MFA at 100, part 2
A century-old company sprang from the idea of helping farmers succeed.
In the March 2014 issue of Today’s Farmer, we printed an excerpt from Proud Past, Bright Future, MFA Incorporated’s First 100 Years (click here to view). That installment focused on MFA’s founder, William Hirth. This month, we print a second installment. Here we focus on MFA’s second president, Fred Heinkel. Heinkel saw the power of Hirth’s vision firsthand, and once Hirth was acquainted with Heinkel, he saw the potential of a future leader. With Hirth’s help, Heinkel would soon be at the helm of MFA during a great transition for agriculture. These excerpts are from Chapters 4 and 5 of Proud Past, Bright Future. You can purchase a copy of the book by visiting http://www.todaysfarmer.com/shop.
From Chapter 4:
Out of the corn rows into the board room
Fred Victor Heinkel kept a sharp eye on the future. At the dawn of the 20th century, the young man farmed with his father in Franklin County. In 1917 rumors were swirling. Heinkel heard tales of a passionate individual proselytizing farm unity at speeches throughout the state. Young Heinkel was all ears. That individual, William Hirth, preached a revolutionary approach to organizing farmers—self-interest. Heinkel enjoyed farm life, but he was a realist, too. Making a living on a turn-of-the-century farm was a touch-and-go affair, so much so that the young farm boy constantly kept an eye out for money-making opportunities to supplement meager income.
William Hirth’s tireless evangelizing included pamphlets. He printed and distributed them by the thousands. Heinkel latched onto one early, read it, kept it and chewed on the idea. He made a mental note to attend one of Hirth’s frequent speaking tours. In April of 1917, Heinkel cemented his future. Hirth would be speaking in Jeffriesburg, a few miles distant. Heinkel, farming in partnership with his father William, urged his father to attend as well.
At the meeting, Hirth extolled the benefits of cooperative marketing. Impressed and moved by Hirth’s words, both Heinkels joined the farm club movement on the spot. Heinkel would never forget that first meeting. Thrilling, he would recall in interviews. “You young fellows are going to have to fight this battle differently than your fathers fought it,” Hirth intoned to the group. Heinkel took that quote to heart, mentioning it time and again in interviews for almost 40 years.
Heinkel, just three years prior to meeting Hirth, had completed sixth grade (not much else was available to rural students who couldn’t reach town schools) and passed a teacher’s examination. But at age 16, he was ineligible to teach until 18. No matter. Teaching was a paltry living as well. In the interim, Heinkel redoubled his efforts at farming—and anything else that added to his income.
Fred Heinkel had three dairy cows, three stock cattle, 80 hens, 10 hogs and no sheep. He sold dairy and poultry products. His portion of the farm comprised 50 acres, 35 of them tillable. Years later, childhood friend Howard Kommer would write Heinkel a letter reminiscing about planting corn beside the creek. “I can still ‘see’ you plowing with the Fordson tractor and the ‘new’ type plow,” Kommer wrote. “That farm was always a very bright spot in the farming community and very productive.”
After hearing Hirth, Heinkel would immediately join the Pleasant Valley Farm Club. He traded at Catawissa. Over the course of the next few years, now aflame himself, Heinkel would first be elected secretary-treasurer of that farm club. He would then serve in the same role with the newly formed MFA livestock shipping association in nearby Robertsville and proceed to help organize the MFA Exchange at Catawissa in 1926. By 1931, he was elected president of the Franklin County Farmers Association, a position to which he was re-elected again and again.
The first recorded mention of Fred Heinkel in Hirth’s papers at the Western Historical Manuscript Collection at the University of Missouri is a 1929 letter to William Ogles of Catawissa to whom Heinkel had sold a subscription to The Missouri Farmer. He was also signing farmers to MFA’s producers contract. Later that same year, Heinkel took out an automobile insurance policy from Hirth’s salesman on a “new Tudor Model ‘A’ Ford.” The year’s premium for fire, theft, personal injury, property damage and deductible collision? $36.27. Hirth also sold insurance to supplement his income.
In that same letter (in a display of his industriousness), Heinkel asked for “the privilege of selling some of your insurance in Franklin and St. Louis counties.” Not the exclusive right, Heinkel maintained, “just for the privilege of doing what business I may, in a spare time way, or as I meet up with people on other business.” He also bought a couple of gilts from Hirth’s purebred livestock farm.
By 1933, Hirth (through field man C.L. Cuno) was pressing others in MFA to convince the young Heinkel to serve as a county judge because the elected judge had died immediately after being elected. Heinkel, at the time, was a Republican in a county with 2,000 more Republicans than Democrats. When the nomination fell through (even though as local MFA leaders would write “he is beyond question the most able man in the county”), Heinkel did run for state representative. And lost. But his stock rose in MFA.
Hirth smelled talent and took to sending Heinkel position papers and asking for the young farmer’s opinion. “I enclose for your confidential information copy of a letter which I have written to Secretary Wallace [U.S. Secretary of Agriculture], and concerning which I will be glad to have your frank opinion,” wrote Hirth in one 1934 letter. Heinkel’s opinions must have been sound.
By 1936, Heinkel was on the statewide ballot to serve as vice president with MFA President Hirth. Hirth took the 39-year-old farmer under his wing, introducing him to powerful people, explaining his objectives and outlining his plans for the future of MFA. Four years later, when Hirth died, Heinkel would, in his words, “Walk out of the corn rows and into the board room.”
From Chapter 5:
By the mid-40s, MFA and President Heinkel saw the value in interregional cooperatives (owned by two or more regional cooperatives like MFA). MFA invested in Central Farmers Fertilizer Company, putting $100,000 toward capital stock for purchase of phosphate deposits. It was a long-term, strategic alliance that would pay huge dividends over the years.
Aside from this investment in an interregional cooperative fertilizer supplier, MFA formed a research department to perform business analysis on opportunities for the cooperative to expand.
The creation of MFA’s new research department would pay dividends throughout the 40s and 50s. Heinkel, familiar with research staffs at the beck and call of congressmen and senators, saw immediate possibilities for MFA. “Before we determine where and when we are to establish a new cooperative,” he wrote in The Missouri Farmer, “Dr. Haag [head of the new research department] will make a survey of the situation with a view to taking as much risk out of the venture as possible. In years gone by we have depended a bit too much on collective judgment and not enough on facts when establishing new cooperatives. …[M]istakes have been made in the past and might be made in the future if we are not exceedingly careful. In any event we shall all be better off if we eliminate all the doubts we can.”
Simultaneously, Dr. Herman Haag was researching the potential for large-scale distribution of fertilizer. Haag, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri, had graduated from the university with the highest grades ever in the School of Agriculture. He earned his doctorate at Cornell. Haag brought a boundless work ethic and astounding practicality to his job. His reports pointed out fiscally sound opportunities over the years he was at MFA. Heinkel would push for action on many. The Mexico soybean processing facility purchase came about because Haag’s market research convinced Heinkel of its practicality. Haag’s research immediately led him to lend his support to Heinkel’s idea of founding an MFA insurance company. And now plant foods were in the crosshairs.
Fred Heinkel and Herman Haag spoke as one on plant foods. Almost from the moment he ascended to the presidency, Heinkel had watched astounding increases in fertilizer use. In Missouri in 1941, farmers applied about 60,000 tons of fertilizer. By 1952, tonnage reached 800,000 tons—and would keep increasing. Because of Heinkel and Haag, MFA drove much of that demand.
At war’s end, munitions plants easily converted from war production to domestic fertilizer production. Low-analysis, bagged fertilizer hit the market with big impact. At Heinkel and Haag’s insistence, MFA focused on high-analysis. The advantage? Low unit cost and lesser weights to handle. Using Haag’s research, Heinkel pushed for MFA-owned facilities.
Haag predicted Missouri-farmer use of more than 200,000 tons by 1946. According to Young’s book, Haag conservatively estimated MFA could produce 25,000 tons of fertilizer a year by expending $140,000 and tying up $110,000 in working capital. By 1948, Heinkel’s vision became reality. An MFA plant in Springfield churned out 8-24-8, 4-24-12 and 0-20-20, the highest analysis fertilizer ever sold in the state. Exceeding expectations, the plant manufactured and sold 40,000 tons in its first full year of operation.
By April of 1949, MFA’s newly created plant foods division shipped from yet another facility, this one at Maryland Heights, a former munitions plant on the outskirts of St. Louis. Maryland Heights added 50,000 tons to MFA’s production. The University of Missouri was on board with a complementary soil-test program through Extension. MFA managers asked farmers: “Why should you buy two tons of 4-12-4 when one ton of 8-24-8 will do the job?”
By summer of 1949, MFA had four full-time representatives pushing nothing but plant foods. They called on exchanges and lobbied managers on potential. Not all farmers were on board immediately. Many saw commercial plant foods as too much additional cost. But many more signed on enthusiastically—and dramatically increased crop production. More than 30 MFA exchanges moved product. Within five years, MFA would lead the state in construction of bulk plants to ease distribution bottlenecks.
By 1950, MFA installed the first anhydrous ammonia tank, probably the first in the state. Demand soared. By 1955, MFA had positioned 26 tanks and ramped up direct application. Simultaneously, MFA began its famous corn yield contest, with a primary purpose of promoting soil testing and stimulating proper use of fertilizer, new corn varieties and better crop management practices. In 1951 MFA plant foods began to offer soil-testing bags, soil samplers and instructions at all exchanges.
Maryland Heights, locked onto Heinkel’s vision, began production of 12-12-12 and began granulating pellets that stored well and did not lodge in spreaders. Between 1947 and 1951, MFA was just shy of doubling production and sales.
By 1953, MFA completed yet another facility, this one in Joplin. Joplin produced even higher analysis: 12-36-19, 14-14-14, 14-28-14 and others. By 1954, the first MFA bulk fertilizer plant opened at Albany. Two weeks later, Slater opened another. Before the next year ended, 10 MFA bulk plants were situated at strategic locations: Slater, Albany, Centralia, Gallatin, El Dorado Springs, Lockwood, Union, Butler, Rolla and California.
Jim Dissler, who for decades would deal with all aspects of fertilizing crops, hired on with MFA’s plant foods division in 1955 at the height of the boom.
He supervised much of the bulk-plant construction and oversaw many of the equipment upgrades. MFA even patented its own blender called the Newcomer (after the Newcomer Farm Club). Several still exist. Plant foods, which had initially begun shipping in 112-pound bags, moved to 80 and finally 50. Much of the plant foods was mixed with Aldrin for bug control.
Bulk plants were simple affairs with one-ton mixers. Trucks would back in; fertilizer would fall from overhead bins. MFA pushed hard for soil tests; MFA could mix almost any analysis farmers requested. Bulk plant office fixtures were No. 2 pencils, 10-key adding machines with hand cranks, and sometimes a desk and chair. Period. “There weren’t five bulk plants in the state, when we started building them,” Dissler said. Many of the plants featured plant foods in bins, many in bulk.
Much of the fertilizer production at large was anhydrous, sulfuric acid and rock phosphate to create ammoniated phosphate fertilizer. Springfield used a nitrogen solution and phosphoric acid to make a slurry. Potash would then be added to coat the granules. Each granule was complete: N, P and K.
Despite wide farmer acceptance of these products, one lagged behind: potash on alfalfa. Dissler came up with a scheme. He mapped out the biggest and best alfalfa producers in an area, loaded up a truck, and, unasked and uninvited, made a pass in each field in the shape of an MFA manager’s initials. Of course, farmers noticed the initial—a foot taller than surrounding alfalfa and a far deeper green. Sales would skyrocket.
At the 1946 convention, Heinkel announced 100,000-plus members. The earned-membership plan was paying off in spades.
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