Nebraska is home to nine of the United States' Top 100 agricultural cooperatives according to recently released USDA data. Located in the Golden Triangle in Aurora, Nebraska, Aurora Cooperative is one of these leading organizations. For more than 107 years, Aurora Cooperative has been a partner in the agricultural success of regional producers, delivering the high- quality products and services growers rely on every day. Expert agronomy, grain marketing solutions and storage, livestock nutrition, feed and fuel – Aurora Cooperative is the go-to source for all things farm support.
“Aurora Cooperative started more than a century ago in 1908,” shares Dawn Caldwell, who has been with the company since December 2000. “The cooperative started with five farmers in the Aurora area who wanted a better opportunity to market grain and purchase inputs and like any local cooperative, we began to grow from there.”
As Aurora Cooperative has evolved, the company has developed four core businesses, centered in service and support in terms of: agronomy, grain, livestock nutrition and fuel. “It’s about 50-50 in agronomy and grain in gross sales – the livestock nutrition and fuel side are smaller, but still important services for our farmer members,” says Caldwell.
Today, Aurora Cooperative is supported by just under 3,000 stockholders. “There are many farmers who have equity in the company as well; that number is upward of 16,000 and we now have approximately 600 employees companywide,” notes Caldwell.
New, strategic location
Over the course of its history Aurora Cooperative has grown by acquisition, merging with other local cooperatives. “We’ve now branched into eight states with 65 various locations – most recently Texas and Colorado,” says Caldwell. “The majority of business outside of Nebraska is all agronomy based.”
A little over a year and a half ago Aurora Cooperative settled into new headquarters in Aurora, located on the same campus as The Leadership Center. Owned and operated by the Nebraska Vocational Agricultural Foundation, The Leadership Center is used extensively by the Nebraska Future Farmers of America (FFA) for leadership training.
“The new building is over 41,000 square feet,” says Caldwell. “We moved from our first location for many reasons, one because it didn’t allow for the kind of collaboration and communication we need and two, due to our proximity to The Leadership Center, we’re able to closely integrate youth and agriculture, a core business value for Aurora Cooperative.”
On any given day, Aurora Cooperative employees are involved in FFA and 4H youth programs through The Leadership Center, whether it’s judging a contest or serving as panelists. “This is a great location that aligns with our business philosophy of connecting generations to agriculture,” says Caldwell. “Youth from all over the state come to use this facility for ag-related programs.”
The new facility is also offering Aurora Cooperative room to grow. “Right now we’re at about 65 employees at this location, but if we were to expand, we could accommodate up to 90 employees,” adds Caldwell.
Energy and feed
With a strong home base, the rest of Aurora Cooperative’s business facets are flourishing. The company’s energy division helps keep central Nebraska on the move – from diesel to power tractors to ethanol blends for flex-fuel pickup trucks, propane to heat homes to high-tech lubricants to keep farm equipment running right – Aurora Cooperative offers it all and on-farm delivery service.
“Our fuel stops have 24-hour fueling stations that are all truck friendly,” says Bill Gowen, division manager of energy and feed nutrition. “Drivers can fuel up from both sides of the truck; the goal is to make it super convenient for truckers hauling any kind of ag product.”
Along with energy services, livestock nutrition is another important facet of Aurora Cooperative’s business model. “We have a team of livestock specialists who are on the farm daily, working with producers,” says Caldwell. “We also consult with certified nutritionists to back any of our recommendations. We operate two feed mills – one manufacturing and one mixing mill and we can accommodate a wide territory.”
Navigating the grain market
Aurora Cooperative’s grain division keeps business moving for regional producers by quickly moving product to market and generating significant dividends. “Our grain origination team reaches out to farmers on a daily basis and this is an area we’ve really expanded in over the last two years,” says Caldwell. “We’re making a more concerted effort to reach out to farmers so they know their options and understand marketing solutions.”
Moving grain to market is only half of the role Aurora Cooperative’s grain division plays; the second half is managing the risk that comes with today’s future’s markets, especially with low commodity prices in the last year. “We’re working with a generation of farmers that have not experienced anything lower than $5 to $7 corn, and now they’re seeing they need to manage inputs and maximize crop marketing to remain successful and avoid a financial disaster,” explains Caldwell.
Infield agronomy service and support
As hands-on as Aurora Cooperative’s grain division is, the company’s strong agronomy side is even more so. “Our agronomy products are known for driving results and higher yields because they’re well-suited for specific regions,” explains Caldwell. “We start with soil testing, then seed and fertilizer and crop protection products such as herbicides, fungicides and micronutrients, and ultimately, the application of those products. We have well over 200 employees in our agronomy division performing crop advising services.”
Aurora Cooperative’s own Ready to Grow (R2G) products are developed through in-house testing and research and development, but mainly infield trials. “The most important aspect is working directly with the farmers in the field so we genuinely know a product will work for a farmer in their system,” says Caldwell.
“Our agronomy division is particularly strong in Variable Rate Technology [VRT],” says Kenton Schegg, vice president of Aurora Agronomy, who’s been with the company since 2003. “VRT matches dry fertilizer, grid and tissue samples to specific product lineups with specific issues to help us correct nutrients and target the right solution for the individual grower. Yield is the big focus for us. Helping producers become more profitable is key and the solutions vary across farms.”
A main goal for Aurora Cooperative is to connect older generations with more experience and knowledge to younger millennial-age farmers, new to agriculture. “This past winter we launched a program to build rapport between millennials that work here and the baby boomers,” shares Caldwell. “The goal is to help all generations appreciate one another’s skills and strengths, although priorities might be a bit different and there’s a different approach to tackling a project in age range. We also wanted our older employees to help mentor younger ones because there is a lot to gain from this experience.”
Aurora Cooperative formed a generational advisory committee, which has now been named A Team United. “This committee is a sounding board for the company, where multigenerational employees can discuss internal operations and means by which we can improve,” says Caldwell. “It’s a constant learning process and bringing everyone together helps coworkers to recognize talents and helps them mesh together.”
After all, a stronger, more unified team builds more success for Aurora Cooperative. Over its 107-year history the organization has seen its share of challenges – both internally and industry related. Fluctuations in commodity prices create for volatile markets and the availability of certain products such as fertilizer often hinders growth, but Aurora Cooperative has held fast to the fact that the cooperative model simply makes more sense for more parties involved.
“Over the last decade we’ve seen serious growth and in the last three months, we’ve had a major leadership transition,” adds Caldwell. “Chris Vincent, former chief operating officer, has stepped in as CEO, taking over George Hohwieler’s role.”
After years of admirable service as president and CEO, Hohwieler could no longer fill the role and the Aurora Cooperative board of directors decided to name him CEO Emeritus and promote Vincent. “I have a great team,” says Vincent. “All the positions have come from promoting individuals internally, so the amount of work invested into succession planning and preparation for this has paid off. Everyone has stepped up a notch, which I think is really unusual for that to happen in today’s marketplace. It shows the true strength of this company to be able to do that. A lot of good people work here.”
In terms of Vincent’s view of Aurora Cooperative’s leadership moving forward, he says, “It’s a very exciting time. We’re young managers here and we’ve got a lot of go in us and we love agriculture.”
“We’ll continue to stay very customer focused and very owner focused,” adds Vincent. “That will be something that continues to resonate as it has always been important to me.”
With vibrant new leadership and the agility to inspire positive change, Aurora Cooperative remains on the same course and that is to build lasting partnerships with producers, serving and supporting them in the ever-changing agricultural industry.