Ursa Farmers Cooperative
When Greenfield Elementary School in Ursa, Illinois, closed its doors in May 2015, the town with 626 residents lost not just a school, but a community hub, a place where people gathered and supported each other.
So when Ursa Farmers Cooperative, a member-owned cooperative with locations across Illinois and Missouri, decided to relocate its headquarters to the elementary school, making a portion of the school a community center, it was responding to “so many needs,” says Roger Hugenberg, general manager for Ursa.
“I could go into any of one of our nine locations, and see a collection tin trying to help someone after a fire or a bulletin notice with the picture of a sick child,” he says. “People are always trying to help those in their community, but sometimes to do it they need a place to assemble.”
Over a year, in addition to refitting the school for its offices, the 3,800 member co-op renovated the basketball court and cafeteria, relying on business partners such as CHS Inc., Land O’Lakes, CoBank and CGB to help purchase and donate appliances, countertops, computers and sports equipment.
“There is a saying that first you lose your school, then you lose your church, then you lose your community, but we have made sure that as a cooperative we’re actively maintaining this community,” Hugenberg says.
Staying relevant, staying personal
The Greenfield Elementary School was also a way for Ursa to expand its cramped headquarters.
Since the cooperative began in 1920, when a group of farmers banded together to buy their first grain elevator, Ursa has focused on discovering ways to make its members in Illinois, Missouri and southern Iowa relevant and profitable.
Over the next 73 years, it built and acquired six locations in Illinois, building more grain storage facilities and also offering custom seed conditioning and treatment, crop insurance, crop protection products, as well as trucking and grain vac services and customized marketing plans for growers of corn, soybeans, wheat and specialty crops.
When it was first founded, Ursa transported grain from Missouri to Illinois using the Canton Ferry, which, at the time, was the longest continuously operating ferry service on the Mississippi River.
In December 2012, the cooperative finished construction on its seventh location in Canton, Missouri, with its members across the river in mind, and, a year later, expanded its reach in the state even more with two additional facilities in Gregory Landing and Wayland.
Throughout the co-op’s expansion, Hugenberg says community input has been vital, and to this day, the co-op’s staff know their members on a first-name basis.
By 2015, Ursa desperately needed a larger headquarters. In the cramped 2,000-square-foot space, two to three employees often had to share the same office. These close quarters offered little privacy, which meant members were sometime forced to discuss confidential information tied to the operation of their farm, such as crop insurance, rental arrangements and their overall financial situation, with strangers only a desk away.
The Greenfield Elementary School, which was over 16,000-square-feet, gives plenty of breathing room, space for private conversations with clients, and even allows for further expansion. Just as importantly, says Hugenberg, the modern headquarters would be an important marketing tool for attracting and retaining new talent.
“There is a challenge with rural communities that we tend to encourage our best and brightest to go off and get an education, but then we don’t provide them any opportunities to come back home for,” he says.
Which is why the steps like moving into a shuttered school and opening a community center make so much sense, he says. The simple act of providing jobs allows money to circulate through the community, ultimately enhancing the town and its businesses.
Today, Ursa has 75 employees across its 10 locations, not including seasonal employees and Hugenberg believes that with the help of its new administrative headquarters, the cooperative and the community center will continue to grow.
“By retrofitting this building we had the opportunity to turn a bad situation, the closing of a school, a building that was meant to educate and nurture young minds, into something that will continue to serve its original purpose, which is the education of our patron owners, while also enhancing the community,” Hugenberg says.