Starke County Co-op

Helping farmers juggle market highs and lows in rural Indiana
Written by: 
Molly Shaw
Produced by: 
Dana Merk-Wynne

In Hamlet, Indiana, Starke County Co-op has been a standby source for local farmers and community members for more than 88 years. The 650-member cooperative offers an array of services and support, including grain storage, bulk fuel and LP petroleum delivery, crop input and agronomy solutions, customer fertilizer applications, GPS grid soil sampling and more.

The services and ongoing support offered by Starke County Co-op are designed to help small and medium-sized farmers compete in a commodity marketplace that is increasingly unpredictable.

Starke County Co-op formed in 1928 mainly as a petroleum source and has steadily moved into the feed business. “Our core business is grain,” says Virgil Brown, general manager of Starke County Co-op. “We serve about 650 members and we have just as many customers who aren’t members.”

Starke County Co-op

Based in Hamlet, Starke County Co-op has an LP/petroleum department adjacent to its main office and grain elevator. The cooperative purchased a branch in Brems, Indiana, in 1953 and immediately built a concrete grain elevator. In 1956, a dry bulk fertilizer building was constructed in Brems.

In 1963, Starke County Co-op began the construction of its main grain elevator in Hamlet, opening with a capacity of 300,000 bushels. Since then the business has expanded elevator storage capacity to more than 2.75 million bushels.

Virgil has seen the organization grow over the years. “I’ve been working here practically my whole life,” he says. “I started working at Brems while I was still in high school. I started at the bottom and worked my way up to general manager. I’ve been general manager for 22 years and with the co-op for 43 years in total. I wasn’t raised on a farm, but I’ve always had a desire to be in this business.”

Virgil enjoys that fact that every day at Starke County Co-op is the opportunity to solve a new problem. “The constant change we see in this business is unequalled; every year is different,” he says. “Customers always compare one year to a previous year. We use this as a way to help them remember what worked, what didn’t, and how to get better and also improve what we do. This is why I feel this business isn’t work. Solving these problems and using what we have learned is what I enjoy the most about doing this work.”

Longstanding customers and employees

Strong ties to customers and the ability to build close relationships have always attracted Virgil to the cooperative model. “We’re very customer friendly — a lot of the businesses we work with we have been working with for decades,” says Virgil. “Our members know we’re going to take care of them to the best of our ability.”

Virgil also ties Starke County Co-op’s success and ability to build longstanding relationship to a trusted team of tenured employees. “Our LP petroleum manager has been here since 1988 and our grain manager since 1994; our agronomy manager has been here since 1999. When you have good people it certainly makes the job easier,” he stresses.

Start-to-finish crop input solutions

Operating within a 50-mile radius of Hamlet, Starke County Co-op delivers custom-fit agronomy solutions and services that support individual operations. These core services include start-to-finish input solutions such as fertilizer sales, GPS-based soil testing, fertilizer recommendations based on soil tests, variable rate custom spreading, anhydrous ammonia tanks, seed sales, seed recommendation for precision planting, chemical sales and custom spraying. 

“One of our branches sits in the middle of the county and that’s where our core agronomy business is — we do a little bit of everything from grid soil sampling and precision ag to custom fertilizer applications, liquid and dry and anhydrous ammonia. Anything the customer needs for their operation,” says Virgil.

Last summer at Starke County Co-op’s Brems branch the company installed a fertilizer pit for rail cars and semi-trucks to unload. “This allows the product to get into the fertilizer building via conveyor,” says Virgil.

Grain marketing and education

Starke County Co-op supplies LP fuel to growers and nonproducer households in a tri-county area, carrying Countrymark diesel fuel, unleaded fuel, kerosene and propane tank filling, but grain storage is the largest sector of Starke County Co-op’s business.

“About eight years ago we added 1.6 million bushels of grain storage in Brems and 3.8 million in Hamlet, but things have slowed on the grain side and we stopped expanded here and focusing more on agronomy,” says Virgil. “As far as grain we’re just working on upgrading grain legs and doing replacements on equipment that’s been in operation for 30-plus years.”

Starke County Co-op has two grain originators in Hamlet and one in Brems who work with producers to market their grain. The company also has three grain semi-trucks that are used for farm pickup services. “We offer education to our growers by hosting marketing meetings with key industry speakers,” says Virgil.

Keeping pace

Virgil says Starke County Co-op’s greatest challenge is finding a balance in a volatile marketplace. “This is the greatest risk we contend with right now because of how quickly price swings one way or the other,” he says. “Today what determines the price swing is hard to pick out. Knowing what to do and when to do it is tough and how do you properly advise your customers. There’s a lot of risk on them and on us with this type of volatility.”

He says it tends to be a different price battle every day. “Because we’re so connected globally to all markets, one headline can explode and completely change up the price,” says Virgil. “There seems to be no set pattern; things go up and down on a whim of someone buying or selling.”

Not to mention overall yield in Indiana is down. “This year our county had the worst corn yield in Indiana, so it is going to be a struggle this year,” says Virgil.

Fortunately, things look brighter for next year. “Our customers have planted at a good pace with a lot of corn and beans in the ground already, which should roll into us having a decent year in 2017,” says Virgil.

Juggling the highs and lows of the community market means Starke County Co-op must be more responsive and attune to its customers’ needs. “We’re just doing our best to be better informed and listening to our customers about industry trends and how this shapes what we’re doing and how we can improve,” says Virgil. “We also have a duty to keep pace with new technology and try to be informed about the decisions they’re making ahead of time.”

Building on 88 years as a steadfast supporter of local farmers and community, Starke County Co-op is helping to lessen the effects of the commodity wave while improving its customers’ bottom line with highly responsive service. 

Strategic Partnership(s): 
Agro-Chem Inc.