Farmers Cooperative Elevator - Ottosen, Iowa
Kevin Walker remembers being a fresh-faced young man—someone who was uncertain about his career and future. After graduating from college, he spent about 10 years wandering between odd jobs on farms and construction sites before he entered the world of cooperative elevators.
“This was in the 80s when the economy wasn’t good and jobs were tough to come up with. It looked like a good decision for me as far as securing my future,” Walker says.
After spending 20 years with a neighboring coop, just six miles down the road, Walker joined the Farmers Cooperative Elevator as General Manager in 2009.
Farmers Cooperative Elevator, located in Ottosen, Iowa, is one of a very few single-location co-ops left in the state. Only 50 years ago there were more than 700 small coops in Iowa; Walker estimates there are now less than 10.
Founded in 1920, the full service coop brings in revenue from selling seeds, crop protection products, crop nutrients, corn-based feed, as well as propane gas and refined fuels. It also services farmers by storing and selling grain, as well as sending agronomists out to offer consultations on planting as well as weed, insect and fungus control.
Now that he’s in a leadership position, Walker says he understands just how important it is to attract young, talented employees. Unfortunately, it’s also become much harder, as a declining population of young workers and a sluggish economy have caused young people to bounce from job to job or move to cities in search of a pay raise.
“Young people are more mobile now,” Walker says. “They have a little bit of the ‘grass is greener on the other side’ mentality.”
Bringing in new blood
In an area where the largest town within a 40 mile radius has only 5,500 people, there isn’t an overabundance of workers in the first place, making it all the more important to make them feel valued.
To attract new blood, the coop has created an incentive plan that encourages employees to take better care of equipment. When local sales indicate the employees are helping the coop be more profitable through being more careful with equipment, they get significant end-of-the-year bonuses.
For the last three years, employees have a received a bonus that’s been 11-13 percent of their annual wage.
Walker says the incentive program does wonders for employee morale and responsibility. He notices that employees are vigilant about not wasting gas by idling vehicles and application equipment, as well as being mindful of picking up and properly storing tools.
“A lot of the savings are based on taking care of equipment and keeping expenses as low as possible,” says Walker. “If you spill grain on the ground, pick it up because everything you leave lie, that’s part of our bottom line.”
Walker says, “Every once in a while I’ll hear guys saying to each other, ‘don’t leave that on the ground, pick it up. That’s my bonus you’re wasting.’”
In addition to handing out bonuses, the coop has recently started offering tuition-assistance to local students of colleges and trade schools. Students receive assistance by committing to working for the coop for a set amount of time.
“It’s working so far. I think it will continue to work so long as we can find the young people who are willing to stay here,” he says.
In many ways, Walker is looking for employees with a certain set of rural values in addition to a farming skillset. After nearly 30 years in the co-op world, he’s noticed a trend of younger people wanting to leave their rural communities for nearby cities like Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.
“You have to find someone who lives here and wants to stay here; someone who enjoys a small town values and way of life,” Walker says.
Working small, working locally
The coop’s strategy for attracting young talent is similar to its business model: whenever possible, keep things local. Walker says when he talks to older farmers who are considering renting out their land to sharecroppers, or even selling it to other farmers, he tells them, “sell to the younger guys in the community. Don’t take the extra 10 bucks per acre to sell it to a big corporation.”
Of its 590 class A members—actively farming landowners, or landowners renting to sharecroppers—the majority own farms on 800 to 2,000 acres of land, which is considered very small.
While some coops try to recruit larger farms to boost revenue, Walker says he has deliberately chosen to work with the smaller guys. Beyond just supporting his community, Walker values the consistency afforded by working with many smaller farmers rather than relying on fewer, larger ones.
“We don’t go after the really big customers. If you have one huge customer and you lose them, you’re in trouble. If you lose one of many small customers, it hurts but it’s not as big of an impact.”
He says focusing on local community and local business has kept Farmers Cooperative Elevator in business for nearly 100 years, even as thousands of other coops across the U.S. have folded. More than anything, Walker wants to see the legacy of family farming continue. “What we’re aiming for is to have all of this land handed down to farmers who live in the area,” he says.