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Rev. Matthew Valan, Published December 06 2011

Sugar growers must return to spirit, intent of founders

In 1936, an enterprising group of farmers began organizing a group that came to be known as the Red River Valley Sugar Beet Growers Association. By 1962, the group hired their first executive director. The farmers grew sugar beets for New Jersey-based American Crystal Sugar Co. and worked tirelessly to get the company to improve beet handling facilities, increase acreage and develop research strategies to improve production.

When their requests fell on deaf ears at the company headquarters in Denver, a few bold growers began to envision buying the company and establishing a cooperative. Their innovative vision began to materialize in April 1972 when 1,500 growers met in Grand Forks to vote on whether they should attempt to buy the company. Seventy percent of those gathered voted in the affirmative. The vote set into action an unprecedented spirit of valleywide cooperation among many groups, which resulted in the farmers purchasing American Crystal Sugar Co. in 1973. The agreement, signed in Denver, sealed the historic creation of a farmer-owned cooperative.

New spirit

My father was present at the signing, and he never forgot the entrepreneurial spirit and enthusiasm that permeated the event. He often spoke of the positive effects of the acquisition, which included increased acreage, dramatic improvements in beet handling and new visions for marketing and research. The farmers had spoken and no longer would their efforts be hampered by corporate greed and decisions made without farmer representation.

Those pioneers were also well aware of the great risks involved. They knew full well that success would depend on unprecedented cooperation between farmer owners, financial institutions, elected government officials and the labor force. They committed themselves to this cooperation so that never again would they feel like medieval serfs with no say in management decisions. They took pride in the culture they had created, which became the model for future cooperatives all around the nation.

A debacle

I am saddened that the historic cooperation that built this fine cooperative has collapsed into a debacle that is tearing at the 40-year-old fabric that has held this cooperative together. I long to hear the voices of the sons and grandsons, daughters and granddaughters of those courageous founders who dreamed of farmers speaking for themselves rather than company officials hiding behind office doors.

There was a time when part of the dream included a sharing of the wealth, a sharing of the pride and commitment to show the world that it doesn’t have to be business as usual. My friends, please do not allow company officials to silence you – let this valley know where you stand and remember those who laid the foundation that you stand on.

Thankful, but …

I am well aware that you, my friends who own this cooperative, bear all the risk. I no longer own American Crystal stock or farm the land. Furthermore, I acknowledge that I do not have the skill or the belly for such risk. I must also say that the third-generation farm that I live on was built and continues to be sustained on the success of the sugar growers in my family, and I am thankful for their farming prowess. I do not speak for them.

However, I must also say that I know and respect you, and I believe that you can stand up and push your paid company officials to find a reasonable solution to the current lockout. You are among the very best agricultural producers in the world; every year you plant and harvest your sugar beets in a time period that amazes producers worldwide. Please honor your founders, your neighbors and yourselves and find a reasonable solution to this lockout. Come together and reason, show the world once again the spirit of valleywide cooperation that created such a wonderful enterprise back in 1973.

Valan, a lifelong resident of the Red River Valley, is pastor

of a Lutheran church in Moorhead.