Brad Fritel grew up around the cooperative movement.
His father, Steve, has been on the CHS Board of Directors since 2003 and previously served on the board for the Quentin N. Burdick Center for Cooperatives.
Like Steve, Brad is getting his start locally. He’s in his fifth year as a director on the board of Envision, an agronomy and energy co-op based out of Rugby. He also recently became secretary for the Cooperative Directors Association.
The challenge of leadership positions doesn’t scare Brad — it’s how he was raised.
“I grew up with my dad being part of the cooperative system my whole life,” Brad said. “I’ve watched the steps he’s taken to where he’s gotten. They may not be the exact steps I follow, but I’ve seen the things he’s done and the opportunities brought forth because of the co-op system.”
October is Co-op Month, a time to reflect on the value and dedication that cooperative movements bring to local communities. Fritel said co-ops not only provide local support, but they also give patrons a chance to follow their money.
“It’s not an open-ended check where you don’t know where it’s going,” Brad said. “There is a lot more transparency when it comes to cooperatives. That’s something I value and my father has put into my mind.”
The 30-year-old Fritel lives on the farm with his wife Maureen and daughters Kimber (3) and Haylee (2). In the day and age of modern convenience, he hopes to instill the same values into his family.
“We’re in the day and age of Amazon, where you can have everything in the click of a button,” Brad said. “Yet, there is no transparency, no ownership. You don’t know where your dollar is going. With a cooperative, you know every dollar is staying in the community. It’s friends, it’s neighbors that work for the co-op — it puts food on their tables. The books aren’t hidden. Everything is put out in front of you.”
Each generation’s challenges are different, and much like any business, new hurdles always arise with cooperatives. Lately, it’s been about keeping up with technology.
“Because of the cost of technology, everything is so expensive,” he said. “If you have a monitor on your combine quit working, that’s a $7,000 piece of equipment. It’s not any different for cooperatives on the supply side of things. Every little detail is so expensive to try to provide, and yet you don’t know if (that technology is) going to be in the picture in five or 10 years.”
In addition, low commodity prices have hurt cooperatives much the way they’ve hurt farmers and ranchers. Customers are choosing to travel farther distances over buying locally.
“The clothing stores on the corner of Main Street aren’t there anymore,” he said. “People are traveling to go shopping. Being in Rugby, going to Minot when I was a kid was a big deal. Now, it’s ‘Oh, I need a new wallet’ so you hop in a car and drive to Minot. People aren’t afraid to drive to where they need to get things. That’s where it’s hurting small town North Dakota, ultimately.”
Still, agriculture in North Dakota isn’t going anywhere, and that has Fritel optimistic about the future of cooperatives in North Dakota.
“We know farming will be in North Dakota, and we know (Envision) will be in Rugby for years to come,” Fritel said. “It’s just a matter of trying to know what’s going to be best for our customers. We know everyone will need fertilizer, seed and chemical. But within those entities, is it variable rate fertilizer, chemical or seed? It’s just the first step on a staircase of where we could go.”
Envision continues to thrive in Rugby and the surrounding area, and Fritel said the co-op made a significant investment in the community. Envision purchased the old Gooseneck Implement property along Highway 2, right down the road from Envision’s convenience store in Rugby.
Fritel said the board isn’t short on ideas, but hasn’t decided on anything concrete yet. Currently, NAPA Autoparts is using some of the space.
“It’s a matter of figuring out what the community needs,” Fritel said. “Is it more on the clothing side of things? When the oil field (boom) was here, the fire-retardant stuff was big, but now that’s gone away. Our ultimate goal is to be a one-stop shop. Get your oil change kit for a pickup, buy new work boots or a pair of pliers.”
Fritel said there may be a need for a business doing maintenance work on bigger trucks, so that’s also an option.
“We’ve been throwing ideas against the wall to see what sticks,” Fritel said. “The farm economy changing has put us in a holding pattern, so it’s more of a calculated risk now. We’ll be careful and make sure whatever we do is the right fit.”
Making a difference in the community is important to Envision, and Fritel said taking on projects to further enhance the benefits for its patrons is part of growing for the future.
“You can try to dig your heels in and say you’re not changing, but that doesn’t work,” he said. “The co-op has been in Rugby for a long time. If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward.”
— Chris Aarhus, NDFU