For Farmers Elevator and Supply Co. in Clinton, Mo., “cooperative” is much more than just a way of business. It’s a way of life for the employees, members, customers and the community where this farmer-owned organization has thrived for more than 100 years.
And that cooperation begins at the top. The business is led by two co-managers: Doug Wagoner and Kaylene Kline. And they’re quick to point out that the cooperative principle of democratic control extends throughout the entire staff of 16 full-time employees.
“They’re not my employees; they’re co-employees,” Wagoner said. “They’re a vital part of this place. I don’t think of myself as the boss. I lead the employees in a direction, and then I let them do their thing. They know what needs to be done, and I give them the latitude to do it. We try to keep everybody feeling like they’re part of the place.”
That sense of belonging remains an important attribute of Farmers Elevator, which was incorporated June 2, 1917, and has been a local affiliate of the MFA system from its beginnings. The co-op is ingrained in the Clinton community, where Wagoner and his family once owned and operated a neighboring farm supply business just up the street. In the spirit of cooperation, he says the two businesses worked together rather than competed.
“The farm supply business has always been a family affair for me,” Wagoner said. “My grandpa started a feed and grain store in 1951, and my dad later took over the business. Then I went to work there in 1982. In 2004, the co-op bought us out and offered me a job as assistant manager here. I didn’t grow up on a farm and never dreamed I would have ended up in this field. But once it got in my blood, I couldn’t get rid of it. I absolutely love it.”
“Family” is the word he and Kline also use to describe the cooperative’s customer base, which includes 4,000 active members. The business serves an extremely diverse clientele, from row-crop farmers and livestock producers to pet owners and “backyard” farmers who raise chickens, pigs, horses and goats. Farmers Elevator regularly hosts customer appreciation events such as an annual golf outing, and more than 400 people turned out for the co-op’s centennial anniversary pancake breakfast on Aug. 12.
“We have customers who have been here forever, and we know them by name,” Kline said. “We also have new customers who come in to get dog food or want advice about taking care of their chickens or rabbits and things like that, and we get to know them, too. We like to treat our customers like we want to be treated, and they’re all pretty special.”
That type of personal connection is one of the reasons Farmers Elevator has prospered for more than a century, said Board President Donnie Mitchell. The cow-calf producer, who has served on the cooperative’s seven-member board of directors for 12 years, described the business as “the elevator for everyone.”
“It’s a stout co-op with excellent employees and management,” Mitchell said. “They tend to look after their patrons really well. Everyone’s treated the same, large or small. It’s a great asset for this community, and I want to see it keep growing and getting stronger.”
Indeed, Farmers Elevator has strengthened over the past decade under the leadership of Wagoner and Kline, who became co-managers in 2007. Sales have more than doubled in that period, from about $6 million to an estimated $13 million for 2017.
“I think we’ve had one year where we didn’t show a profit, and that was the first year we took over,” Wagoner said. “We’ve shown steady growth ever since. We are a cooperative, but we still have to operate to make a profit to keep the business running and improving. The difference is that we share a portion of that profit back with our members. That’s the best of both worlds.”
He attributes that growth to more attentive customer service, increased walk-in traffic and renewed focus on grain sales. The co-op is located on a short line of the Missouri and Northern Arkansas railroad, but train service from the elevator had been discontinued in the 1980s. The co-op worked with railroad officials to reinstate that service two years ago and has shipped more than 250,000 bushels of corn by rail since last fall.
“That’s really increased our bid capabilities for the farmer, and we can keep our grain local,” Wagoner said. “About 99 percent of it is going south to chicken farms down into Arkansas. With the option to ship by rail again, we have a chance to get better pricing and pass that on to our customers.”
In addition to the elevator, the main location in Clinton includes a feed mill, showroom, warehouse and bulk seed bins with on-site treating services. The store offers a wide variety of livestock feeds along with pet food, animal health products and farm supply items.
The co-op’s agronomy center, managed by Wagoner’s son, Josh, is located outside of town and offers fertilizer, crop protection products and related services such as soil-testing, spraying and variable-rate applications.
As for the future, Wagoner and Kline say they’d like to ramp up the co-op’s outside sales efforts, enlarge the elevator’s grain bin capacity and continue diversifying the co-op’s offerings in response to increased interest in backyard farming and more “in-town” business.
“We’d love to enlarge our showroom because we have such a small space and a lot of our customers don’t even realize we carry some of these things,” Kline said. “People really like coming in here, and we’d love to give them more selection.”
Such evolution is necessary to keep the 100-year-old business relevant in today’s marketplace, Wagoner added, and he credited the co-op’s visionary directors, past and present, with helping ensure the future of Farmers Elevator.
“If it weren’t for all the board members with foresight and forward-thinking, we wouldn’t be here today,” Wagoner said. “I truly believe that. I’ve worked with some great boards over the past 13 years, and they’re a knowledgeable, diverse group of people. They can see the vision we have, and they deserve a lot of credit for our success.”
At MFA Incorporated, we honor the legacy of those who recognized the benefit of working together cooperatively to leverage buying power and their collective voices. MFA and its local affiliates have always existed to benefit our communities, making agricultural goods and services accessible to farmers and rural residents in the area. In addition to the 100th anniversary of Farmers Elevator and Supply Co. in Clinton, Mo., six other MFA local cooperative affiliates are celebrating milestones in 2017.
- March 20, 1922: MFA Cooperative Association No. 280, Freeburg, Mo.
- Aug. 16, 1922: Produce Exchange No. 299, Golden City, Mo.
- March 24, 1922: Farmers Exchange, Rolla, Mo.
- July 12, 1922: MFA Cooperative Association, St. Elizabeth, Mo.
- Oct. 19, 1922: Farmers Cooperative Association No. 301, Sullivan, Mo.
- May 17, 1932: MFA Cooperative Association, Salem, Mo.