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Keri Jacobs joins Mizzou in endowed position that supports industry outreach, education

FARMER-OWNED COOPERATIVES in the Show-Me State and beyond have a new resource for education and training with the recent hiring of Dr. Keri Jacobs as the MFA Agribusiness Chair in the University of Missouri’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.

The newly created position was endowed by MFA Incorporat­ed, MFA Oil Co. and the MFA Foundation to promote industry engagement and provide service and support to U.S. agricultur­al cooperatives.

In this role, Jacobs will also serve as the Graduate Institute of Cooperative Leadership (GICL) Distinguished Fellow, helping to direct the efforts of this global, research-based executive education center based at the university. GICL was created in 1971 to offer advanced learning programs focused on senior management and boards of directors from U.S. and internation­al cooperatives.

“I’m excited about this opportunity to have a positive influ­ence on cooperative successes,” Jacobs said. “My goal is to not only work with directors and managers but also to help educate non-member farmers and consumers about the cooperative model.”

Prior to joining Mizzou on Jan. 4, Jacobs served as associate professor and Extension economist at Iowa State University and the Iowa Institute for Cooperatives Endowed Economics Professor. She received a bachelor’s degree in economics and business administration from Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1996 and a Ph.D. in economics from North Carolina State University in Raleigh in 2010.

Jacobs grew up on a diversified farm in eastern Iowa, where her family raised row crops, hogs and cattle. She said her agri­cultural upbringing, combined with her experience in working with cooperatives, have prepared her well for her new role.

“I’m very pro-farmer,” Jacobs said. “I’m a farmer’s daugh­ter. Farmers’ granddaughter. I understand production ag, so I understand its challenges. Focusing on cooperatives keeps me connected to farmers at a different level. The more I learn about co-ops, the more I’m fascinated by the power of this business model.”

Admitting she will be “drinking from a fire hose” as she gets settled into the new job, Jacobs said she intends to spend her first few months in Missouri getting to know the agricultural community and the cooperatives that serve it.

“For me, the best way to learn is to see it, be in it,” Jacobs said. “I plan to make the rounds across the state, just introduc­ing myself, getting to know the people and learning as much as I can. I want stakeholders to understand that I will be a resource they can call on.”

MFA Incorporated, MFA Oil and the MFA Foundation first pledged funds to CAFNR for an agribusiness professorship in 2016. That position was filled by Joe Parcell, director of the university’s Division of Applied Social Sciences. Since then, the MFA Foundation has made ad­ditional investments to the endowment to create the MFA Chair position.

“Cooperatives will continue to play a vital role in both agriculture and the rural communities we do business in,” said Ernie Verslues, presi­dent and CEO of MFA Incorporated. “The MFA family is proud to establish the MFA Chair and fortunate to have someone the caliber of Keri fill that seat. Her knowledge and experience position her to further advance and strengthen cooperatives in Missouri as well as the rest of the country.”

Along with her position as MFA Chair in Agri­business, Jacobs will be working alongside GICL’s executive director, Dr. Mike Cook, in developing and conducting the center’s research-oriented programs. Now in its 50th year, GICL provides a forum for exchange of ideas and knowledge in the specialized field of producer-owned-and-controlled firms. Cook, who has led GICL since 1993, has indicated plans to retire in the near future, and Jacobs will be preparing to transition into that role.

“The programs GICL offers are very advanced, so there will be a learning curve for me,” Jacobs said. “At first, I plan to observe Dr. Cook and make connections, attending GICL board meetings and learning what the educational and research needs are. I’m looking forward to working with cooperatives in a way that is very much geared toward applied agricultural economics.”

Jacobs said she will also be intricately involved with the Missouri Institute of Coop­eratives, an association of local and regional co-ops representing all kinds of member-owned organizations.

“Initially, I’ll spend time focusing on agri­cultural economics, but I hope there will be opportunities with other types of cooperatives,” Jacobs said. “Telecommunications and electric cooperatives are an important part of the rural infrastructure, so they are certainly serving farmers and the agricultural system.”

As an industry resource, Jacobs said she can offer expertise in everything from finance and governance to strategic planning and director development. Plus, she brings an objective mindset to the table to help address the issues cooperative leaders face.

“Ultimately, I’ll count myself as a success if boards think to call me when they encounter challenges in navigating their roles,” Jacobs said. “I feel like I can help directors and managers see things from each other’s point of view. I can be that neutral person in the boardroom to offer a different perspective.”

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New project at MFA in Linn recycles agricultural plastic

Over the past few decades, plastic-wrapped hay bales have transitioned from cutting-edge to commonplace on farms throughout MFA territory. The practice reduces forage drying time, improves quality and protects the bale from weather damage.

Along with these advantages, however, comes a down­side. Proper disposal of the plastic waste is a major problem. An estimated 1 billion pounds of agri­cultural plastic is used every year in the U.S. alone, but very little is recycled. Most is landfilled, buried or burned.

Thanks to a pilot project at MFA Co-op Association in Linn, Mo., local farmers now have a more environmen­tally responsible solution. A new baler that com­presses agricultural plastic wrap was purchased and installed in mid-November, made possible by a $10,000 grant from the Mid-Missouri Solid Waste Management District (MMSWMD). Propo­nents of the program had observed a similar proj­ect under way with dairy producers in Wisconsin, but this is the first of its kind in Missouri.

“We’ve seen a good spark of interest since we got the baler up and running,” said Michael Rost, manager of the MFA Linn facility. “There’s a lot of wrapped hay in this area, and we have tons of plastic that’s been lying around on farms just because there’s no place to take it. There’s a good chance of it ending up littering our fields and waterways. This is a better option.”

Plastic is plentiful on the dairy farm of Alfred Brandt, who milks 140 Holsteins south of Linn. He wraps anywhere from 600 to 1,500 bales of haylage each year and covers his drive-over silage pile with plastic as well. 

With limited disposal options, he’s been burning all that waste plastic—until now. Brandt and his father, Don, delivered their first load to be recycled at MFA on Jan. 14. A month’s worth of plastic filled the back of their flatbed truck.

“There’s too much to put in a little dumpster, and nowhere else to recycle it,” Brandt said. “Anyone who feeds wrapped hay, no matter how good a job you do, the plastic tends to get every­where if you don’t take care of it. So just having a place where somebody can do some good with it, that’s a benefit.”

After two months of operation, MFA has collected about 5 tons of plastic to be recycled, but Rost says he expects that to in­crease as the word spreads. Once 40,000 pounds of compressed bales have been accumulated at the Linn location, Revolution Recycling of Little Rock, Ark., will send a truck to collect it. The recycled material will be turned into plastic pipe for irrigation, benefiting farmers on the back end. While the Arkansas com­pany will not pay MFA for the waste plastic, there will be no charge for picking it up.

“We won’t be making money on this project, but we’re happy to donate some labor to the cause and provide a base of oper­ations to make it happen,” Rost said. “After all, it’s a bene­fit to our farmers.”

Osage County Commissioner John Glavin, who rep­resents the county on the Mid-Missouri Solid Waste board, helped initiate the project in early 2019 along with Lelande Rehard, who was serving as the MMSWMD dis­trict manager at the time. Rost said the project was also sup­ported by the Osage County Extension and Farm Bureau.

“This is a great example of collaboration to reach a shared goal,” said retired Extension Engagement Specialist John Gulick when the grant was approved. “If successful, hopefully the project will be replicated in many agricultural areas of the state.”

Before bringing in their waste plastic to be baled, producers are asked to place it in collection bags provided by Revolution Recycling. This will help officials accurately estimate future costs of similar projects. These waste collection bags are avail­able at MFA in Linn.

However, Rost said that even if producers have not received those bags, MFA will accept any amount of agricultural plastic, even if it’s just a few bales worth.

Plastic bale wrap, silage/grain bags, silo covers, greenhouse film and drip tape are the primary recycling material that will be accepted. The cleaner the wrap, the more effective the pro­cess. Rost cautions farmers to make sure no net wrap or twine is mixed in with the plastic, or Revolution Recycling could cancel its participation.

“The key to making this work is having a place that farmers are already going,” Rost said. “They’ll be able to come here for feed or other supplies, and drop off their plastic at the same time. Someone will be here to help, so it should be a pain-free process.”

Rost is serving as project administrator and hopes that other locations will be identified to expand the recycling’s reach.

“It’s not limited to the Linn area. We’ll take plastic from any farmers who want to bring it here,” he said. “I know there will be some trial and error, but I think it’s definitely going to help the community.”

Producers who want to recycle agricultural plastic are asked to call ahead at 573-897-2157 to ensure MFA staff will be available to operate the baler. Rost requests that recycling only be delivered Monday through Friday because weekends are typically busier for the store.

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MFA leaders reinforce commitment to customers during virtual Annual Meeting

MFA INCORPORATED’S 2020 ANNUAL MEETING on Dec. 1 was like no other in its 106-year history, befitting a year that was filled with unprecedented challenges.

Instead of convening in Columbia the Tuesday after Thanksgiving as usual, MFA directors, delegates and employees were invited to view company updates and financial reports for fiscal year 2020 through an online platform. The virtual annual meeting con­sisted of pre-recorded messages from MFA Incorporated leaders and a special address from Missouri Director of Agriculture Chris Chinn.

With COVID-19 case counts on the rise throughout the trade territory, officials say the change in meeting format was made out of consideration for MFA employees, customers and their communities.

“This is a first for us. We’d rather meet in person,” Board Chairman Wayne Nichols said in welcoming the unseen audience. “But when we looked at restrictions on the number of people who could gather in our traditional setting—and when we considered the unknowns we faced going into winter—a non-centralized meeting was the surest course of action we could take.”

The pandemic was just another in a string of difficult situations that negatively affected MFA’s financial perfor­mance over the past two years. While consolidated sales reached $1.1 billion for fiscal year 2020, which ended Aug. 31, the overall result was a pre-tax loss of $15.4 million for 2020.

“Weather, trade issues, devaluation of inputs, low commodity prices and market disruptions from the coronavirus—none of these things have been favorable to the financial perfor­mance of MFA,” Nichols said. “As chair­man of the board, I want MFA members to know that we are closely tracking the economic fundamentals of your cooper­ative. While certain aspects of the past year were unavoidable, we know that loss years are not sustainable for the organi­zation.”

In her report to the membership, Chief Financial Officer Karen White pinpoint­ed three factors that contributed to MFA’s loss in 2020:

Plant food inventory devaluation: Fertilizer volumes were reduced in the spring of 2019 due to flooding and prevent-plant acres, creating a large carryover of inventories into fiscal 2020. Then, wet weather limited movement of that inventory throughout the fall and early spring.

Lower grain volumes: Flooding and prevented planting also led to signifi­cantly reduced production of corn and beans in 2019, which, in turn, meant fewer bushels sold at the elevator.

COVID-19: The pandemic caused uncertainty in the markets, resulting in commodity and livestock values reaching 15- to 20- year lows during the March-through- August timeframe. Many producers turned to lower-priced products, and fewer dollars were spent per acre or per animal.

Despite the loss, White pointed out that MFA’s balance sheet remains solid, and the cooperative has a much more favorable 2021 fiscal year budget, which includes $1.3 billion in sales, a 16% increase over 2020. This number reflects increases in both grain and crop input volumes. If this plan is achieved, MFA would realize a profit of $3.2 million.

“Although this is not acceptable long-term, it is a significant positive step from 2019 and 2020,” White said. “We need profits to sustain and strengthen our position. I believe in our team and have confidence in their ability to meet the 2021 plan.”

Reviewing financial performance by category, White reported that 67 million bushels of grain were sold in 2020, a slight increase from the previous year but well below the 82 million bushels sold in 2018.

“Predictions for fiscal 2021 are signifi­cantly higher,” White added. “Much of our trade territory is looking at a record or near-record harvest, and we anticipate reaching volumes experienced in 2017 and 2018.”

Agronomy sales—which include plant foods, seed and crop protection—were $501 million, an 11% decrease from fiscal 2019. Fertilizer tonnage was negatively affected by wet con­ditions in the fall of 2019 and spring of 2020, White said. Seed sales were also down, but crop protection sales reflected increases at both the retail and supply divisions.

Livestock supply sales were slightly higher than 2019, total­ing $152 million, but the increase was tied to how corn is now handled in customer feed mixes, White explained. This area includes feed, animal health and farm supply sales, and all cate­gories were flat to down slightly in sales for fiscal 2020.

Total margins and operating revenues were $189 million, a decrease of $12 million related to the plant food devaluation, reduced grain volume and lower earnings from joint ventures. Working capital was $75 million at fiscal year-end.

Total assets at the end of August were down $40 million to $478 million, due mainly to reduced plant food and crop protection inventories.

“We ended fiscal 2019 with a large carryover of inventories as a result of flooding and prevent-plant acres,” White said. “Due to the reduced demand in the spring of 2019, we weren’t able to move the product. But in 2020, we reduced this inventory.”

White also reported that MFA Incorporated has long-term debt of $81 million, including a term loan with CoBank and the MFA Bond Program. Total net worth decreased by approximately $9 million to $153 million.

White concluded her report by announcing that MFA will return to members 100% of its Domestic Production Activities Deduction (DPAD), estimated at $25 million for fiscal 2020. This deduction is available for members who sold grain to MFA.

CEO Ernie Verslues followed the financial report with a candid discussion of the challenges MFA and its farmers re­cently have faced and outlined steps the cooperative is taking to overcome the losses of the past two years. He said the 2021 budget includes improvements in all key sales areas of the company.

“The theme for fiscal 2021 and today’s meeting is ‘Adapt, Aim, Achieve,’” Verslues said. “2020 has been an almost year-long lesson in adapting because of COVID-19. The impact will min­imize at some point in the future, but there will always be the next event that forces us to adapt. MFA has taken aim on those actions that will drive improved profitability. We know growth is not a given. But together, our member-owners and the MFA team will achieve success.”

Going forward, Verslues said, MFA will continue to focus on customer relationships, striving to hire and develop the best talent in MFA’s trade area. After people, he added, the cooperative’s retail presence is one of its strongest advantages.

“We’ve got the best opportunity of anybody in the industry to influence decisions at the farm gate,” Ver­slues said. “That influence comes from our people, our value-added products and services, our facilities and our financial strength. We continually look for better ways to efficiently service your needs. In some cases, that is different than it has been in the past. It might be done with fewer facilities. The key is to strategically place all of these resources within our trade area.”

The CEO listed other actions to improve profitabil­ity, including competitive pricing that drives sales, adoption of technology that benefits producers and the environment, data management for improved decisions, im­proved member engagement and continued cost controls. All of these efforts, he pointed out, center around the company’s value proposition: Enhancing producer capability and profitability.

“Weather and outside forces will always impact our busi­ness,” Verslues said. “My goal, and the MFA team’s goal, is to minimize the impact to our bottom line. We must be resilient in the face of disruptions and interruptions to our business. The last two years have reduced the strength of our balance sheet— losses always do—but it’s still solid. Now, it’s time to turn the tide.”

In her recorded message to the MFA audience, Missouri Agriculture Director Chris Chinn discussed the challenges COVID-19 presented to the state’s farmers and rural families. From limited meat-processing capacity to milk disposal to pres­sure on rural broadband resources, the department was called upon to handle a number of pandemic-related issues in 2020, Chinn said.

“Even though we’ve had a lot of challenges with COVID-19, there are bright spots,” she said. “One example is our local meat processors. When Missourians went to the grocery store and saw empty shelves, they started reaching out to farmers and ranchers directly to buy their protein. As a result, by June 2020, we had doubled the amount of red meat under state inspection compared to 2019.”

In concluding the annual meeting presentations, Nichols shared an encouraging message for members.

“With recent structural changes and a realistic outlook on volume for the coming year, we believe a good turnaround is underway for this fiscal year,” Nichols said. “We have checks and balances in place, and we are supportive of MFA manage­ment and its employees. The coming year has great promise for all of us in agriculture.”

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Peanuts prove profitable for growers

If cotton is king, then the peanut is prince for a growing number of farmers in the Arkansas Delta and the Missouri Bootheel.

Once relegated mostly to southern states such as Georgia, where growers produce nearly half of the U.S. peanut crop, the popular legume has recently become an important cash crop on farms farther north. In fact, a record 37,000 acres of peanuts were planted in Arkansas in 2020, and 10,000 acres were grown in Missouri—enough to earn status as a primary peanut-producing state by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. Arkansas earned that designation in 2014.

“We’ve really seen peanut production explode in our area during the past several years,” said James Stricklin, MFA agronomy key account manager who covers several counties in southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas. “More and more farmers are including at least a small acreage in their crop mix, especially in rotation with cotton.”

Suitable soil, abundant irrigation and proximity to major peanut buyers have all contributed to the crop’s return to power in the region. Previ­ously, peanuts had been grown here for generations, but sharply declined and then disappeared by the early 1980s because growing conditions were considered more reliable farther south. About a decade ago, drought in peanut-producing states such as Texas, Georgia and Oklahoma forced peanut companies to find other places to grow. In 2010, peanuts were reintroduced in Arkansas, and acreage has been steadi­ly increasing ever since.

Further boosting the popularity of peanuts among Delta growers were declining cotton prices, which reached record highs in 2011 and then dropped dramatically over the next several years. Peanuts offered better promise of profitability, even with added expense of purchasing dedicated equipment.

“When they first came to our area, everybody kind of thought, ‘Man, that’s crazy. Peanuts, here?’” said Caleb Miller, who farms with his father, Gordon, and younger brother, Connor, near Paragould, Ark. “I didn’t think we had the right soil type or climate. But they started getting our attention when we saw a decline in profits from pretty much every other commodity. We had to diversify and try something we could actually make money on.”

Area offers prime production

Turns out that the Millers and neighboring farmers do, indeed, have suitable conditions for peanut production. Peanuts develop best in loose, sandy soil and thrive under irrigation—both of which are prev­alent in northeast Arkansas and the Missouri Bootheel. The legume is a 160- to 180-day crop, which usually isn’t a problem in the region.

Caleb, 27, who began farming full time after graduating from Arkansas State University in 2014, planted his first peanut crop in 2016, starting with 300 acres. Five seasons later, the Millers now grow 800 acres of peanuts among their 7,000 acres of row crops, most of which is cotton. The relatively small percentage of peanuts in the overall production belies their significance, Caleb said. For the past few years, peanut yields on the Miller farm have averaged 2.7 to 3.2 tons per acre. In mid-January, the USDA reported average peanut prices were nearly $425 per ton.

“It may not be as many acres, but peanuts are second on our priority list behind cotton,” he said. “I wish we’d done it sooner. Not only are they profitable, but they are also really good for rotating cotton and corn. It’s not rare at all to see 100 to 200 pounds more lint yield in cotton after a peanut crop.”

The bump in yield can be attributed to several factors, he said. As a legume, peanuts have the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil, adding fertility that will benefit the following crop. For cot­ton, nitrogen is the element required most often and in larger amounts than other plant nutrients.

In addition, peanuts help combat nematodes that feed on the roots of cotton plants. Peanuts don’t host these pesky parasites, so using the legume crop in rotation with cotton helps naturally lower nematode numbers in the field.

Cooperative opens opportunities

Despite such advantages, the region’s growth in peanut acre­age has been limited by lack of marketing infrastructure. Until recently, producers had a couple of local buying points but no nearby processors. The peanuts had to be shipped to shelling facilities hundreds of miles away in southeast Georgia or west Texas before coming right back to the peanut butter and candy bar plants that operate near where the crops had been grown in the first place.

That all changed in 2019 when Delta Peanut, a farmer-owned cooperative, was formed and began building a warehousing and shelling operation in Jonesboro, Ark. The $70 million facility opened in August 2020 and can handle nearly 200,000 tons of pea­nuts when running at maximum capacity.

The Millers are founding mem­bers of Delta Peanut, which is owned by some 70 farm families from Missouri, Arkansas and Loui­siana. Caleb says he believes bring­ing the production chain closer to the region’s growers will lead to even more expansion of the crop. The Smuck­ers-Jif peanut butter plant in Memphis, Tenn., the Skippy peanut butter plant in Little Rock, Ark., and the Planters peanut plant in Fort Smith, Ark., are all within easy distance of the shelling operation.

“It’s the first shelling plant in Arkansas and the closest for a lot of growers,” Caleb said. “It’s a big risk, but I have full faith that everything’s going to work out.”

Getting the shelling plant fully op­erational hasn’t been without growing pains, Caleb said, but neither has peanut production itself. The crop is extremely sensitive to weather, and it often turns cold in the area during harvest, which can hurt yields. If the inverted plants are sub­jected to rain, snow or ice, the peanuts can be damaged.

Exacerbating this concern is slow nature of harvest, which is a two-step process. First, an implement called an inverter lifts the peanuts from the soil, elevates the vines, turns them over and forms windrows, exposing the pods to the air for curing. When the inverted peanuts have dried to a moisture content of 18% to 24%, usually five to seven days after digging, a peanut combine separates the pods from the vines, discarding the plant material to the field and delivering the peanuts to an overhead basket.

The peanuts are conveyed into a wagon, which, when full, dumps the peanuts into a waiting tractor trailer bound for Delta Peanut’s plant, about 30 minutes away. There, the peanuts are sized, graded and shelled before being shipped to buyers.

“The peanuts we grow are a low-oleic variety, the type they use for peanut butter,” Caleb said. “The high-oleic peanuts grown in this area usually go to Mars for Peanut M&Ms and Snickers candy bars. That type of peanut has a longer shelf life.”

When they got into peanuts, the Millers had to invest in special harvesting equipment, which is unique to the crop, but planting is done with the same planter used for cotton. Caleb says he uses 38-inch rows for both crops. Peanuts are planted at the end of April or first of May, similar to cotton. 

And like harvest, peanut planting also takes place at a pains­taking pace.

“It’s a large seed, so you have to go slow or you’ll split them,” he explained. “And you don’t get many acres to a fill-up.”

Take heed of weeds, diseases

Besides speed, weeds also make peanut production challenging. Peanuts are a non-GMO crop, which limits over-the-top her­bicide options. The solution, Caleb said, is starting clean and using overlapping residuals. He also keeps a crew on standby to hand-rogue any escapes.

“Pigweed is tough in this area, and we’re very limited on what chemicals we can use,” Caleb said. “It’s critical to keep our peanuts clean because it’s getting harder and harder every year to keep our cotton clean. If you try to save a little money on chemicals and weeds go to seed, then it’s going to make it more difficult when you rotate to cotton.”

Properly timed fungicides are also key to a successful peanut crop, he adds. Caleb says he typically applies fungicides at 70, 90 and 110 days after planting to protect the crop from po­tentially devastating diseases such as leaf spot and white mold.

After harvest, Caleb said he does some light tillage and then drills a cover crop behind the peanuts, typically a mix of cereal rye, black oats and vetch. He’ll plant cotton into the standing green cover in the spring.

While adding peanuts to a row-crop operation can bring new sources of revenue, MFA agronomists warn it can also introduce new insects and diseases that weren’t problems before. Care­ful management and chemical stewardship are paramount to mitigating problems that could hinder future production.

“After the first year of peanut production, disease pressure will build, and the more you grow, the worse it will get,” said Jesse Surface, MFA southeast district agronomist. “Resistance can also become an issue. Growers need to be sure they use full rates of fungicides with multiple modes of action and be vigilant with their crop rotations.”

The Millers heed that advice, planting one peanut crop for every two cotton crops, and Caleb said he’s also considering adding corn into that rotation. It’s important to protect the integrity of the crop, the young producer said, because he and his family intend for pea­nuts to maintain a significant pres­ence in their production portfolio.

“Peanuts just make sense for us,” Caleb said. “If you look at it from an ecological side, you’re doing nothing but helping the soil. But also, it’s financial. You’ve got to do something to keep your operation profitable. As long as people stay disciplined in their crop rotation and fungicide applications, I think peanuts are here to stay.”

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