Everything under the sun

Written by Allison Jenkins on .

Around this time last year, MFA Exchange in Meta, Mo., found a way to breathe new energy into the business.

Two arrays of roof-installed solar panels are providing electricity for the en­tire facility, including Meta’s modern feed mill that turns out more than 10,000 tons each year. The clean, renewable energy generated by the sun-powered system not only represents the cooperative’s commitment to environmental stewardship but also saves substantial amounts in utility costs.

At the end of February, Manager Rick Brune compared the electric bill gen­erated from the system’s first eight months to the same period of the previous year. The difference was impressive—$3,000 in energy costs versus $13,000.

“That’s a $10,000 savings in less than a year,” Brune said. “I’m pretty happy with that. I was a little disappointed it wasn’t more, but we didn’t have much sun this winter. We’re entering into the months where we should break even or make a little money back because our usage is down and production is up.”

Solar power is just the most recent transformation made by the 95-year-old cooperative, a locally owned affiliate of MFA Incorporated. Meta Farmers Exchange was chartered in 1925, just 11 years after its parent company. Local farmers pur­chased the business from MFA in 1982 and a few years later moved the operation from its original facility to the current location on the edge of town. A fertilizer plant already existed on the 10-acre parcel of land, and the cooperative built a feed mill and warehouse in 1987.

“It’s just been one expansion after another since then,” said Brune, who has helped lead the Exchange through 38 years of its evolution—36 of those as manager. “We operated out of the little fertilizer office until 1993, when we added on to the warehouse and moved our offices over there.”

The most significant changes came in 2016 with the construction of a new showroom and enlarged office space followed in 2017 by an extension of the fertilizer plant and the addition of a state-of-the-art bulk feed mill. The improve­ments increased plant food storage by 800 tons along with adding another mixer and dramatically boosted feed produc­tion capacity and speed.

Brune said these advancements were necessary to meet the needs of its growing customer base, made up mostly of beef producers who farm in the rolling terrain of the Osage River hills. The co-op still serves a few dairies and hog operations, along with row-crop producers who farm the river bottoms.

“It’s pretty incredible when you think about where this co-op started and where it’s at today,” Brune said. “This place has always had good, loyal customers and a strong, open-mind­ed board with progressive thinking. We’ve had slow, steady growth through the years, and I think we’re well positioned for the future.”

Feed and fertilizer make up the majority of sales, although the expanded showroom provides walk-in customers a wide selection of farm supplies and rural lifestyle products. Brune said Meta’s members have evolved almost as much as the co-op itself.

“When I started, most of the farmers were full time with no other outside income,” he said. “Today, there’s only about a handful who don’t have some sort of job to supplement the farm. We have a lot of part-time, weekend farmers. About 80% of our revenue goes toward grass fertilizer and feeding beef cattle.”

The ability to reinvent itself has been key to the co-op’s success, said Rodney Luebbering, a dairy and hog producer and one of seven directors who help govern the business. He said customer loyalty helped the co-op survive some tough times in its beginning, but customer service and operational efficiencies are critical to carry the business into the future.

“This co-op was built on the loyalty of generations before us, which gave it the ability to expand during the good times,” Luebbering said. “The board and management have always been forward-thinking and try to do what’s best for the mem­ber. Investing in the new feed mill and putting in solar power are good examples of that mentality.”

The switch to solar power just made sense financially, Brune said, although he admits he was skeptical when first presented with the idea.

“It was about two years ago, in June or July, when I got a call from someone like a telemarketer asking if we’d ever consid­ered solar power,” Brune said. “I listened to what he had to say, and it sounded like a pretty good deal. They came out, looked at our situation and worked up a plan.”

The company, Artisun Solar, worked with the local utility provider, Ameren subsidiary Union Electric, and installed an array of solar panels on the feed mill roof and another set on top of the warehouse. The total cost was around $168,000, but rebates, tax credits and deductions lowered the out-of-pocket costs to about $60,000, Brune said.

The system operates on a two-way meter, he explained. When more power is needed than what the sun can provide, the extra comes off the grid from Union Electric. But when the solar panels pro­duce more power than the facility uses, that excess goes back to Union Electric, which, in turn, credits the co-op’s bill.

“When you put it all together, with our typical usage, the system will pay for itself in four or five years,” he said. “The compa­ny figured it up for us, and over 30 years, it should put $150,000 to $200,000 on our bottom line—just for using sunshine. The numbers really made it a no-brainer.”

A nearly 100-year-old company could easily become stagnant, but that’s not the case with MFA Exchange in Meta, Luebbering said. New ideas, new efficien­cies and new customers keep the co-op progressing.

“The solar panels may be thinking outside the box, but why wouldn’t you do that? It all makes perfect sense when you really take time to look at it,” he said. “The feed mill, too—it was a tough decision to spend that much money, but as soon as we built it, business instantly grew. The next generation of farmers coming up, they’re looking for service and stability, and they can trust that they will find both of those things here.”