are three or four other women directors at regional meetings. That means co-ops are branching out and doing things a little differently.”
The bottom line is simple, she says: “We just want someone who cares about the cooperative and who keeps cooperative values at heart. Does that mean you are 100 percent cooperative business? Let’s face it, today it’s hard to be 100 percent loyal to any one business, but to know you want this cooperative to keep going, that’s important."
Continuing education is critical for long-term director value, Olsen says. “It is crucial to have an educated board to make industry decisions. We are big proponents of the CHS New Leaders Forum and we send directors to other leadership programs too.”
There are benefits to long-term thinking, the young director adds, and boards are moving in the right direction. “I have seen a shift in the cooperative system, with boards making decisions for five or 10 years down the road instead of just this fiscal year. That’s how it should be.
“They tell you to take off your farmer hat when you go into the boardroom. I don’t necessarily agree with that — we’re in this boardroom because we are farmers. At the end of the day, farmers need to make a dollar to save a dollar, and the co-op has to do the same thing.”
Check out the full C magazine with this article and more.