Mid State Farmers Co-op
At his first job out of college with a private grain company in Southwest Kansas, Richard Harmon spoke with a customer every day who often told him the following: “Don’t get used to this weather. It’s not normal.”
Harmon says he can’t recall how many times he heard the man repeat this phrase before finally calling him out. The weather was different every day, so he didn’t know what the man meant by “not normal.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” the man said. “The weather’s never normal around here.”
Now, as the General Manager for Mid State Farmers Co-op in Rush Center, Kansas, Harmon knows all too well what the old-timer meant. Weather is unpredictable in his home state, making it hard for farmers to prosper.
Mid State Co-op, in its present form, was founded in 1999 after a series of local mergers, but Harmon says the co-op has been in Rush Center in various forms since the early 1900s. Between its six locations in Rush County, the full-service co-op deals primarily with wheat and milo, a corn alternative, as well as soybeans and corn. In addition to offering agronomy services and grain storage it sells fertilizer, crop protection chemicals, fuel and feed products.
Harmon says that even favorable weather can be a challenge in Kansas. This year the co-op had record wheat harvests in the summer and is expecting record harvests for corn and milo in the fall. The problem is that these thriving crops coincide with falling grain prices, so farmers haven’t been able to sell at their normal volume.
“It’s a saying that the American farmer can grow himself out of prosperity quicker than any other farmer in the world,” says Harmon.
Though Midstate Co-op ran out of space in its elevators, it was prepared and created impromptu “bunkers”—four-foot tall retaining walls that are covered and sealed with tarps. Harmon says bunker storage is not ideal because crops are essentially on the ground, but is much better than leaving the grain out in the open.
Harmon says he and his team “have been through their share of ups and downs” and knew to start building bunkers before the wheat harvest even began.
Finding the right help
Though the weather is unforgiving, Harmon says it’s manageable with seasoned employees. However, finding those employees is a challenge. Rush Center is a rural town, and co-op members must often drive up to 40 miles to reach shopping centers.
“It’s tough everywhere,” says Harmon. “In more populated areas you have more people, but they don’t have experience in agriculture.”
The co-op isn’t afraid to increase its pay rates to attract the right employees, Harmon says, and while ads in the paper have helped spread that message, he says good old-fashioned word of mouth is the best way to find quality people.
For Harmon, quality doesn’t just mean agriculture skills or familiarity with farming equipment, but the ability to speak with customers and understand their needs.
This was the case with his grain merchandiser (who is also the assistant general manager), who Harmon says is excellent at understanding the needs of customers—both those selling grain to the co-op and those buying it. Similarly, Harmon hired his current agronomy manager despite having little management experience because in addition to his agronomy knowledge and familiarity with the area, he cooperates and pitches in.
“You can find all three of us outside, cleaning grain bins,” Harmon says.
Stepping carefully, but profitably
One quality common to all co-op owners, employees and members in Rush County is caution. It’s a necessity in a region with inconsistent rain and fluctuating temperatures.
“We can’t rely on next year’s crop, so we’re more conservative about how we spend money,” Harmon says. “We probably won’t build grain bins and capital assets as quickly as some other places.”
When Harmon started as General Manager in 2005, he says he immediately saw the importance of moving ahead carefully. When he first met with the board of directors he was honest and told them it would take five or six years to get the co-op growing the way they wanted it to. That caution has paid off as the co-op has lost no money since 2005 and recently built new fertilizer storage facilities—all without going into deep debt.
Harmon’s private sector experience at an independent grain company has given him the business savvy to keep the co-op in the green, but he says his staff’s service-oriented approach has done most of the legwork.
One of his favorite parts about the job is the relaxed atmosphere. Harmon says the attitude around the co-op is to focus more on getting the work done rather than titles. That casual, tight knit environment extends to co-op members as well as employees.
“We’ll grill up some steaks and burgers outside the office once in awhile,” Harmon says. “And more than a customer or two will partake when passing through.”