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Farmers Union looking for injection of young growers

FNS Photo by Mikkel Pates Pictured here Jan. 20, Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, based in Jamestown, said farmers shouldn’t be afraid to expect the kind of success that other people in other industries do.

JAMESTOWN — Most people know it as the North Dakota Farmers Union, but new president Mark Watne likes to remember its longer “official” name: Farmers Educational and Cooperative Union of America North Dakota Division.

Education is the first and core function.

Watne, 52, of Jamestown, grew up near Velva where he owns and crop-shares 860 acres of a larger family grain and oilseed farm. He won the post three months ago in a historic election that unseated an incumbent to lead what is billed as the state’s largest general farm organization.

Watne went into farming with his father, Gene, who served in the North Dakota House of Representatives, and older brother, Lynn, who are still farming. His father had expanded the farm before Mark was out of high school.

In 1986, at age 25, Watne served on the McHenry County Crop Improvement Association. In 1988, he was elected to the McHenry County Farmers Union board and the North Dakota Farmers Union Policy and Action Committee — what he calls the “biggest hook” toward more service with the larger organization.

“I got to see what we were going to support, and I found a lot of people who think the same way I do in this organization,” he said.

In 1987, Watne joined the board of Farmers Union Oil Co. of Velva-Butte-Drake and was elected president in 1989. The same year, he joined the state board of directors. Watne automatically was on the board of the Farmers Union Service Association and was elected to the board of Farmers Union Mutual Insurance Co. — key entities that drive the NDFU’s ability to invest in value-added ventures.

In 1997, Watne ran for NDFU vice president, but was defeated by Richard Schlosser of Edgeley.

Almost immediately, the president Robert Carlson asked him to work as part-time “development” specialist, which turned out to be a wide-ranging role.

“My role was to find avenues to form value-added cooperatives,” Watne said. “The idea was to help get more dollars into farmer hands.” He also performed member education and monitored federal farm and rural legislation.

In his new NDFU post, Watne was a liaison between the co-op minded NDFU and Dakota Growers Pasta. He worked with some ethanol plants that didn’t come to fruition, and with the failed Spring Wheat Bakers cooperative.

“Some of those don’t exist today, but the efforts were made,” Watne said. “A lot of times, the outside market we’re going to are tougher to access than we think.”

Watne says the lesson is that fledgling companies need to get marketing contracts that provide a guaranteed profit margin to make them competitive as they take off.

In 2012, Watne was named staff executive director. In late March 2013, Watne left the NDFU staff, explaining he wanted to go back to the farm.

Watne declines to comment about why he may have been elected president of the North Dakota Farmers Union in late 2013.

He acknowledges that people asked him to run for president. Initially, he says he ignored the calls, but an endorsement petition influenced him to run. Notably, Watne’s Facebook campaign included an endorsement page from 25 or so Farmers Union leaders — including former presidents.

Watne was elected president on Nov. 23, replacing Woody Barth, a son of a state senator, who had served as vice president under Carlson.

Members contacted by Agweek declined to be identified, but some say members were concerned that Barth had shifted to fewer full-time staff.

As for the future, Watne wants farmers to get out of the mode that says “we’re just farmers and ranchers” and let people everywhere know that farmers need a level of return that other industries expect every year. “We need to quit apologizing for doing well,” he says.

“Every organization out there is trying to get young people involved,” Watne said. “I want the Farmers Union to push forward, to be more progressive. I want it to represent how successful farming is, how important. Our success is in being in an industry that creates new dollars.”