Heartland Co-op: The heart of central Iowa’s grain growers

The heart of central Iowa’s grain growers
Written by: 
Molly Shaw
Produced by: 
Elizabeth Towne

Since the turn of the 20th century, Central Iowa farmers have come together to market their grain at a fair price and Des Moines-based Heartland Co-op (Heartland) has been a central part of making it all possible. Now with 5,800 Class-A members and 7,000 members in total, Heartland is one of the largest full-service cooperatives in the country.

“Grain is the biggest aspect of our business and it’s what we’re well-known for, but we also have a sizable agronomy business,” says Tom Hauschel, general manager and CEO of Heartland. “We’re actually about No. 11 in the nation in grain and No. 22 in the country in agronomy in terms of business units. Those numbers shift around a bit but we’re in the top 20 national companies in the two segments.”

Heartland is also a standby for seed, energy, feed and credit and financing. “We’re truly full-service,” says Hauschel. “The only thing we don’t have is our own processing plant.” The cooperative has grown to encompass a vast scope of services fueled by the addition of smaller operations around the state.

Strength in unity

Today, Heartland is a major player in the industry but it all started with the groundwork that began in the early 1900s and a history of mergers. “The original charter was established in 1911,” recounts Hauschel. “Since then, Heartland has gone through about 19 mergers, steadily growing in size and strength.”

The original Heartland was formed in 1987, combining three cooperatives with facilities in Panora, Dallas Center, Minburn and Granger, Iowa. In 1991, Booneville Cooperative Elevator Company, originally formed in 1949, joined Heartland and another the following year and so on.

According to Hauschel, the Heartland that exists now was formed in 1993, when the original Heartland forces combined with Alleman Cooperative Company, Michellville Cooperative and the facilities previously owned by Avon Grain Company at Carlisle and East 18th Street. Heartland continued to grow through the 1990s, adding agronomy facilities in Elkhart, Nevada and Redfield, purchased from Central Iowa Farm Service.

Heartland Co-op

Building for the bigger picture

The most recent merger took place Sept. 1, 2014, when United Western Co-op joined Heartland, adding locations in Moorhead, Dunlap, River Sioux, Mondamin, Woodbine, Modale and Missouri Valley. “We now stand at 71 locations spanning Iowa,” reveals Hauschel. “2007 was a big turning point when we joined Central Counties, which had 14 locations. This launched a major transition in our earnings and we were able to do much more for our members.”

As Hauschel says, the cooperative is no different from a corn plant: “you’re either growing or dying,” he says. “That’s the philosophy around here. We’ve had a lot of discussions about rapid growth and the pace of it all with our forefathers and the groups that came before us. The consensus is the marketplace will tell you when to grow so take advantage of every opportunity because there will be a lull –there have been for years at a time in our history. You have to generate new revenue streams or things will no longer be sustainable.”

In a very cyclical agricultural world, Hauschel says it’s all about delivering more for members. “Each merger breeds more market access and better service for them; that’s what it’s about,” he measures.

A trusted team

Today, Heartland has some 700 employees; 500 full-time and 200 part-time. Running it all takes a highly experienced upper management team. Hauschel, who’s been with Heartland for 10 years, started as the vice president of the cooperative’s grain arm: “I’ve been in the cooperative business for nearly 27 years,” he reveals.

Hauschel says one thing he’s learned in his career is the importance of good people. The kind of expansion Heartland has taken on wouldn’t be possible without a team as the backbone of the organization. “We have a lot of longevity in our staff,” he stresses. “Many people have been with us for 20 to 30 years and they know how to manage growth. Our employees do a tremendous job with mergers and they know how to educate and help new people learn about our systems and processes here. I give the accolades right to our staff –they’re the ones who handle the transitions.”

Hauschel adds Heartlands geography helps when it comes to attracting quality employees. Unlike most cooperatives, Heartland is uniquely positioned in the middle of a city, in the heart of West Des Moines.

“The co-op moved to the city in 1993,” tells Hauschel. “This is one thing that sets us apart because we don’t face the labor issues our counterparts sometimes do. There’s a lot of talent coming here because spouses can continue their careers in the city. These opportunities just don’t present themselves in more rural areas.”

In addition to the promise of more mergers, Heartland is adding centralized seed hubs for added distribution and to keep pace with an expanding seed business. “We’re also building a shuttle loader in Fairfield to allow for more train loading,” adds Hauschel.

With every merger, every expansion, Heartland Co-op seeks to improve services and market access for thousands of member-growers as one of the most influential cooperatives in the country.

Strategic Partnership(s): 
Agri-Business Insurance Services
Connection Employee Assistance Program
Cooperative Credit Company
Helena Chemical
Matt Parrott/Storey Kenworthy
Rosen's Inc.