East River Electric Power Cooperative reflects on legacy focused on future

MITCHELL, S.D.(Press Release)- Just a few days ago, Bob Sahr participated in the groundbreaking of a soybean and oilseed processing plant near Mitchell. The CEO/General Manager of East River Electric Power Cooperative said being a part of a business model that supports rural citizens and their communities is rewarding.

“It’s pretty exciting to be part of large projects and see these projects support local farmers and rural communities,” Sahr said.

He explained East River Electric and its member distribution system Central Electric Cooperative will serve the new Mitchell plant with electricity.

“This cooperative is focused on the future and works to promote economic development because we provide a reliable electricity network,” Sahr said.

Supporting rural citizens and their communities has been the focus of East River Electric since its founding in 1949. Like all cooperatives, it is member-owned. And in the case of East River Electric, its owners are 24 electric cooperatives and the municipality of Elk Point.

In turn, East River Electric Power Cooperative is also part of another cooperative, Basin Electric.

“The entire network, from the distribution network to transmission lines to the power plants, wind farms and solar farms – it’s all member-owned,” Sahr said.

Member ownership is key to the success and relevance of East River Electric.

“We are not accountable to shareholders. We are not elected government officials. Our primary focus is the member-owner – the consumer at the end of the line and doing what is right for these members,” Sahr said. “This is the reason we work to remain affordable and keep our rates low.”

The focus on doing what is right for the members – not shareholders – is the reason Aberdeen farmer Kirk Schaunaman continues the legacy of cooperative involvement his grandfathers began.

“Since they existed, our family has always been members of a rural electric cooperative,” said Schaunaman a fourth-generation crop and cattle producer who serves on the board of his local rural electric co-op, Northern Electric Cooperative.

Before rural electric cooperatives, Schaunaman explained that his grandparents, like most rural South Dakotans, did not have electricity because private providers would not invest in the rural areas.

“My grandfather on my dad’s side was on the board of directors in the 1940s and my grandfather on my mother’s side, contributed to the development of the cooperative,” Schaunaman said. “I found a piece of paper from my grandfather that showed he went around to the neighbors collecting $5 from them to fund the incorporation of the electric co-op.”

Eight decades later, Schaunaman continues the legacy of cooperative leadership. About four years ago, Northern Electric nominated Schaunaman to represent them on the East River Electric Board.

“I believe in the influence members can have in their rural electric cooperatives,” Schaunaman said. “I feel member involvement is important. It’s the benefit of member-ownership. Our electric supply and pricing are not controlled by a private industry that is owned by out-of-state or out-of-country interests. It is controlled by the member-owners.”

In addition to serving on the two cooperative boards, Schaunaman also serves as a South Dakota Farmers Union member representative on the Farmers Union Industries Board of Directors. Because of cooperatives’ support of family farmers, ranchers and their rural communities, for more than a century South Dakota Farmers Union has helped organize and support cooperatives throughout the state.

To learn more about South Dakota Farmers Union, visit www.sdfu.org. To learn more about East River Electric Power Cooperative, visit www.eastriver.coop. n By Lura Roti for SDFU.