One little environmental giant

MFA Agri Services in Centralia, Mo., looks like many other ag retailers that crown the skyline with rural skyscrapers. The complex includes a mix of the traditional concrete grain elevator, new shiny metal grain bins and pole barns, all fitting snugly between the two railroad tracks that bisect this community.

Near the retail office, spray trucks are undergoing maintenance at the shop and grain trucks are on the move. Each evening by sundown, the equipment will again all be parked neatly in a row, ready for the next day.

Despite its mild-mannered appearance, this location has unique bragging rights. Centralia MFA Agri Services won the 2017 Environmental Respect Award from Crop Life Magazine, a respected ag-industry publication owned by Meister Media. Getting the award is tough. It has been more than a decade since an MFA location placed in the contest, which has been sponsored by DuPont for 27 years. The last time MFA was recognized was in 1997 as a state winner with its then-new facility in Chaffee, Mo.

Centralia MFA assistant manager Brad Toedebusch accepted the award during a July 20 ceremony in Wilmington, Del. Although Centralia had already won the regional award along with three other retailers, the MFA location was also named “Ambassador of Respect” for all of North America. That title is only bestowed on the “best of the best,” award officials stated.

“Usually you hear people say that it is an honor to just be nominated. That was truly the case here, especially after meeting the other nominees and winners from all over the world,” Toedebusch said. “I didn’t think we had a chance while at the meeting. All of the people I met were from these huge agribusinesses, and many were our competitors in the contest.”

To even be considered for such a prestigious award, a business must be state-of-the-art in all areas, be proactive on safety and training, be serious about containment and have the latest available application technology. Check, check, check and check for Centralia MFA.

Built in 1956, Centralia MFA Agri Services has been renovated many times over the years. The most recent renovation added to its grain facility capacity and speed. Among other upgrades were the building of a new maintenance shop to service equipment and keep its dry fertilizer under a roof. To further protect the area’s watershed, MFA Centralia insists on using automatic shut-off valves and direct-injection systems on its sprayers.

These updates and its employees’ commitment to environmentally friendly practices helped the older facility stand out in a crowd of larger and newer locations from across the U.S. and Canada, said Crop Life magazine editor Eric Sfiligoj. He said that over the 17 years that he has been meeting Environmental Respect award winners, the common denominator is the desire to go “above and beyond” when it comes to stewardship and protecting the community in which they do business.

“Lots of the winners are very positive about ag retail,” said Sfiligoj. “However, Jim [Gesling, Centralia MFA general manager] seemed extra special with his ability to stay calm under pressure.”

Sfiligoj interviewed Gesling for the contest the same week Centralia employees had dealt with a fire at the nearby branch in Clark, Mo. The editor was impressed with Gesling’s eagerness to make time to talk about the location’s environmental efforts. He even wrote about it in his July 2017 magazine column here:

The Environmental Respect awards process examines the facilities, fertilizer practices, water-rinsing procedures, safety, security, training/improvement, emergency preparedness, best-management practices and community outreach.

Maybe the small-town team shouldn’t have been so surprised to win the award. The location and its employees are intricately woven into the town. The Centralia MFA group works with 4-H and FFA, serves as ag experts for the local press, supports local water quality initiatives and was recently named business of the year by the local economic development group, CREDI.

Centralia MFA employees meet regularly with local firefighters to review safety, procedures and emergency plans, and the police department patrols daily, even after hours.

Employees also helped revamp the city baseball fields and perform regular maintenance. They assist the local FFA chapter with its annual mock job interviews and supervised agricultural education project judging. Centralia MFA employees also co-host the town’s annual Young Farmer’s Christmas Parade.  

The Centralia team has adopted new technology as it becomes available. They were one of the first to switch to direct-inject spray systems on the trucks, which keeps them from transporting “hot” loads of chemicals. Although the location wasn’t the first to start offering variable-rate application, employees jumped into precision when local customers and members were ready. Now, one-third of the location’s fertilizer acres are spread with some kind of variable-rate technology. Centralia also has a growing crop-consulting business.

Along with adding new technology, Gesling has focused on growing business relationships with farmers and planning for the future since becoming manager of the location in 2000.

During a recent farm tour, while visiting with Brazilian farmers who wanted to see some top Missouri farms, Gesling slipped away from the group and started tossing a football with the hosting farmer’s eighth-grade son.

“The future of Centralia football is looking good—that rascal has an arm,” he laughed after a good half-hour of playtime. “I love my job!”

When asked what the future of agriculture looks like with respect to the environment, Gesling gets a little philosophical.

“Well I’m a grandfather now, and I believe what we leave for the next generations really matters,” Gesling said. “We have a lot of challenges ahead of us in ag. Here at MFA, we focus on doing things right and putting things where they need to be, like nutrients, seed and chemicals. It should never be difficult to do the right thing.”

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