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Co-op members hopeful for future: Board chair resigns; survey going out to members

KILLDEER — Following a heated meeting about concerns over a shift from agriculture to oilfield focus, the board of the Killdeer Farmer’s Union Cooperative has replaced its president and is sending out a survey to members.

Former President Doug Dukart resigned after a special meeting April 24, where angry members of the Cenex co-op said they felt shut out from a store they say has shifted from an established resource for farmers and ranchers to an oilfield business.

Gene Harris, who farms and ranches 25 miles northwest of Killdeer and also runs oilfield service company Crosby Creek Consulting, is the new chair. Dukart reached out to him when he decided to resign, suggesting he take over.

Member Taylor Bang said the community supports Harris as chair.

Harris himself was one of the members who signed a petition earlier in the year asking for changes. That petition spurred the April meeting.

“I just feel that the co-op is a vital part of the community and we want to see it prosper and not dissolve,” Harris said.

Hiring and retention have become a problem for the store, as with most businesses in the Oil Patch. Some say that has contributed to employees’ lack of familiarity with agricultural products like veterinary medicine supplies.

But Harris said the co-op is hoping to open a 27-unit housing complex in Killdeer this fall to retain existing employees and recruit new ones.

“Part of the store’s problems is the growing pains of the region and … we’re no different than multiple other businesses that are having a hard time competing in the labor market when we’re not directly tied to oilfield,” Harris said, adding the store needs to serve all clients.

“We have to make sure that we’re still providing services … at the least cost we can, but we also need to provide more services and so, to do that, it becomes a delicate juggling act,” he said.

Dunn County Commissioner Bob Kleeman, also a member of the co-op, said he thinks Harris is “a little more open-minded” to keeping an agriculture focus at the store, for the day the oil runs out.

The co-op will also be sending out a survey, penned by General Manager Jamie Reese. The survey will gauge members’ interest in certain products, as well as how many use the store as a primary versus secondary supplier of products and services, Harris said.

“That’s gonna give us a benchmark on how we need to set the store for future growth,” he said.

Harris said the board is open to changing the co-op’s offerings if the survey shows overwhelming support for something not already available. It’d be “foolish” not to listen, he said.

Some changes have already been made — a tire truck has been a request for years and the store will have one up and running by the end of the month, Harris said.

Kleeman said the survey will collect good ideas around the community, and will make sure co-op members stay loyal to the store rather than going to Dickinson for what they need.

“A lot of people, you know, if they can’t get their products there, they’re going to go somewhere else and once they start going somewhere else it’s pretty hard to get them back,” he said.

Bang said with Harris and two other new board members, the leadership has been “real receptive to what the community wants” since the special meeting.

If more changes need to be made, Bang said, members will bring up concerns at the regular annual meeting next month.

Harris said he took the president position because, like many members, he doesn’t want the store to turn its back on customers that have been loyal for decades — and will always be around.

“I’m so sick and tired of watching the state of North Dakota turn its back on its citizens, the very people that have allowed it to be what it is,” he said, “and I felt the co-op was starting to do the same, and that’s really what drove me to get involved.”