Cooperative organizations paused this past week to induct Minnesota cooperative leader and educator Ed Slettom into the national Cooperative Hall of Fame, acknowledging that his work over four decades in Minnesota reached beyond the state and helped promote development and democracy throughout the United States and around the globe.
Minnesotans should pause and consider his legacy as they again work on overcoming market problems and try to revive and rebuild communities and industries laid waste by the severe recession.
Minnesota is the most cooperatively organized state in the nation based on number of co-op enterprises incorporated and operating here. These co-ops range in size from small community cemetery associations and neighborhood food co-ops on up to CHS Inc. of Inver Grove Heights, the largest farmer-owned marketing and supply company in the nation, and AgriBank FCB of St. Paul, the nation’s largest financial co-op.
Senior housing co-ops, healthcare co-ops such as HealthPartners Inc. of Bloomington, worker-owned co-op enterprises and rural electric, telephone and related communications and utility firms are living proof that Minnesotans mean business.
These companies stay put; they don’t pack up and run off around the world to exploit cheap labor, to avoid citizenship fees (taxes), or attempt to undermine standards of living back home.
These Minnesotans pool resources to overcome market problems for producers, consumers and workers. They create enterprises to provide the goods and services they want, and, they prefer to do it in their own communities.
Early settlers often brought knowledge of cooperatives from Northern Europe to the Minnesota frontier to create the enterprises they needed to reach markets and secure goods and services. Subsequent generations followed their forbearers’ models, and continue to operate and build cooperative enterprises throughout the state. These models are especially important now as communities and neighborhoods in Minnesota explore tools for reinvigorating the economy.
This is why the national recognition of Ed Slettom was so timely. As a vocational agriculture educator, a Minnesota deputy commissioner of Agriculture, and head of the former Minnesota Association of Cooperatives for three decades, Slettom saw that subsequent generations of Minnesotans learned how to form, use, govern and manage co-op firms.
Slettom held cooperative education and training conferences for more than 9,000 Minnesota high school students during his years at the Minnesota association, and he organized trips to national training conferences for more than 500 state officers of 4-H, FFA, FHA and Vocational Education Clubs. At the same time, he held annual conferences for co-op board members and managers to keep current on issues of governance, law, accounting and public affairs.
Away from Minnesota, he served on the board of directors for the Cooperative League of the USA that is now known as the National Cooperative Business Association, and on the board for the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. He led study teams for Minnesotans and other Americans to help Third World countries develop co-ops in remote areas. And he used his contacts with Minnesota members of Congress and with Vice President Walter Mondale to help launch the National Cooperative Bank in Washington that helps new co-ops with capital formation.
Helping to keep Minnesota’s tradition of cooperative enterprise alive, Slettom was a major fundraiser and driver for turning the Andrew Volstead family home at Granite Falls into a museum. Volstead, a Republican congressman from southwestern Minnesota, was instrumental in the House of Representatives passing the Capper-Volstead Act that remains the most important federal business code for co-ops.
This is a legacy Minnesota can again build upon. Slettom kept new generations of Minnesotans prepared to use cooperative tools.
Slettom was inducted into the Cooperative Hall of Fame on May 7 in ceremonies at the National Press Club in Washington. Details of that honor can be found at the Cooperative Network website for the combined Minnesota and Wisconsin co-op trade association, at www.cooperativenetwork.coop.
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