BTR Farmers Co-op
For more than 100 years, BTR Farmers Co-op has been serving producers throughout northeast North Dakota. Located in Leeds, North Dakota, BTR was founded in 1915 as Farmers Cooperative Association of Churchs Ferry.
When rising water levels at nearby Devils Lake started to encroach on farmland the 1990s, local cooperatives started looking to relocate their operations. This led to a merger between Leeds Farmers Elevator and Churchs Ferry Farmers Co-op in 1994_, as the later was forced to relocate after the lake quadrupled in size since 1993.
Leeds Farmers Elevator merged with Churchs Ferry Farmers Co-op and formed a new business that took its name from the three counties the cooperatives operated in: Benson, Towner and Ramsey, or BTR for short. The newly formed cooperative benefited from a federal relief program that saw the government buy out flooded property in the affected areas.
“Those monies went toward moving some of those structures from Churchs Ferry to Niles, and the construction of a new grain terminal,” says Randy Heck, grain merchandiser at BTR. While the merger has resulted in a stronger single entity, it has come at a price. “The rising water of Devils Lake has been good for BTR, but it has not been good for the growers,” says Heck.
A new niche in brewing
Today, BTR has grown into a full-service cooperative; complete with grain elevators and a full slate of agronomy services. A trusted local cooperative with deep ties in the community, BTR operates locations in both Leeds and Niles, North Dakota. With 22 employees and 250 member-growers, the cooperative typically logs $80 to $100 million in annual revenue.
With a storage capacity of more than 3.5 million bushels, BTR specializes in handling wheat, corn, soybeans, barley, durum and canola.
The cooperative sells its spring wheat to customers in the Pacific Northwest and Gulf Coast for export to foreign markets, but it is BTR’s barley crop that has been making waves as of late.
“We are a huge barley purchaser. We buy for maltsters, whether it’s Busch, Miller Coors or Corona. And we also sell to pearlers, where it goes into pet food,” Heck says.
BTR underwent a major infrastructure upgrade in 2012, adding a new dryer setup and annex, which increased its storage capacity by 25 percent. Now the cooperative is in the process of replacing its fertilizer plant, upgrading to a newer, more efficient system. “Hopefully that will be up and running by the spring of 2017,” says Heck.
Riding the rails
Corn has long been a mainstay at BTR, with the cooperative selling to exporters in the Pacific Northwest, feedlots in Texas and ethanol producers in Iowa. “We also send corn to Canada by truck,” says Heck.
While BTR will truck products when the need arises, Heck says the team typically opts for rail-based shipment for 75 to 80 percent of its orders. “It’s a lot more fun to load up 100 railcars in a day than 400 trucks all spread out,” he says.
Still, BTR is wary of developing too much of a dependence on rail as a shipping solution. That risk was brought to the forefront recently when myriad factors combined to see rail shipping costs increase by as much as 600 percent.
“It was the result of a perfect storm. They were doing track repairs, the oil industry was booming in the western part of the state and it was a horrible, harsh winter with a lot of snow,” Heck says. “Since then, track repairs have been made and it’s pretty much come back into line.”
Forecasting the future
Located in an agriculturally rich region, BTR is bound on all sides by larger competitors such as CHS Inc. and ADM as well as smaller, independent cooperatives. In an effort to distinguish itself from others in the market, BTR strives to offers its member-growers superior customer service.
“Sometimes we’re in the market and sometimes we’re not, but people still buy from people and we have great loyalty,” says Heck. “Still, at harvest time, it might still just depend on ‘Can you dump my truck? Do you have room?’”
A full line of agronomy services helps BTR to further distinguish itself from the competition. To that end, BTR offers a range of dry fertilizer, anhydrous and liquid fertilizer, seeds and a wealth of crop protection products, as well as custom fertilizer application.
The cooperative new fertilizer plant, slated for completion in February 2017, will help BTR achieve better margins on the sale of fertilizer products while giving it the technical capacity necessary to offer custom fertilizer solutions to all its customers. “We’re upgrading the capacity and speed of the outbound, so hopefully it’ll lead to some better buying opportunities,” Heck explains.
Looking toward the future, Heck sees the consolidation trend continuing. Given BTR’s size, the grain merchandiser doesn’t think this will affect the cooperative itself, though it will likely have an effect on smaller entities.
“There is still a place for midsized cooperatives like BTR, but many that are not rail shippers and only use trucks will be gone,” he says. “Still, maybe those smaller places will just turn into harvest elevators.”
Having survived not only industrywide consolidation, but also the loss of agriculture land, BTR Farmers Co-op has emerged from a period of difficulty to become one of northeastern North Dakota’s leading cooperatives.