In the early 1990s, the cooperative community recognized the need to make sure the important work done by North Dakota State University agriculture economics professor David Cobia carried on through generations.
At the time, Cobia had already authored a book, “Cooperatives in Agriculture.” And with the significant role that cooperatives play in North Dakota’s agriculture sector, making sure college students had an option to keep that tradition going was integral.
In October 1992, the Quentin Burdick Center for Cooperatives (QBCC) was born, named after North Dakota’s longtime senator and advocate for agriculture who had passed the month prior at 84.
The center is housed on the campus of North Dakota State University in Fargo. QBCC Director Frayne Olson said the goal of the center was to ensure North Dakota was making an investment in the future of its more-than 500 cooperatives.
“The original idea was to make sure that university level education on cooperatives was maintained,” Olson said. “They also wanted to make sure there was a research program focused on cooperatives.”
The center is turning 30 this month — Co-op Month — and a celebration is being held Oct. 22 at the North Dakota Farmers Union state office in Jamestown. The event is free, but registration is required.
NDFU President Mark Watne serves as chair of the QBCC’s advisory board, a 15-member committee that also includes cooperative heavy-hitters CHS, CoBank, American Crystal Sugar, Land O’ Lakes and the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives.
Watne said the center is driven by the commitment to cooperatives from these organizations.
“Farmers Union and a number of organizations saw that we had a system already to train employees on cooperatives, but we didn’t have a system that fully trained college students on the cooperative business model,” Watne said. “We wanted to provide an option to those students getting a business degree. It’s really a way to help our cooperative system and get people to understand that model.”
North Dakota Farmers Union was on the ground floor, contributing $10,000 to the startup.
Former NDFU President Alan Bergman said attempts to shift it away from North Dakota were met with resistance by NDFU and other stakeholders, though he added everyone was mostly on the same page regarding its mission.
“The governance of this needed to reside in North Dakota,” he said. “College students going out into the business world are going to be faced with a lot of choices. And if they’re going to work for our cooperatives, it would be best if they were already trained for it. The Burdick Center was formed at the right time.”
The establishment of the center put North Dakota on par with cooperative development in other states. The Missouri Institute of Cooperatives (University of Missouri), Iowa Institute for Co-ops (Iowa State) and the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives were already doing work in this area for their respective states. The Nebraska Cooperative Development Center (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) followed suit in the late 1990s. The QBCC covers co-ops in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota.
“There were already similar centers in other states,” Olson said. “So the idea was that these states are such a hotbed for co-ops, we really needed to maintain that information and education.”
Cobia served as the center’s first director, with Olson as his assistant. After leaving NDSU to get his doctorate, Olson eventually returned to the center as its director in 2016, taking over for Greg McKee, who is now at the University of Nebraska.
Raising the profile of the center and improving education have been two of Olson’s priorities.
The center has an executive education committee made up of NDFU and other like-minded organizations and cooperatives to help plan events that include director training. Among those events are cooperative executive trainings.
“So in trying to raise the visibility of the center by talking to co-op leaders in the area, one of the things that came up pretty loud and clear was what I’m calling, ‘executive education,’” Olson said. “It started as director trainings, but we take a little broader approach.”
The foundation level is entry-level training that focuses on the duties of directors.
“These are the core things you need to understand to do your job as a director,’” Olson said. “It’s about roles and responsibilities.”
The second tier, or enhanced-level training, focuses on problems that often plague cooperatives.
“Some of it’s about core financial issues like income allocation decisions or equity redemption decisions,” Olson said. “The board has to make these decisions as a whole, so they need to understand the implications.”
For more experienced directors and managers looking to dive deeper into complex problems, the center has a capstone training, which is limited in attendance to encourage a more engaging experience among smaller groups. The topic for 2022’s capstone training was growth strategies, but Olson said it changes each year.
“For that, we encourage managers to come with,” he said. “That’s the one everybody seems to have the most interest in, because we do try and tackle those really tough things that are going on right now. There’s peer-to-peer learning where two participants exchange ideas about how they’ve each dealt with a particular problem. We try to provide that framework, but we don’t have all the answers. So, it’s the exchange of perspectives that’s really where the education occurs.”
The center also hosts a conference every two years that brings together cooperative leaders from across the country to speak about common issues among all cooperatives.
“It’s not industry-specific,” Olson said. “It’s people from the farm credit system, rural electrics, broadband and ag community all in the same room because they share a lot of common members and common problems.”
Keeping cooperatives strong in the Upper Midwest is a primary goal for the center. And it’s accomplishing that by educating their governance and future workforce.
“Nobody’s born with this knowledge,” Olson said. “It all has to be learned. … The world is getting more complex. The co-ops are getting larger. The decisions made now have bigger implications. There might be less people serving on co-op boards now, but the weight of their decisions is 10 times larger.”
— Chris Aarhus, NDFU