Century of service

The pork burgers and bratwursts sizzling on the grill were more than just a way to feed guests at the 100th anniversary celebration of MFA Cooperative Association No. 2 in Washington on Sept. 4. The meal represented the sense of community that has characterized this local MFA affiliate since it was incorporated Aug. 2, 1919. 

“Every year, we purchase a couple of hogs at the Washington Town and Country Fair’s Blue Ribbon Auction, and this year, we had one of them processed into burgers and brats for our customer appreciation day,” said Co-op General Manager Paul Brune. “It’s 4-H and FFA members raising these animals, and we feed a lot of those projects. It’s a way to give back to the kids and the community. That’s what the co-op is all about.”

That cooperative spirit is a two-way street, said Board President Rich Deppe, who operates a farrow-to-finish swine farm and raises 4,300 acres of row crops with his family near Washington. The Deppes are longtime members of MFA, and many other farmers in the area can say the same. He says consistent, loyal farmer support has helped Washington reach the 100-year mark, a milestone that few businesses ever achieve.

“You can credit that accomplishment to the support of the community as a whole and a lot of successful farmers who have been here for generations,” Deppe said. “They support the MFA, and MFA supports them in return. I’ve been a customer here as long as I can remember, and so was my dad and my grandpa—and now my kids and grandkids. It continues on.”

Originally, the co-op was located in downtown Washington on the banks of the Missouri River. The farmer-owned business moved to its flagship facility on Highway 100 in 1980 and added a location in New Haven in 1983. The cooperative grew again with the purchase of a facility in Marthasville in 2001 and a bulk fertilizer facility in Washington in 2009. 

Most recently, the group added a new location in the St. Louis suburb of Foristell, purchasing a farm-and-home business formerly owned by the Vehige family. Across the entire operation, the cooperative now has 21 employees.“

Right now, it’s pretty tough to grow in farming industry, so the easiest way to grow is keep buying locations,” Brune said. “Foristell is going to be good for us. It’s a well-run, well-respected business. They do liquid fertilizer and crop spraying. That, in combination with what we do on the precision and dry fertilizer side, is just the perfect fit.”

Widening its footprint isn’t the only way MFA Co-op Association No. 2 has changed during its century of service. The business has continually evolved with the needs of its farmers, Brune said. Its extensive menu of products and services reflects the diversity of agriculture in the area, which is rich in both row crops and livestock. The co-op serves several large swine operations and dairies as well as beef cattle farms.

On the crop side, growers can access all the inputs and application services they need, including seed, crop protection products, anhydrous and dry and liquid fertilizer. When Brune came on board as manager five years ago, he brought MFA’s precision agriculture programs to the area. Enrolled acreage has steadily grown each year, he said. 

The co-op’s custom, grind-and-mix feeds are popular with livestock producers, who can also select from a full line of bagged feeds. Brune said the co-op was the one of the first to offer MFA Shield Technology in its swine feeds. Shield is a proprietary blend of essential oils and other additives that help prevent sickness and promote performance in livestock without antibiotics.“

When I started, we only had about 30% of the swine feed business,” Brune said. “Now it’s 95%—all because of Shield Technology.”

The co-op’s farm-and-home retail store also attracts steady walk-in traffic, with customers looking for chicken feed, food-plot products, pet items, gardening supplies and oftentimes, expert advice.“

You’ll have customers who walk in off the street and want to raise a few goats or some backyard chickens, and we try to educate them as best we can,” Brune said. “If they go into another farm-and-home store, they’re not going to have the knowledge to coach these people to do what they need to do. If we can help them be successful, they’ll gain confidence in the co-op, and then, hopefully, they’ll buy everything from us.”

The Washington group is structured as a local farmer-owned cooperative made up of about 300 members and governed by its own five-member board of directors. As an affiliate of MFA Incorporated, Cooperative Association No. 2 has access to greater buying power, a wider array of services and the expertise of knowledgeable nutritionists, agronomists and field staff. The mutually beneficial partnership also exercises one of the key cooperative principles—working with other co-ops to better serve the membership.“

It’s patron-owned. We share in the profits. I like that whole concept,” Deppe said. “These days, it seems like a lot of big corporations are taking over everything. But MFA does things a little bit different. They are here to do what’s in the best interest of us farmers. I don’t know what we’d do without our co-op.”

Both Deppe and Brune attribute the longevity of their cooperative to progressive boards, loyal members and visionary leadership. They say it will take that same combination for MFA Cooperative Association No. 2 to make it another 100 years.“

In some areas it could be difficult to be around that long, especially when you’re dealing with farmers, but in this area, people work together. That’s key,” Brune said. “Plus, you’ve got to have the right board and employees and members to change with the times. It means you have to look ahead and see what’s next. If you don’t do that, you’re not going to last.”

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