Letter to USDA Rural Development Regarding Cooperative Services Program

March 6, 2015

Lisa Mensah
Under Secretary
USDA Rural Development, Room 206W, Mail Stop 0107
1400 Independence Avenue SW
Washington, DC 20250-0107

Dear Under Secretary Mensah:
Congratulations on your recent appointment and confirmation as Under Secretary of Rural Development at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Our two organizations look forward to working closely with you and your team as trusted partners and resources on cooperative issues under your leadership of the Rural Business-Cooperative Service agency.

Collectively, the National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International (NCBA CLUSA) and the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC) has sought to advance and protect cooperative enterprise, highlighting the impact that cooperatives play in bettering the lives of individuals and families. Throughout that time, we have worked in close partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), including work to implement the Cooperative Marketing Act of 1926, to promote the knowledge of cooperative principles and practices and cooperate with educational and marketing agencies, cooperatives, and others in promoting such knowledge. To this date, these remain valuable services to cooperatives.

NCBA CLUSA’s most recent work with the USDA has been focused on the retention of dedicated resources for cooperatives in the annual federal budget and appropriations process through the Rural Cooperative Development Grant (RCDG) program. The RCDG is the only separate resource for cooperative development in the entire federal budget. NCBA CLUSA is also interested in the direction of the Interagency Working Group to foster cooperative development and ensure coordination with federal agencies and national and local cooperative organizations, created under the current Farm Bill.

NCFC members for years relied on the Cooperative Services Program as the premier source of information on cooperatives’ role in various commodity sectors, and on cooperative legal foundations, taxation, finance, member education, governance, and board/management relations. Over time, however, NCFC has been concerned with the ability of Cooperative Services to continue to provide those functions, especially in light of the loss of many of the experienced professional staff.

Recently, we were notified that there have been discussions toward a reorganization within Rural Development at USDA. These meetings with USDA have led to explanations that this planned reorganization toward a Strategic Economic and Community Development focus and priority, as outlined under the current Farm Bill, seeks to integrate the work of cooperatives, with an intended result of strengthening USDA’s support of cooperatives.

We appreciate the inclusion of cooperatives in the larger Community Economic Development strategies promoted by the Administration, and see this reorganization as potentially positive steps that can reinforce USDA’s commitment to supporting the development and growth of cooperatives in the U.S. economy. However, many in the cooperative community have been concerned about what a possible reorganization might entail, how vital services will get administered, and how cooperatives ultimately will retain dedicated resources for purposes of education and development. To that end, we seek more detailed information for our member cooperatives from USDA on its plans for this reorganization. Specifically, we seek a more concrete understanding of the resources and services available and devoted to cooperatives. As this planned reorganization takes shape, we seek further information or consideration of the following:

• Responsibilities of USDA to cooperatives from provisions in mandated legislation, such as but not limited to the Cooperative Marketing Act of 1926, and how the new structure provides that critical information, research, and support;
• Specific resources available to cooperatives, and how the resources will be delivered;
• How the USDA plans to incorporate the Interagency Working Group to foster cooperative development, created under the Farm Bill, into this or other strategic directions; and
• USDA Rural Development to consider naming any new division, unit, or office that carries out these functions the title of Community and Cooperative Economic Development to recognize the important role of cooperatives in the programming of the division, unit, or office.

In order to better communicate with the cooperative community about these proposed changes, we recommend your office engage in the following:

• Hold meeting(s) with a working group being developed jointly by NCBA CLUSA and NCFC that will be representative of the cooperative community at-large to further discuss its needs from USDA and its inclusion in the planning of the new organizational structure;
• Participation in an NCBA CLUSA led webinar in the early spring of 2015 to discuss the organizational and structural changes and the specific impacts directly to the cooperative community; and
• Accept an invitation along with Secretary Vilsack to speak at the 2015 NCBA CLUSA Annual Cooperatives Conference at the National Press Club on May 6, 2014 to engage directly with the cooperative community as a whole.

Again, we applaud your appointment and confirmation and look forward to a strong relationship in the years to come.

Michael V. Beall
President & CEO
National Cooperative Business Association
CLUSA International

Charles Conner
President & CEO
National Council of Farmer Cooperatives

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