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NEW Cooperative Inc.
Brent Bunte, general manager of Iowa-based NEW Cooperative Inc. (NEW), is a firm believer in the cooperative structure. After 30 years in the industry, Bunte has seen the benefits the system delivers firsthand. “The cooperative structure is so good for agriculture,” shares Bunte. “I really believe in cooperatives and what they’re trying to do because it’s the only structure anywhere where the owner is also the member. We’re not trying to satisfy stockholders, we’re trying to satisfy the needs of our customers, which are also the stockholders.”
Since he was hired in 1984 as grain manager, Bunte has worked to further the success of NEW’s mission. “I was raised on a farm and after college I started to work for cooperatives,” he recalls.
Once Bunte was in, he was hooked. “I was promoted to general manager in 1997 and I’ve been doing it ever since,” he reveals. “I still own a small farm with my brother and we grow a bit of corn and soybeans. It’s my way of staying connected to the farm.”
Roots that run deep
Bunte has been connected to the farm and to NEW for more than 30 years, a period in which the cooperative has flourished. Since 1973, when NEW was officially incorporated, the cooperative has expanded to 22 locations and some 3,000 members.
NEW has grain elevators and four feed mills all within an hour of Fort Dodge, Iowa. “Corn and soybeans are the main crops in this area,” shares Bunte. “Our members market their crops through the co-op and we support them with agronomy input needs.”
Although NEW was established 40 years ago, the cooperative’s roots date back to the early 20th century. “NEW is the result of mergers between several cooperatives,” explains Bunte. “In 1973, the cooperatives came together to form NEW, but these organizations far surpass the time NEW has been in business, dating back to the 1920s.”
Bunte says the long-term success of NEW and its predecessors can be attributed back to the basics of the cooperative structure. “It allows you to have a very long-term strategy,” he ensures. “The relationship a cooperative builds is going to endure for a long time because it is so beneficial.”
Business by and for real people
After more than 40 years, NEW remains a landmark in Fort Dodge, supporting the expanse of farm land and area producers with 300 employees, including 25 full-time agronomists. “Our people are very passionate about what they do,” reveals Bunte. “We work hard to maintain the small town, local feel in this company. A customer can go in and know they are going to get the same expertise and tools to help their operation run smoothly, no matter which location they do their business with.”
Bunte says it all comes back to people. “Our business is a lot like other non-agricultural based businesses because it’s still about people,” he compares. “We try to hire the best people we can and we have many long-term employees, but it’s getting harder all the time.”
In today’s mobile society, Bunte says the agricultural way of life is declining. “It’s not as normal for people to stay in the same place for their entire career like it was years ago,” he explains. “That creates a challenge for us because there are less people going into this field and a lot of competition for good people.”
Yet, NEW continues to capture a high market share thanks to its long-standing employees, state-of-the-art facilities and assets. “We know this area and know our member-farmers well and we continue to bring them the best value possible,” adds Bunte.
The member-owned cooperative adds value by marketing grain, providing storage services, financing, feed, fertilizer and seed services backed by a robust precision agriculture (precision-ag) department. “Our precision-ag arm has allowed us to expand our market share,” expands Bunte. “We’re a leader in this business. We have been doing it for 15 years as early adapters because we have people that are passionate about it. The level of technology in our industry has exploded in recent years and we continue to offer new products and services to help our producers be more efficient.”
Map it out for innovative, value-driven solutions
Indeed, farming technology has grown by leaps and bounds from the first fields NEW’s members planted in the early 1970s. “We spend time managing data from soil fertility to crop yields,” notes Bunte. NEW manages the flow of this information with the use of iPads and mobile applications. “Today, the level of communication and information sharing we have with our members is pretty amazing,” adds Bunte.
To keep pace with the changing face of agriculture, NEW has developed a precision-ag branch of the cooperative known as Midwest Agronomic Professional Services (MAPS). Producers are constantly seeking ways to improve the process of their operation in order to maximize outputs and returns on their investments. That’s where the MAPS hardware team and SOILMAP technology comes in.
As a full-service agronomic center, MAPS provides tools and products to help customers understand their respective fields like never before. “Our soil testing and mapping technologies allow our members to apply inputs with optimal precision,” explains Bunte. “All the services and solutions offered by MAPS are customized and tailored for each farmer’s individual needs, because no two operations are identical.”
The total precision package includes a soil test as a starting point for nutrient management. Obtaining quality soil cores is one of the most important steps in the SOILMAP program. MAPS ensures that producers get results as quickly as possible, testing for critical nutrients such as phosphorous, potassium, zinc, organic matter and buffer pH.
The data gathered from soil sampling is entered into the SOILMAP software to analyze, store and develop graphic images depicting levels and mapping of field details. The next step in the process is to develop site-specific nutrient recommendations based on the findings. Soil results help agronomists assist with commodity and hybrid selection, correct fertilizer applications and tillage practice.
NEW’s agronomists also use the information to advise wise investment decisions in precision farming tools. “We carry multiple brands of precision tools because we understand that every field and grower has individual needs,” adds Bunte.
Once the data are collected, recommendations are made and hardware is purchased, growers start to see positive changes in the bottom line, from fuel consumption to machine hours and labor and input costs, but for NEW and MAPS, it doesn’t end there.
“The most important piece of any agronomic tool is the most commonly overlooked by other companies: customer service,” explains Bunte. “Along with professional soil sampling, custom SOILMAP data analysis, data management resources, hardware products and efficient application options, our growers also receive top-of-the-line customer service and support.”
In addition to a vigorous precision-ag division, in an effort to further add value for its member-farmers, NEW has added pellet-feed production to its all-star lineup. “We’re in the process of building a feed mill with pellet-producing capabilities,” reveals Bunte. “In the past, we have just sold mash feed, but now we can create pellets for our hog producers. Construction commenced in winter 2014 and the plant is expected to be operational by fall 2014.”
Bunte goes on to note that approximately 40 percent of the cooperative’s total feed volume will go through the plant. “We’re doing it in response to producer demand because pellet feed increases growth efficiency and is easily digestible by animals,” he continues proudly. “It’s an expensive process to get in a position to do something like this because there are a range of up-front costs and the plant requires a massive amount of steam energy.”
Staying ahead in a competitive industry
Nonetheless, Bunte says it’s worth the costs and extra effort because it’s up to NEW to be one step ahead of customer demand at all times. “We continue to do what we do, but not necessarily in the same way all the time,” he explains. “We spend a lot of time trying to learn and anticipate what the customer is going to need, before they know they need it.”
According to Bunte that’s how NEW stays ahead in the competitive agriculture economy. “Our business is to help our customers plant, produce and be successful each year,” he adds. “We are centered in a highly competitive commodity industry so efficiency and excellent service is key. It’s a matter of can we grow fast enough to keep up with our member’s needs.”
Driven by the growth of the ethanol industry, demand for corn is at an all-time high and Bunte says agriculture has experienced a lot of success in the last five years. “Higher prices allow farmers to do well and when farmers do well, the co-op does well,” he states.
“Fortunately, NEW has a lot of long-standing customers,” adds Bunte. “That’s the nature of farming because the average farmer plants 40 or more crops in his lifetime. They’re in it for the long haul and so are we.”
At the end of the day, no matter the technology or elaborate production, the cooperative structure comes down to people. “It’s all about people,” ensures Bunte. “You have to have people with a desire to win and meet our grower’s needs and we’ve been blessed with that kind of team.”
After decades in the agricultural arena, Bunte continues to be a true believer in the benefits the cooperative business structure delivers. NEW Cooperative Inc. is a first-class example of how innovative solutions and customer commitment can drive the success of thousands trying to compete in a demanding industry.