Dunkerton Cooperative Elevator Inc.
Dunkerton Cooperative Elevator Inc. (DCE), an Iowa-based grain, feed and fertilizer operation, started out the same as others of its kind; however, unlike other cooperatives, DCE remains an independent operation even after 70 years in business. “DCE originated in 1944 when area farmers joined forces to try to control supply and prices of farm inputs,” reveals Harlyn Vander Linden, now general manager of DCE. “They hired a manager and started purchasing feed and grain. Today, we are still a single co-op. Unlike our competitors, who have 20 different locations, we haven’t merged and our members are proud of that. We remain one of the only single-location co-ops in the state.”
Based in Dunkerton, Iowa, DCE employs 35 individuals who serve approximately 450 members within a 50-mile radius. “We still buy and sell grain, but we also manufacture feed for livestock operations and we have a 12,000-ton wholesale fertilizer terminal,” reveals Vander Linden. “Our members use the fertilize terminal to fertilize their own farms and the rest is shipped by trucks to smaller retailers.”
Extending a Helping Hand and Building a Relationship
From grain to fertilizer and feed, Vander Linden, who has now been with DCE for more than 23 years, says it’s all about relationships for the small-scale operation. “Our customers feel like family,” he shares. “Staying smaller allows us to have more personal relationships. A customer can come in and talk to the people who make decisions. They can get answers without having to drive a long way or go through a lengthy list of people.”
It’s DCE’s customer service driven, longstanding employees that make it different from other area cooperatives. “I’ve been with DCE since 1991 and there are plenty of employees who have been here longer than me,” adds Vander Linden.
Now general manager, Vander Linden worked his way up through the ranks at DCE in order to understand the full ins-and-outs of the operation and how to more effectively run it. “I’ve been in the industry for a good 33 years,” he reveals. “I was raised on a farm and went to Iowa State University in 1980. I worked for three different cooperatives before DCE. I started out as a grain merchandiser for DCE, buying and selling grain for seven years before becoming general manager in 1997.”
Value-added Products and Service
Since Vander Linden assumed a leadership role, DCE has introduced a wealth of value-added products. “On the fertilizer side we’re using a nitrogen stabilizer known as Nutrisphere,” he reveals. “On the grain side, we’ve added a second scale so farmers don’t have to wait in line and it doubles our dumping capacity.”
DCE continues to offer cash sales, forward contracting, warehouse receipt storage and grain banks for feed, as well as price-later contracts, deferred payment contracts, extending price and basis contracts, meeting the needs of any farmer, on any budget. The cooperative is also an introducing broker for FCStone LLC, helping farmers manage hedging programs.
“We also offer dry and liquid fertilizer sales and service, including 32 percent dry and liquid starters,” notes Vander Linden. DCE is capable of blanket and VRT custom applications and offers Avail Phosphorus fertilizer enhancer and the industry-standard Nutrisphere fertilizer manager.
“We offer GPS soil sampling, including conventional and grid sampling of 2.5 acres,” shares Vander Linden. “Both of these programs include a GPS boundary of the field and the points at which the samples were taken. We purchase from all major chemical companies, including generic chemical sales and services. We are available for custom applied chemicals or carry-outs.”
DCE provides crop scouting, performed by professional agronomists. “We carry a full line of seed, including Agrigold Latham and Stine seed corn, as well as Latham and Stine seed beans and alfalfa,” details Vander Linden.
Looking Up and Ahead
Over the past five years, DCE has undergone considerable expansion, from a new fertilizer plant to a modern grain dryer and grain scale. In December 2013, DCE purchased an additional 20 acres, expanding on the 25 acres the cooperative already owned. “When we purchased the first 25 acres we thought we would never fill that area, but it’s clear we’re going to need more space,” admits Vander Linden.
Amid expansion Vander Linden says the cooperative has to take the good and the bad, given a recovering market. “One of our biggest challenges is simply finding young labor,” he reveals. “It’s looking up though. We are finding that younger farmers are staying on the farm now as the agriculture industry picks up and is becoming more profitable.”
While Vander Linden says DCE usually attracts employees and customers through word-of-mouth, he says the cooperative had to get creative during the recession. “An ad in the paper doesn’t usually result in quality help,” he explains. “We’ve developed a relationship with the local community colleges to set up internships. We find that this generates people with more interest as opposed to someone off the street.”
He adds that government regulations and new health care laws have presented more recent challenges for DCE. “The government put in place more regulations regarding the handling of anhydrous ammonia,” says Vander Linden. “There were so many plant updates that needed to be done, so we decided to get out of that business about three years ago.”
Vander Linden says that is not the only avenue to steer clear of. “Health insurance is starting to get ugly, as well,” continues Vander Linden. “We’ve always contributed 75 percent of costs to our employees, but these new programs are costing us a lot more and we have to do it if others are doing it.”
Proud to be a Standalone
Despite a slew of challenges, DCE remains a member-owned, single cooperative, something the organization has maintained for a solid 70 years. “We’re going to celebrate our 70-year anniversary in 2014,” shares Vander Linden. “This is a milestone for us, because other co-ops have been bought up and we remain proudly independent. We don’t see a reason to merge as long as we can maintain profitability and the future looks good and strong for growth.”
DCE has further plans for expansion in summer 2014. “We’re going strong and we’ll be remodeling our feed mill this summer, which is getting close to 20 years old,” reveals Vander Linden. “We’re doing repairs to the legs and downspouts and we’ll eventually be able to manufacture feed faster. We have to keep pace because our volumes went from 50 tons of feed-per-day to 400 to 500 tons daily.”
Even after the better part of a century in business, DCE still stands for the same principle of farmers working hand-in-hand for mutual support and success. Dunkerton Cooperative Elevator Inc. remains one of the only independent cooperatives in Iowa and is proud to say so.