My first memory of walking into the MFA coop in Salem over two decades ago was the smell. It was the same smell that decades before that visit, I smelled when accompanying my grandfather to a feed store near Jackson, Missouri, close to where he had a small cattle operation.
“It stinks,” I told Paw.
“Smells like money,” he told me.
Every time I’ve walked in a feed store since those days many years ago near Jackson, I take a deep breath and chuckle over my late grandfather’s comment.
Not being a cattle farmer like my grandfather, or a cotton farmer like my other grandfather, I don’t have many occasions that I need to walk into a feed store. I regularly buy cracked corn to feed the geese, turkeys and deer on our place, so every couple months for a long time now I have walked into MFA or one of the other feed stores in Dent County to make my purchase.
For many of the past 20 years I have also attended the annual MFA banquet, in part because the folks there have always been good customers of The Salem News, and in part because my mouth waters just thinking about row after row of fresh vegetables, homemade desserts and tasty beef they serve.
MFA Cooperative of Salem announced Friday it has sold to MFA Incorporated. I have no idea if down the road this will be good for the local folks or not. The joint press release from the two businesses didn’t have much detail, and we will do our best as a newspaper to over the next few weeks try to explain how and why the sale was made necessary.
But today, no matter the how and the why, my concern is the impact of losing a locally controlled coop that has been in existence since 1932. The history – the help it gave agriculture for the past 87 years – is immeasurable.
It isn’t the cracked corn, feed and equipment that could leave an immense void in Dent County. You can buy that a lot of places. It is the local connections that, unless MFA Incorporated chooses to do so, could be lost forever. For almost as long as agriculture has been a key part of not only Dent County’s economy, but its way of life, MFA has been at the forefront, helping organize and run ag events such as Beef Days and the livestock show and sale that appeared at the Dent County Fair, and more recently the 4-H/FFA Expo. You could not attend an ag-related event, especially when it had to do with youth, without MFA being a vital part of it in time and money.
And for that, kudos to the men and women who for the past nearly 90 years have run the organization and made such a huge impact on the quality of life here. For those who don’t know, there was always a local manager and a local board of directors who saw that not only the shelves were stocked and the feed piled high in the warehouse, but that Dent County youth, the future of their industry, were well served.
Every trophy handed out, every free bag of feed that went to local youth because of MFA, meant a lot. As we turn the page from MFA Cooperative Association of Salem to MFA Incorporated, let’s hope the mission stays the same.
Agriculture is key to Dent County’s past, present and future. Over 15,000 acres in the county produced hay in 2016 according to the Missouri Annual Bulletin compiled by the USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service. That same year there were 34,500 cattle and calves, 19,800 of them beef cows. In other words, there were more than two cows for every man, woman and child in Dent County.
MFA Incorporated takes over Aug. 1. I think back about how vital the local coop must have been way back in the 1930s and 1940s, when a rancher could not afford to drive many miles to purchase the things they needed, so a local coop was formed to not only stock up on farming necessities, but at a price they could afford.
Times have changed. According to the joint release sent to The Salem News Friday morning and immediately placed on thesalemnewsonline.com, “Current circumstances in agriculture have brought challenges to the industry’s retail organizations. Farm prices, trade issues, regulations, and rising expenses have put pressure on all of agriculture, particularly smaller businesses.”
Read between the lines. The little coop in Salem, just maybe, could not compete with the big guys any more. You see it in many other industries, where consolidation is taking the business world by storm. Gone are the days of trading eggs for fertilizer.
MFA Incorporated operates 140 MFA Agri Services Centers in Missouri and neighboring states and has business agreements with 24 locally owned affiliated cooperatives. Make that 23, as Salem joins the list of 140.
MFA’s local coop was established in the middle of the Great Depression in 1932, with only $1,200 in capital. July 31, the local coop will close its doors, reopening the next day as something far different than the coop formed out of economic necessity so many years ago.
Maybe worse for local farmers. Maybe better. But certainly, different.