First Cooperative Association
As the oldest-running cooperative in the country, Iowa-bred First Cooperative Association (FCA) reigns true to its name, building on a proud heritage of the cooperative model and advancing agriculture producers in northwest Iowa. This legacy is tied to the Farmers’ Cooperative Elevator of Marcus, tracing to one of the four cooperatives that merged to form what is now FCA in 1997.
“When you track the roots of FCA to the Marcus Elevator, we’re the oldest active ag cooperative in the U.S.,” tells Jim Carlson, general manager of 14 years at FCA. “That’s been verified by the USDA.”
Rallying around a collective cause
Recognized as the oldest continuously active cooperative elevator in the nation, the Marcus Elevator was incorporated Dec. 12, 1887; the culmination of 161 grain farmers who invested $20 apiece in the organization. The investment helped build a wooden elevator to handle wheat, oats, barley and flax grown in the area at the time.
“When the Marcus organization was formed in 1887, it became part of one of the fiercest commercial battles ever fought on American soil,” details FCA’s website. Companies surrounding the newly laid railroads carving through the area constructed elevators in Iowa villages in an attempt to increase their tonnage.
“These were often sold to one individual and the prices would be fixed at each of the line elevators,” outlines FCA. “The poor farmers had no competition for their grain and the price received was always unsatisfactory. It was not unusual for the line elevator operators to realize more than a 50 percent margin on grain. They would buy from the farmer at 40 cents per bushel and ship at 80 cents.”
As the oldest ag cooperative, Marcus Elevator formed to create a face for the farmers’ opposition to the unfair price gauging. “Others began in the following years, realizing the success of the Marcus Elevator, but it was the earliest one that achieved a permanent status,” tells Carlson.
Marcus Shipping Association was the first designation given to the original organization and the cooperative started with $410,000 in capital stock. Marcus, Iowa, was an ideal location, recognized as the second most important shipping point between Dubuque and Sioux City.
Together, the members of the young cooperative erected a wooden elevator to support grain, wheat, oat, barley and flax crops and thereafter the business was generally referred to as the Marcus Elevator. “By September 1896, the farmers’ elevator was thriving, taking in 60 loads of grain every workday during harvest,” cites FCA.
All together now
While a great deal has changed in the agricultural world since the turn of the century, the cooperative idea of working together toward a common goal remains as relevant as ever. “When FCA was formed, the directors and members of the cooperatives who came together had the foresight to see that an organization like FCA was needed to provide the financial resources, trained personnel and modern equipment that our clients need to succeed,” explains Carlson.
Today, more than 118 years later, based in Cherokee, Iowa, FCA stands behind the same principles of collective marketing, retail, agronomy support and an overall competitive advantage via strength in numbers.
“FCA came to life in 1997 when the Marcus Elevator merged with other cooperatives, including the Farmers’ Cooperative Association based in Marathon, Agland Coop in Alta, the Farmers’ Cooperative at Aurelia and Farmers Cooperative in Cleghorn,” recounts Carlson, who’s been in the industry for well over 40 years.
“We now have 2,500 members in northwest Iowa; we’re in 20 different communities and seven counties,” adds Carlson. This makes FCA No. 8 in regards to being the largest cooperative in Iowa and No. 73 in regards to being the largest in the country.
“We’re a major employer in the small, rural communities we touch,” adds Carlson. “FCA has 150 full-time and 40 part-time employees.”
Full-service grain marketing
FCA has grown by leaps and bounds since its inception, attracting more members and more capital every year. “We’ve grown from $100 million to more than $500 million in revenue in less than 15 years,” details Carlson.
Expanding in size and strength, FCA has also increased its offerings. “We’re a full-service marketing firm for grain, corn and soybeans produced in this area, but FCA also offers a broad retail offering in terms of fuel, propane and feed, as well as agronomy products,” shares Carlson. “We’re truly a full-service cooperative.”
FCA understands grain is the lifeblood of agriculture in northwest Iowa. To support this major market, FCA provides a wealth of grain solutions, from efficient storage facilities to effective marketing plans that drive profitability. The cooperative offers over 30 million bushels of grain-handling capacity throughout its trade territory.
“Our FCA location managers are the key to our grain origination, and they know that there’s no one-size-fits-all marketing plan,” explains Carlson. “They help our customers choose from the numerous hedging tools available and select flexible solutions that best meet their needs.”
FCA also invests millions of dollars every year to upgrade its grain-handling facilities. “From faster grain dumping capacity to additional grain storage, our goal is to save our members time, offer convenience, provide patronage payments and ensure the highest grain quality to end users,” adds Carlson.
Fuel and feed
From 2004 on, FCA switched its grain marketing model, from exports to local demand. “Before the ethanol industry emerged in northwest Iowa, 95 percent of FCA’s grain was shipped out of the area by rail,” explains Carlson. “Since 2008, a majority of our corn is sent to ethanol plants. In fact, we do business with seven ethanol plants in the area.”
Another strong sector for FCA is feed. In fact, FCA’s feed mills use approximately 6 million bushels of corn annually to produce feed for turkeys, beef cattle and hogs. FCA understands that no two livestock operations are identical and the cooperative’s feed specialists work closely with members to bring feed solutions and improved animal performance from large-scale livestock operations to raising show animals for a state fair.
From feed to fuel and animal production to energy products, FCA serves residential, farm and commercial clients with a wide range of fuel products and services, from liquid propane and refined fuels to premium diesel and lubricants. The cooperative has cardtrols located conveniently throughout the trade territory from Aurelia to Cleghorn, Galva to Marathon.
“Since energy is such a key part of our business, FCA has invested in state-of-the-art storage facilities to ensure that our customers have the energy products they need, when they need them,” adds Carlson.
Honing in on emerging ag-technologies
Another critical component of FCA’s service and support is the cooperative’s investment in precision ag-technologies. From seed traits to variable rates, technology is evolving quickly in agronomy.
“Precision ag isn’t anything new in the industry, but it continues to be refined,” explains Carlson. “That’s why we have to do our best to hone in on as much technology as we can to stay ahead.”
“We’ve done some soil mapping lately, where you take sample cores from all corners of the field and we run a test for nutrient content,” adds Carlson. “The result is a soil map that allows for more accurate and precise spread- and spray-based on the existing nutrient content.”
Carlson notes that the cooperative stays on top of emerging technology with ideas from suppliers and industry associations, such as the Iowa Agri-business Association and the Iowa Institute of Co-ops. “We learn a lot through association meetings and supplier relations,” says Carlson.
Looking ahead in an evolving landscape
In an industry where certain factors, particularly weather, are out of the farmers’ control, technology can help leverage greater success, because when it comes down to it, profit is what keeps FCA’s doors open. “Our key performance indicators are sales, growth and profit – you need profit to build facilities and to do repairs and return equity back to stakeholders,” states Carlson. “We try to run as lean as we can, because we know there’s going to be up and down years no matter what; you have to plan for it.”
“Ag has been evolving for years; we just do our best to stay in front of it and continue to grow,” he adds. Whether that’s through an acquisition or merging with another cooperative, Carlson says progress is essential. “We need to do that to stay competitive and bring in enough capital to do the projects we want and bring value to our members,” he continues.
With so many variables that can shrink profit and slow progress, FCA has been bringing area producers together for more than 17 years to generate some control through collective resources. This idea started with the Marcus Elevator in the late 1880s and extends into what is now First Cooperative Association.