Farmers Union Coop Association

Nebraska’s oldest cooperative is withstanding the test of time
Written by: 
Molly Shaw
Produced by: 
Dana MerkWynne

Nebraska has long been home to many farmers and their families. Through the 1920s and on, nearly anything a family needed to farm, ranch and fuel, garden or keep house in the rural state was available through some local store, known today at a cooperative. These no-frills warehouses, for the necessities preceded modern big-box stores. One of such historic organizations is Farmers Union Coop Association, a member-owned cooperative that’s the oldest in Nebraska and one of the longest running in the U.S.

“In September 2013 we celebrated our 125-year anniversary,” shares Randall Schwartz, general manager of Farmers Union. “Today, we have 440 members and three locations; Cedar Bluffs, Wahoo and Prague.”

At $35 million in annual sales spread across strong grain, feed, petroleum delivery, liquid and dry fertilizer, agronomy and more, the Farmers Union of today is a far cry from the original association dating as far back as 1888. “We formally incorporated in 1915, making Farmers Union the oldest co-op in the state,” tells Schwartz.

All together now

This also makes Farmers Union one of the first in the nation. Records show that local farmers in Cedar Bluffs decided to organize the co-op when they we’re finally fed up with the poor quality lumber being shipped in and the low price they were receiving for their grain. The Farmers’ Cooperative Association of Cedar Bluffs was formed under the Farmers Alliance group and its purpose was to increase the farmer’s income through the buying and selling of grain, livestock, lumber, coal, farm machinery and other farm products.

The first directors were E. Magher, Peter Ebse, O. S. Christian, Thomas Griffin and Erik Olsen. The first decade in existence was rough for Farmers Union and at one point; the directors considered liquidating the organization. But fortunately, they decided to give it one more go and now, more than a century later, it’s one of the most viable cooperatives in Nebraska.

The co-op was reorganized in 1915 and its name was changed to the Farmers Union Cooperative Association. The original capital stock was $35,000 and to carry out its purpose, the group decided in June 1916 to build its own store where agricultural and general merchandise products could be bought and sold.

Grain and gains

With every addition and acquisition, Farmers Union has expanded its offerings and ability to support its members. “We do a great deal of grain business, both handling and storage –about 80 percent of the operation is grain,” says Schwartz, who’s been the manager since 1993 and seen tremendous growth firsthand.

After growing up on his family farm, Schwartz got into the elevator business when he was a young man and has been in and around agriculture ever since. “When I got here, we had $3 million in sales,” he shares. “Now, we’re at about $40 million and we’re thrilled to be here, as a long standing member of this community.”

“I’m sure some didn’t think we’d still be here,” adds Schwartz. “The morale around here is great having just celebrated this anniversary.”

Now with 440 members and three locations, Farmers Union is as strong as it’s ever been. “In 1999 we added a brand new agronomy building and that’s taken off in the last decade,” tells Schwartz. “We have sprayers and spreaders and other applications to take care of our customers and now the biggest challenge is to just keep up with employee training in agronomy.”

Schwartz says the co-op is also adding more grain bins. “We started putting up bins in 2008, first in Wahoo then in Prague and in Cedar Bluffs in 2011,” he details. “We’ll keep putting up bins as long as they bring us the grain.”

As the region recovers from a record drought, Schwartz says it’s been a matter of keeping up with the demand for storage. “We need more bins because we’re running out of room to house the grain,” he says. “With the price of corn up and lower grain prices, every farmer I’ve talked to has had a high corn yield but is now storing grain, waiting for the price to improve.”

But even with the pressure on to meet storage demands, Schwartz says he doesn’t worry too much. “Today is today and the next day is the next,” he says as his motto. With a century under its belt, Farmers Union Coop Association is poised to handle whatever the industry throws its way.

Strategic Partnership(s): 
Commercial State Bank
Howalt McDowell