Organic is a shining star for us

Randy Dahlen

VP of NW Operations

Premier Cooperative

125 Years of Cooperation

Premier Cooperative - 125 Years of Cooperation

By: Joe Pedretti, MOSA Outreach Manager

Premier Cooperative is the oldest farmer/consumer supply co-op in the United States. Formed in 1893 by a handful of farmers from Vermont Township, it opened its doors in Black Earth, WI, and was originally called Patrons’ Mercantile Company. After a merger with the Mt. Horeb Farmers Cooperative in 2000, the name was changed to reflect their dedication to “premier products, people, service, facilities, and equipment,” noted current CEO Andy Fiene. One of Andy’s first jobs when promoted to general manager at Patrons’ was to write a comprehensive history of the co-op, which was published in 1993 and is available on the Premier website: Patrons' Mercantile Cooperative- 100 Year History.

The original cooperative building still stands in Black Earth, where they sold dry goods,seed, clothing, farm equipment, feed, tack, and hardware. They later expanded, and added fertilizer sales, around the same time that they built their first new, state of the art, feed mill in 1960.

Major changes in the farming community, brought on by increasing consolidation throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s had resulted in fewer, larger farms, duplication of services, and overlapping service areas. Many farmers were members of multiple cooperatives. “Consolidation at the farm gate, results in consolidation at all other levels,” remarked Andy. “The Patrons’ board of directors and the board from Mt. Horeb Farmers Cooperative began talking about the pros and cons of a combined company starting in 1997. It took three years and two tries, but in 2000 the merger was complete. We changed the name to Premier Cooperative, and we moved the HQ to Mt. Horeb. This increased our coverage and services to three communities.”

Other mergers and acquisitions quickly followed: Premier merged with Quad County Cooperative in 2004. Quad County had two locations and focused primarily on feed, but had worn out their assets and didn’t have the scale and profitability to reinvest. “We needed to grow our feed business. With this merger, we doubled our feed sales, but we still couldn’t justify building a new mill,” noted Andy. Another merger with Lancaster Farmers Cooperative in 2007 further increased their feed sales and service area, which solidified the co-ops plans to buy a site and build a new feed manufacturing facility in Mineral Point. The co-op broke ground in 2007 and started production in January of 2009.

“The Mineral Point facility is state of the art, fully automated, with pelleting and steam flaking of corn. Due to member requests, we have added 2.1 million bushels of grain drying and storage capacity. Our feed sales went from 3000 tons per month when we opened to 9200 tons per month today, about 85% of which is sold to dairy farms,” said Andy.

More mergers and acquisitions followed. In 2008, Premier purchased six agronomy locations in SW Wisconsin from Agriliance, an agronomy venture between Land O’Lakes and CHS, as well as a private agronomy company in Eastman, WI. In 2011 Premier merged with Consumers Cooperative of Richland County, and then, in 2013, with Heartland Country Cooperative in Westby and Cashton, WI. While Premier had offered organic products prior to partnering with Heartland, this was a key event in Premier’s foray into certified organic feed and branded organic product sales. Finally, in 2014 Premier purchased a large energy company, fka Charter Fuels, headquartered in Lancaster.

Heartland Country Cooperative was founded in the fall of 1998 by the merger of Cashton Co-op Elevator and Westby Farmers Union Co-op, and focused on energy, feed and agronomy services for its members. Westby, is located right in the heart of organic dairy country, with both Organic Valley and Westby Cooperative Creamery nearby. Several of the cooperative members transitioned to organic dairy farming during the 1990s and Heartland began seeing a lot of interest in organic feed, seed and fertilizers.

“Starting in 2001, we began a serious discussion about getting organic certification and offering organic feeds. We were losing farms when they went organic. We reached out to other co-ops and mills about the organic demand. We decided to reopen the Westby mill, that had been shut down for some time, and to get certified. We got certified in 2002, reopened the mill, and began selling organic feed to our customers and to other co-ops. Not long after, we looked into the retail market. We realized that there was a lot of potential in selling smaller, bagged quantities of poultry feed,” noted Randy Dahlen, former General Manager for Heartland, and now VP of NW Operations for Premier.

“Organic was a shining star for us. No one else was doing this level of consistency for retailing. We knew there was a market, and it offered us a point of differentiation. We spent a lot of money to develop a brand, Nature’s Grown, but we knew we would need a new feed facility. It was around this time that we began to talk with Premier,” remembered Randy. “We had already been partnering with Premier to offer liquid feeds to our members. Our services meshed easily. It turned into the right thing to do.”

In 2013, the merger between Heartland and Premier was completed. Organic feed sales grew by 50% during the first two years of the merger. “Between the rapid growth of organic feed sales, and the impact of the Food Safety Modernization Act, we started looking into building a new feed mill. Heartland had already bought the land, so we began planning an efficient combination mill that could handle organic, non-GMO, and conventional feed production. We broke ground in May of 2016, and are on track to open the new mill in March. It is the biggest co-op investment so far,” noted Andy.

The new mill, with 900,000 bushels of grain storage, and the ability to separately handle and process organic, non-GMO and conventional feeds easily, will greatly enhance Premier’s ability to grow the feed and retail business. They can now package more sizes and smaller sizes, opening new retail markets and distribution channels. “Good quality ingredients, modern equipment, and pelleting really helps us. Pelletized feed results in a lot less waste. Consistency is key,” said Feed Location Manager Roger Brock.

The “Nature’s Grown” retail label has been redesigned and new products are in the works to include multiple poultry options, calves, dairy, and even rabbits. With distribution to 20 states, and more in development, Premier sees big opportunities for growth in the metropolitan markets.

Today, Premier’s 360 staff operate 37 facilities in 21 communities, offering feed, agronomy, energy, grain, hardware, lumber, automotive, and convenience store product and services to over 6,000 active members and another 10,000 non-members. 2017 sales exceeded $185 million.. With a new state of the art certified organic feed mill, expanding service areas, and a rapidly growing retail brand, the future is very bright for the oldest farmer cooperative in the United States.

For more information about Premier Cooperative visit their website: premiercooperative.com