DURAND — While many people outside of agriculture have a basic understanding of what farmers do, a lot of them “don’t have a clue” what agribusinesses do, says Tom Bressner, executive director of the Wisconsin Agri-Business Association.
About 40 local and state officials, including lawmakers, state agency staff and county board members, stepped inside a state-of-the-art agronomy facility to learn more about its role during an Oct. 5 tour of Countryside Cooperative’s agronomy facilities east of Durand.
WABA lobbyist Shawn Pfaff said the organization has conducted agribusiness tours for the past several years. A similar tour was offered earlier this month in Valders.
“This part of the state has great agriculture and has swung politically a lot,” Pfaff, who grew up on a dairy farm near Holmen, said of western Wisconsin. “It has a lot to offer and a lot of political leaders we want to get out and see.”
With harvest getting underway and co-op staff gearing up for fall soil sampling and fertilization, tour participants got an inside look at Countryside’s crop nutrient and crop protection products and modern application equipment with all the bells and whistles.
Countryside staff raised several issues that could be addressed by policymakers, including transportation, labor and rural broadband access.
“It used to be work hard; now, it’s work smarter,” Bressner said.
The WABA has more than 300 member-companies throughout the state. WABA members conduct about 85 percent of the grain, feed and agronomy input business in Wisconsin.
“If it’s agribusiness, that’s who I represent,” said Bressner, who has worked for WABA the past 6½ years.
Co-op has long reach
Chief Executive Officer and General Manager Frank Brenner said Countryside has about 33,000 equity-holders, 2,200 voting members and 17,500 customers actively conducting business.
From its Durand headquarters, the co-op’s trade territory stretches 150 miles north to south and 60 miles west to east. Countryside has a presence in 25 west-central Wisconsin communities, he said.
Over the past three years, Countryside has returned $7.3 million in cash back to members, Brenner said. Sales revenue this past year totaled $230 million, with almost 30 percent of that from the agronomy business and a little more than 20 percent from convenience stores.
Countryside has more than 250 regularly scheduled full-time employees and almost 190 regularly scheduled part-time workers, along with 78 seasonal employees and five summer interns.
Brenner said Countryside has invested $47 million over the past three years in modernization, including upgrades to its fertilizer plant in Osseo and grain storage and drying facilities in Mondovi, New Richmond and Baldwin.
The co-op’s new feed mill in Menomonie, which will “rationalize” four older mills into one, is set to be at full production by Jan. 1, Brenner said.
The new agronomy facility near Durand, built on an 80-acre plot, opened in spring 2016. Mike Christenson, agronomy division supervisor, said it replaced an outdated plant built in the 1950s.
“We were not serving customers well enough; we were strapped for speed and space,” he said.
Almost the entire plant is built using stainless steel, wood or cement in an effort to reduce corrosion, he said. The facility is completely self-contained with elevated lips at all entrances to help ensure that no chemicals escape into the environment in the event of a spill.
In a fire, staff have been advised to let the building burn rather than try to put out the flames, as the potential harm from chemicals being released into the environment that way is greater than the value of the facility.
The building is equipped with in-floor heating to prevent accidents in the winter and reduce product loss.
Eight to 10 people are based out of the Durand plant, including four agronomists. Christenson said the facility can hold 20,000 tons of dry fertilizer, with about 28,000 tons sold out of there each year. Countryside as a whole moves about 70,000 tons, or 52 barges, of dry fertilizer annually. Storage bins can contain about 10 semi-loads of fertilizer.
Christenson said Countryside does 30 percent of its own transportation from river barges to the Durand plant, contracting out for the rest. Working with brokers such as CHS and ADM, some 60 percent of their fertilizer comes from Winona, Minn., with the remainder from the Twin Cities. Very little comes via train.
The aging lock-and-dam system and shutdowns for maintenance, along with posted roads, pose a challenge, he said.
Brenner said they have made investments to make sure the products farmers need are on hand when they need them, especially during spring planting.
Christenson said the co-op does about 20 percent of its business in the fall, with about 80 percent done within an eight-week window in the spring. Countryside covers and makes recommendations for about 500,000 acres; the average field size is 18 acres.
Plant ‘runs itself’
The plant is almost completely automated, with just a couple people needed to operate it. Most functions can be performed with the push of a button, increasing efficiency and reducing opportunities for human error.
“The plant runs itself,” Christenson said. While this works well most of the time, the system was knocked out by a lightning strike this spring. “It took seven days to get up and going again.”
New this year, all fields receiving custom application by Countryside are mapped and orders sent from the plant to the applicator’s iPad or Surface Tablet. Connectivity is an issue, especially in remote areas, he said.
“It has come a long way from paper maps,” Christenson said. “This is our first year running it that way. It’s been a learning curve, but 60-year-olds learned it as well as 20-year-olds.”
Nitrogen, phosphorus and potash are the main fertilizers offered from the plant. They exited the anhydrous ammonia business a couple years ago and no longer handle ammonium nitrate — the same chemical that caused a deadly explosion a few years ago in West, Texas.
Anhydrous use is decreasing across Wisconsin. Bressner said less than 10,000 tons of anhydrous was used last year in the state, mainly in potato production.
Attached to the fertilizer facility is the 100-by-180-foot crop protection storage facility, according to Northern Territory Manager Gery Steinmetz. Products are purchased the previous year for better pricing and so that plenty of stock is on hand for the following spring.
To efficiently apply a wide variety of dry and wet products across hundreds of thousands of acres, Countryside has a fleet of more than 55 variable-rate applicators, said Todd Readel, logistics operations equipment manager. New, each one can cost about $550,000.
Each unit can cover 350 to 700 acres in a day and as many as 12,000 acres per year, Readel said.
Inside each fertilizer sprayer hopper are two compartments that could be filled with different products to accommodate prescription applications in the field, based on soil needs, said Southern Territory Manager Ross Pudenz.
One of the co-op’s biggest challenges is finding qualified help, and they strive to offer competitive wages, Pudenz said. “It’s getting tighter; we’re in direct competition with larger farms. ... This generation that we’re dealing with, money is the driver.”