- Associated Press - Sunday, February 12, 2017

BEATRICE, Neb. (AP) - You can ask what Farmers Cooperative does, but the better question might be what they don’t do.

With locations in 60 communities in rural areas in southeast Nebraska and northeast Kansas, it’s hard to go a few miles without coming across a Farmers Cooperative-run business, the Beatrice Daily Sun (https://bit.ly/2llAato ) reported.

They have convenience stores, gas stations, agronomy offices, seed distributors, grain storage, train terminals, lubrication, propane, tires for both passenger cars and farm equipment, animal feed, crop dusting, farm technology and crop dusting, just to mention a few. But what’s kept Farmers Cooperative booming and growing for over 100 years, sales and marketing manager Dennis Kenning says, is the same thing that got it started in the first place: farmers.

Many of the cooperatives that merged into Farmers Cooperative got their start in the early 1900s when farmers got their grain to market by train.

“One farmer by himself was pretty helpless to fill a train car,” Kenning said. “Back then they were box cars, they weren’t even hoppers. They had to be scooped in and scooped out, real labor intensive. A farmer by himself couldn’t do that, but a group of farmers together could.”

In the early days, a good harvest season could yield a few boxcars, but these days that amount has increased immensely. Kenning said last year Farmers Cooperative partners filled around 17,000 rail cars system-wide. With 110 car-long Burlington Northern trains coming to Beatrice pick up grain several times a day, it builds up fast, meaning all that corn and soybeans need somewhere to wait.

That’s where storage comes in. Building new grain storage is one of Farmers Cooperative’s top priorities to avoid storing corn on the ground. Farmers Cooperative recently opened a new concrete silo in Odell that’s capable of holding 630,000 bushels of corn or soybeans, topping the 500,000 bushel silo built the previous year.

Building silos isn’t a cheap undertaking, Kenning said, but it’s necessary to keep corn off the ground. When corn is on the ground, he said, it’s susceptible to the elements.

“We’ve been pretty fortunate this year,” he said, “but a year ago we had some spoiled grain because it gets wet and it gets sour. It happens.”

The boom in grain is thanks in large part to burgeoning farm technology, another part of Farmers Cooperative’s reach. They offer products that allow farmers to take a look at data and satellite images from seasons past to see what the future holds for their crops. They have technology that shows nitrogen levels available to plants through every step of the season and data visualization that breaks down numbers into graphs and charts.

“There’s more and more technology available all the time,” Kenning said. “They can probe the soil on a grid and each spot will need something a little different. There are variants over the entire field. Through variable rate application, we’d be able to change the nutrient level as we apply it to the field.”

With technology and advanced genetics, yields are higher than ever. New strains of corn and soybeans are coming out to help keep farms in business.

Quantity is the name of the game, Kenning said. A century ago, a farmer might have farmed a few acres in a day, but today it might be several thousand acres. There’s a tight profit margin, he said, so if you’re going to put food on the dinner table, you need acreage.

But Farmers Cooperative is more than just pushing technology into the fields. The tire side of the business, Kenning said, gives close access to tractor, combine and other types of agricultural tires that might not have otherwise been readily available in a small community. And if you blow a tire when you’re somewhere that it takes a week to replace, that’s a lot of lost income.

More important, he said, is a sense of community. Having a place where you can sit and drink coffee and shoot the breeze with friends and neighbors can be hard to come by in rural areas, but Farmers Cooperative works to keep that tradition alive.

“In a small town your gas station is kind of important to you,” Kenning said. We’re trying to serve people in the rural-lying areas because it’s a place for them to get gas or get a little bit of food or snacks, get tires fixed. So, some of those things that we do are not big profit-makers, but there’s a need, and that’s why we stay there, because people need that service.”

And cooperatives aren’t beholden to shareholders or subjects to the wishes of CEO’s because the people in charge are the people who use the company’s services, Kenning said. Farmers Cooperative’s best customer, he said, is Farmers Cooperative itself, buying fuel and tires in bulk to pass on the savings to the farmers.

“The thing that’s unique about cooperatives is that they’re owned by the people that do business with us,” Kenning said. “Say we have 5,000 producers, they’re actually our owners. The neat part is that we’ve been able to pay them back a dividend at the end of the year. We want to be profitable for the owners.”

Farmers Cooperative keeps growing and merging with smaller cooperatives around Nebraska and Kansas, meaning more silage is always in demand. That means there’s always construction in progress, but that’s pretty inspiring to Kenning.

“It’s amazing to me,” he said. “We keep building and building storage and it seems like we always pile the same amount on the ground, it’s kind of unreal. It shows you how efficient and how productive the American farmer is.”

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Information from: Beatrice Sun, https://www.beatricedailysun.com


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