Over the past century, agriculture has evolved in ways that were unimaginable back when the cooperative movement first gained steam. Equipment, agronomic practices and food processing sophistication, to name a few, have indelibly changed the way production agriculture operates.
But the one undeniable constant amid the revolutionary changes on both sides of the crop production channel is the people. From the farmers, who serve as both consumer and participant in the cooperative structure, and the managers and employees who must run an effective and responsive operation, the roles people play in a successful cooperative are arguably more important than they have ever been.
So it should come as no surprise that MFA Inc., a Columbia, MO-based cooperative that is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2014, is keenly focused on employee development and recruitment, as well as continuous improvement in farmer relationships as a means to building a sustainable future for the company.
MFA today is the dominant retail presence in Missouri, ranking ninth on the CropLife 100 retailers ranking nationally and featuring 185 total locations including both company-owned and affiliate stores. MFA locations can also be found in eastern Kansas, southern Iowa, northern Arkansas and northeast Oklahoma. More than 45,000 farmers and ranchers are served through MFA locations.
MFA offers a full suite of ag products through its retail network, including branded and private-label crop protection, seed and animal feed and fertilizer. On the business side, the cooperative offers grain marketing services and credit solutions. Agronomic services include the Nutri-Track precision farming program, which combines georeferenced soil testing and yield monitoring with crop rotation, tillage practice, soil characteristics and crop removal data to track and document soil nutrient levels. The data becomes the basis for variable-rate application of crop nutrients.
Leading MFA today is Bill Streeter, a veteran of more than 40 years with the cooperative and who took the helm after the tumultuous 2008 fertilizer crash that sent so many retail operations reeling. His confidence and unflappable demeanor led MFA out of those dark days, and set the tone for a bright future. His key management team features long-time MFA managers Craig Childs, vice president of the Agri Services division which oversees the retail operations and who assumed the role in 2011, and Brian Griffith, senior vice president/corporate operations, who took on the position in 2009.
The MFA mission statement is grounded in the core tenets of the traditional cooperative, and its culture and tradition are valued and ingrained throughout the business. But what’s unique at MFA, and driven from the top, are its initiatives aimed at training current employees and developing new talent. Streeter has infused his passion about the need to ensure current employees are equipped with tools and training to allow them to perform at maximum effectiveness and efficiency and to bring in the best new talent available.
It starts with empowerment. “If we can explain to our employees what we want done, then we let them do it,” says Streeter. “It will turn out better. They know if they have a better idea, they are empowered to fine tune and modify a process to make it better.”
It continues with a deep understanding of the MFA system. “We’ve tried to make everyone understand that MFA is a system, and that every action and decision affects every other part of the company,” says Streeter. “We must manage the company as a system.
“We as a company have always done a very good job at product training, sales training, and at understanding customers and customer relationships,” he continues. But creating more understanding about the challenges, opportunities and dynamics of the various departments, as well as agriculture in general, has taken center stage.
“The senior team got together and developed a comprehensive training program that includes financing within the company, securing capital, lending relations and global markets and other topics of importance to MFA,” says Streeter. “For example, we’re not a company that operates in global markets, but we want our people to understand it. If we want to start ordering fertilizer today, and it originated in the Middle East, you need to understand that you can’t pick up the phone and expect the load the next day.
“We want our finance people to understand why the stores want to do the things they want to do,” he continues. “We want our HR people to understand what our field employees do. This is not cross-training as much as it is a thorough understanding of everyone’s function within the company, whether it is purchasing, marketing, manufacturing or custom application. Brian, Greg and I are hell bent on heading down the employee development path. We are in the people business. Our urea is not any better than anyone else’s, so it all boils down to quality people.”
In conducting interviews with potential job candidates in recent years, Griffith has been struck by the number of college students who genuinely have no idea what sort of career they want after graduation. “The interview process has been very eye-opening to me in that a lot of college students do not really know what they want to do when they graduate, even if they are a junior or a senior. They knew they wanted to be in agriculture but had no specific area in mind,” he says.
This reality only served to bolster the success of MFA’s inaugural internship program, the MFA Ag Experience, in 2013. Students who enter the program may have found themselves pounding a couple of seed signs in the ground over the course of the program, but that was the rare exception. The 11 recruits to the Ag Experience program quickly found themselves deeply immersed in some aspect of the cooperative business.
Each was assigned a project with direct relevance on MFA’s day-to-day operation. At the end of the summer, each intern was asked to present the scope of the project, and the results or findings, to senior management.
“We learned a lot from them,” says Childs. “It is amazing how tech-savvy this younger generation is, and the great things they brought to the table.”
The payoffs were immediate: Six of the interns came back to work part-time for MFA during the semester they were in college this year, and four were hired in December following graduation. “There could be another two or three that we end up hiring when they graduate,” says Griffith.
One compelling example: An intern developed a feed and mineral software tool that would calculate the benefit of specific feed and ration options to ranchers, including cost per pound for production. The intern is one of those hired on full-time at MFA.
“Hiring people out of college used to be a 50/50 proposition at best,” says Streeter. “This program allows us to spend more time getting the right people.”
And the word is spreading. In the first year, the number of applications was only slightly higher than those brought on board. In Year Two, MFA leadership sifted through 80 applications to fill 15 positions. At the recruitment event, “outside of Monsanto we had the longest line,” says Streeter. “Our interns are going back to their schools and talking about our program … it’s all been word-of-mouth.”
The retail establishment is often the largest business in the rural community, and as such is relied on for providing leadership that extends to the community at large. MFA has made it a point to cultivate the younger generation of its farmer patrons through its cooperators program.
“We identify agriculture producers in our trade territories who are the up and comers,” says Streeter. “Producers who could fill leadership roles in rural communities in which they live, or potentially in our MFA governance structure as an advisory board member.”
Young farm couples are brought in for an educational session where they are exposed to ag economy experts and learn more about MFA. “We challenge these younger people to get involved in leadership roles at the county level, be it the Farm Bureau, or farm credit, or school boards or the water district,” says Streeter. “Classes are held every two years, and include anywhere from 25 to up to 40 participants.
On the agronomic side, MFA made a big investment by launching its Training Camp in 2012. Training Camp is a field test site for proving out new and existing products and practices on corn and soybeans. Each season of testing culminates in a Training Camp field day where MFA staff and customers are invited to watch, listen and learn. The first event in 2012 drew 330 people, and last year, 438 were in attendance.
The test plots have been invaluable for testing MFA’s MorSoy and MorCorn Seed offerings, as well as fertility practices and recommendations. It’s also been a boon for running trials on the soon to be released dicamba and 2,4-D-tolerant varieties that are nearing release.
“Weed resistance is a huge issue that got serious here in Missouri about four years ago, and in 2012 it was like a bomb going off,” says Childs. “We’re going back to weed control products and strategies dating to the 1990s.”
And the challenge is by no means all agronomic — application professionals have had to go back to school on tank rinsing and rig cleanout. “We’ve been focusing on this at the Training Camp, making sure we are ahead of the curve,” notes Childs. “The volatility is not as big a concern to us as the cleanout, especially with rubber and plastic hoses. We’re very concerned with cross contamination.”
The challenges facing all retailers are great, but there is a promising future for great retailers. Using its century of experience and reputation, and a significant investment in its people, Streeter is confidently leading the cooperative into the next 100 years.