Celebrating a Historic Partnership

MFA pledges $750,000 over four years to establish endowed professorship in CAFNR

Call this gift a team effort. That’s how MFA Incorporated, MFA Oil and the MFA Foundation refer to their newly established MFA Professorship in Agribusiness.

Company executives of MFA Incorporated and MFA Oil consider the gift a public demonstration of appreciation for CAFNR and a formal celebration of their historic relationship with the college through mutual missions – service to the farmers and citizens of rural Missouri.

The MFA entities have pledged $750,000 over four years to establish an endowed professorship that supports education and research. When additional gifts to the fund reach $1.1 million, the professorship will be converted to a chair.

“We’re proud of our company. We’re proud of the university, the college of agriculture and our partnership. Some area of this company has contact with the university at least every week. It’s continuous. We look forward to a long relationship,” says Ernie Verslues, president and CEO of MFA Incorporated.

CAFNR is the logical recipient of this gift because of its national reputation as a leader in agribusiness, according to Mark Fenner, president and CEO of MFA Oil and president of the MFA Foundation.

“The university is better from an ag perspective than anything close and is committed to it. A lot of schools have some ag classes, but they’re not nearly as comprehensive as what you find at Mizzou,” he says.

Two of the most successful cooperatives in the nation, MFA Incorporated and MFA Oil, enjoy a 100-year relationship with Mizzou that has helped each institution prosper.

Established in 1914, MFA Incorporated is the nation’s oldest and one of the largest farm-supply cooperatives, serving more than 45,000 farmers and ranchers. MFA Oil, established 85 years ago, offers bulk delivery of fuel, lubricants and propane to more than 40,000 farmer owners.

Roots of the relationship

It takes a champion to encourage pioneering efforts. Both Verslues and Fenner give credit for the new philanthropy to Bill Streeter, retired president and CEO of MFA Incorporated, who planted the seed for a professorship named for the thriving cooperatives.

“We have to remember our roots as a farm-based cooperative. We’re here for the farmers. We have a board of all farmers. They support us and are thrilled about the gift decision,” Fenner says.

The MFA Foundation Board of Trustees, 11 individuals with farming backgrounds, decided the professorship was the right thing to do.

To CAFNR, the gift visibly demonstrates how the MFA cooperatives function as a corporate model. CAFNR Dean Tom Payne formally expresses the gratitude of the college.

“CAFNR is grateful to receive this outstanding and important gift in support of the teaching and research that distinguish our college as a national leader in agribusiness. Thanks to MFA Incorporated, MFA Oil and the MFA Foundation for their enduring partnership with Mizzou and CAFNR, and for their remarkable contributions to our state for more than a century. CAFNR is honored to have this great partnership,” he says.

The professorship joins a growing list of initiatives developed by the MFA cooperatives to support education and rural Missouri – funding for multiple programs, internships and scholarships for students, as well as employee service on boards and classroom lecturing.

In addition, the MFA cooperatives hire Mizzou graduates as a large part of their workforce. Fenner says more than half his employees either attended Mizzou or are graduates, and many are individual donors. Many members of his senior leadership team are alumni.

Research is essential

The world population is expected to double in the next 30 years, and those people have to be fed. Already, MU researchers and major companies are actively working toward that goal.

In addition to helping CAFNR recruit and retain a nationally respected faculty member, the MFA Professorship will support the valuable research used by farmers and businesses to improve production.

Verslues says the university is respected by Missouri producers as a third-party, nonbiased opinion on cropping practices across the state. He points to the innovative counsel offered through the university’s Extension programs, which “greatly assist producers in the MFA trade territory.”

Through its reach across the state, University of Missouri Extension tailors programs and tests to different locations, so applied research can be directed to specific areas, such as the bootheel of southeast Missouri or northwest Missouri, which have vastly different needs.

A promising field  

Agribusiness management has become the degree program of choice for many of Mizzou’s brightest students who aspire to leadership careers in all levels of the food, fiber and biofuels supply chain.

“Today it’s cool to be a farmer again. You’ve got technology. You’ve got great income. You can go back to your roots,” Fenner says.

Verslues concurs and considers this the right time for a gift to one of the “really great land grant universities” in the United States.  He says the expanding partnership benefits the future of agribusiness, which looks so promising.

“We’re in the ag business, and CAFNR’s mission is to educate students in the field of ag. We all know there are challenges with funding in any organization,” he says.

What an experience!

MFA Incorporated gives students insight into the field of agribusiness through their MFA Ag Experience program.

Every student who earns entry into the MFA Ag Experience has a story to tell.

The interns develop career-ready skills and build a professional network during the work-study program, now in its third year. Alumna Julia (Witthaus) Jackson was impressed with the immersion of interns in all aspects of the company and the approachability of the executive team.

“I think the company has seen the promise of our generation in being the future movers and shakers of the ag industry,” she says.

Verslues says MFA Incorporated takes the job of educating future ag leaders seriously, so it’s an easy sell to students, who handle real projects with important responsibilities.

In the program’s first two years, MFA Incorporated offered 25 paid internships to students, with at least 20 of those slots awarded to MU students; MFA Oil is establishing a similar program and hiring its first set of students for summer 2015.

“We are amazed and pleased at the quality of students in the program. Our Ag Experience students don’t sweep floors or dust shelves. They do some heavy-duty jobs. It gives them experience, and it lets us see what their talents are,” Verslues says.

At the end of their 12-weeks, the students gather at MFA to give a presentation on their projects, research and conclusions. They present to each other, to all of MFA management and to their faculty and advisers.

When Jackson applied, she hoped to shadow one of MFA Incorporated’s five regional managers for the experience and received an invitation from Verslues, then chief financial officer, to work with him.

She completed a market study and pro forma, and made presentations to the MFA planning group on a potential joint venture with a large U.S. grain company. Then Verslues asked her to present the program to the company’s bankers and lenders. He was that comfortable with her ability.

In the two summers Jackson spent at MFA Incorporated, she worked on several projects. The program transformed Jackson from MU student to working professional when MFA Incorporated hired her as a financial analyst after she graduated in December 2014 with a degree in agribusiness management.

Because of positive reports from past interns, the program continues to grow in popularity with student applicants.

Eyes on rural Missouri

MFA Incorporated and MFA Oil have been two of Mizzou’s largest benefactors through the years.

With a mission focused on giving back to rural communities mostly in Missouri, the MFA Foundation also has supported scholarships, infrastructure, hospitals, children’s playgrounds and other community needs.

The foundation awards 325 scholarships to top Missouri high school students each year for use at schools of the students’ choice. Sixty of the $2,000 scholarships are awarded annually to entering freshmen at Mizzou, and “that feels good,” according to CAFNR alumnus Fenner.

“Scholarships are where the largest percentage of our gifts go. We want to give kids a chance to improve themselves. These are ag kids for the most part. It’s been a really big deal for a lot of these communities and kids to have funds for higher education,” he says.