Southern States Cooperative
In 1923, a group of 150 Virginia farmers came together to form what is now known as Southern States Cooperative (SSC). Originally operating as Virginia Seed Service, the cooperative grew to include feed distribution and sales of fertilizer, farm supplies and petroleum. Over the years the cooperative has expanded through organic growth, as well as strategic acquisitions, including retail locations previously operated by Farmers Cooperative Exchange (FCX) and Gold Kist in the south and wholesale operations for Agway dealers in the north.
Today, SSC is owned collectively by more than 200,000 farmers in the eastern United States. The cooperative serves customers of all sizes, from homeowners tending a garden to large commercial agricultural operations. Since 2008, the organization has been operating more than 1,200 retail locations in 23 states east of the Mississippi River.
A strong team
Tom Scribner, president and CEO, is a native of Columbus, Ohio, and has built a long tenure in business and technological development. Scribner’s previous positions include vice president of information systems at Countrymark Cooperatives in Indianapolis. When he first joined the team at SSC in 1998, he held the same position. He was named executive vice president and CMO in 2001, and after serving as interim CEO for a year, took on his current role full-time in 2003.
Scribner has guided the business through significant growth over the last decade and helped to build the cooperative’s advantageous marketbasket approach to products and services, creating a laser-like focus on the farm customers and tailored approach geared to the needs of each customer type.
“As an overall trend, farmers are getting either bigger or smaller,” says Scribner. “We have structured our cooperative to serve both types of farmers, who have different requirements when it comes to products and services.”
Scribner explains that in the cooperative’s agronomy division, the team manufactures its own fertilizer and offers a wide range of crop inputs. “Our agronomists and our field applicators are second to none; in fact, Tony Randolph, one of our applicators in North Carolina, was named North American Operator of the Year for 2013,” he continues.
Furthermore, the company’s feed division manufactures its own high-quality equine, pet and livestock feeds, as well as custom blends bulk feeds for large producers. “We offer our customers a full line of petroleum products, livestock handling equipment and products for the farmer, homeowner and garden enthusiast,” Scribner details. “Quite simply, we offer an unmatched level of expertise and the products to back it up. We are focused on providing our customers solutions for their specific needs.”
Working for Scribner is 30-year veteran Steve Patterson, vice president of marketing, communications and government affairs for SSC. “This is a massive cooperative,” Patterson explains. “We serve hundreds of thousands of customers from Maine to Florida and as far west as Kentucky. We set ourselves apart in this industry, because we know how to help people grow things, period.”
The cooperative stays ahead through research and development on top of premium customer service. SSC tests and adapts seed varieties to different regions, which has been ongoing since 1948. The cooperative is a member of the national seed-breeding research organization FFR, a group specializing in forage seed-breeding, owned by a number of cooperatives that has been around since 1960. The organization is also a member of CRF, a research group specializing in animal nutrition.
Scribner and Patterson are proud to note that the cooperative always has something new going on. “We are quick to keep up with the advent of new technologies, such as precision agriculture, seed and equipment technologies,” Patterson explains. “We formed a team back in the 1990s starting with the basic GPS programs and the initial foundation of the Internet, the Mosaic software program. Technology has taken a quantum leap since those days.”
Patterson goes on to explain the cooperative’s involvement with the Monsanto brand Roundup and Roundup Ready seed. “Roundup Ready technology for soybeans allowed one of the safest herbicides in the world to be applied to the fields of America,” he continues. “Seeing the benefits and gathering input from producers, we took a gamble and invested heavily in Roundup Ready seed stock in the early days. We were ahead of just about everyone in the country with testing and sampling techniques. This was an incredible development and was basically the catalyst that led to various technologies for greater yield efficiencies that we see today.”
Between the organization’s hundreds of locations, SSC employs approximately 3,400 people. Together, the strong and knowledgeable team has worked diligently to promote strategic growth. Faced with unique challenges in recent years, the cooperative has been able to maintain revenue and continues to grow. According to Scribner, between undesirable weather, volatile markets and changing regulations, it has not been an easy few years for the organization.
To counter that, SCC is active in policy reform. The cooperative is an active member of the National Council Farmers’ Cooperative, an organization that lobbies on behalf of the agricultural industry to improve opportunities and revenue for growers across the country. Furthermore, SCC maintains a board seat on the Agricultural Retailer’s Association (ARA).
“We are in Washington, D.C., legislating quite often and you’d be surprised how little the legislators know about agriculture,” Patterson elaborates. “Agriculture is a complex industry. At the core, our job is really to help farmers increase their yields and profits while maintaining an environmentally responsible approach.”
Going forward, the organization will continue to work from both ends of the market to help growers produce more, more efficiently. The challenges ahead are great; however, Scribner has a lot of faith in his team.
“Hands down, our people give me the greatest sense of pride about what I do here,” he explains. “We routinely celebrate 30-, 40- and even 50-year anniversaries with employees throughout our territory. Our associates love what they do, and they do it well. More importantly, our customers love our employees, and they come back time and again to buy from people they trust. That says a lot about our team.”
For the future, Patterson also sees good things ahead. “We have put together a new strategic plan and restructured the company to focus on our customers,” he details. “On the technology side, we are undergoing rapid expansion into precision agriculture. We have been in it for years and were really among the pioneers.” The company’s continued dedication to technology will come into play more and more as the world’s population grows.
“When you understand that the world’s population is exploding at a rate of nearly 200,000 people a day and that by the year 2050 we will need to double our current output of food worldwide,” adds Scribner, “I can’t help but be optimistic about our cooperative’s future. We will continue to work with growers and producers to increase their yields and develop better products and technologies for their farms to help them stay profitable. As an industry, we have an enormous challenge ahead of us, and I fully expect SSC to be at the forefront of agricultural suppliers helping farmers meet these challenges.”
SSC has an enormous footprint. The organization’s structure is designed to take into account the varying needs of specific geographic regions, allowing growers to have a knowledgeable local resource anywhere in the Eastern U.S. Serving produce growers, livestock operations and even fisheries, Southern States Cooperative is positioned to maintain a firm grasp of the industry that will ensure growers have the support required to maintain a healthy, profitable food supply.