Farmers Cooperative Association
At the Farmers Cooperative Association in Ravenna, Nebraska, farmers often drop by just to chat and have a cup of coffee, not buy anything.
“We don’t expect anything from them when they come in,” says Pamela Treffer, general manager for the coop, “but we know that they’ll keep buying fuel and fertilizer from us.”
Treffer has been working at the heart of Ravenna’s farming community for over 26 years. She started as a part-time office employee before being promoted to office manager and, eventually, president and general manager. Treffer was hired to the role by the seven member board of directors that, despite its importance to the coop, is really at the service of the farmers, Treffer says.
She is aware of the commitment to farmers and community that now rests on her shoulders. The coop she runs has built close relationships with its more than 2,000 patrons over the past 80 years.
More than just a business
On the surface, the coop exists to supply farmers with good deals on fertilizer, fuel oil, propane, seeds and crop protection products. However, it also offers useful services such as applying fertilizer and crop protection to fields and conducting soil tests for farmers before they plant.
The coop is made up of a convenience store, fertilizer plant, propane plant, fuel and oil station and a farming equipment servicing station that offers on-site tire repairs for vehicles and machines.
However, the key to the coop’s success isn’t what it sells, or racking up billable hours. It’s providing the expertise, much of it given for free, on which farmers rely.
For instance, "if we have to send an agronomist to a farmer's field, we won't charge for the driving time or the service," says Treffer. That’s because "we need to keep that trust and keep that open relationship." Similarly, the coop will send repairmen at no charge to fix propane leaks. “That’s a service nobody else would offer,” she says.
The coop’s philosophy is that, "we sell [farmers] our items but not our expertise and help, and I don't know that we ever will."
Helping farmers and their community
The coop has always specialized in selling agronomy products and services because that’s what the local community needed back when it was founded in 1935. Now, over eight decades later, many members of the coop’s elected board are third generation farmers and coop patrons. Treffer says that many young farmers got their start in agriculture by “helping their grandfathers and dads in the corn fields when they needed extra help.”
In an industry with rising equipment costs and diminishing crop prices, Farmers Cooperative Association stands by its patrons with a strong patronage system. Farmers are annually reimbursed for a percentage of the products they’ve purchased from the coop, partially in cash and partially in stock options that are held until the farmer’s retirement at age 65.
Treffer says one of her main concerns as general manager is making sure the coop maintains this patronage system to support its farmers into old age.
To do this, Treffer says the coop will gladly limit its own spending on nonessential equipment. “We don’t have big, fancy new pickups or anything like that,” she says, “our focus is on offering equipment and technology to our patrons.”
Treffer’s concern for her farmers isn’t just a product of her job, but a result of her love for the community in Ravenna. She says the coop blends well with the tight-knit environment, contributing to local organizations like the Lions Club, Boy Scouts and Ball Association, as well as donating to local institutions like the library’s summer reading program. To encourage the next generation of farmers in Ravenna, the coop contributes to the local chapter of Future Farmers of America (FFA). To help out older generations, it donates food, clothing and office supplies to the local senior center.
In one instance, a farmer discovered he had lymphoma just as the planting season was beginning. The community organized a planting bee, where surrounding farmers donated time, labor and equipment to help the sick farmer finish his planting on-time. The coop contributes to planting bees by offering free seeds, free maintenance for on-site equipment and by having employees volunteer.
Hard work builds lasting relationships
Treffer says part of what allows the coop to stay in business while also being generous to the community is its dedicated employees. “Most of our employees have been here 10, 15, 20 years,” she says. “That says something about the company.”
When planting season comes around in the spring, Treffer says, “our agronomy department works from sun-up until sundown. They’re so devoted, they never ask for time off.” During the hot, dry summers, it becomes the bulk fuel department’s turn to work long hours delivering fuel to farmers’ irrigation systems.
Treffer herself has spent over two decades working through long days and late nights, all while raising three kids. “I remember taking receipts home with me and working on them after supper,” she says. Treffer says her passion for agriculture and her love of the coop in particular motivated her. “I never whined or complained about it because that’s what had to be done.” As the coop’s first ever female general manager, she’s glad to see that hard work pay off, not just for her own sake, but as a positive example for her kids and grandkids.
Though the work is hard, Treffer says she couldn’t ever imagine working anywhere else. “I was raised in agriculture and I’ve only worked in agriculture,” she says, “I’d probably be out of place if I had to go work in a mall or at a clothing store.”