Fairfield Ledger

Mt. Pleasant News   Wash Journal
Neighbors Growing Together | Aug 20, 2018
Salute to Corn Growers

A Day in the Life at Heartland Co-op

By Vicki Tillis, Ledger lifestyles editor | Feb 09, 2018
Source: PHOTO COURTESY OF BRITTNEY TILLER A panel of people working in agriculture addresses Fairfield High School students Monday at Heartland Co-op. The panelists are, from left, Dee Sandquist, a Jefferson County supervisor and farmer; John Sandbothe of Jefferson County Farm Bureau; Jason Steele, an area resources soil scientist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service; Rebecca Vittetoe, an Iowa State University Extension and Outreach field agronomist; and Woody Orne from Legacy Ag Solutions.

A handful of Fairfield High School students spent Monday morning during their day off from school learning about agriculture during a Fairfield WORKS! program at Heartland Co-op.

The students learned about and toured the facility, heard from a panel of people in the agriculture sector, and wrapped up with a free lunch provided by Jefferson County Farm Bureau.

Charlie White, manager of Heartland Co-op’s Fairfield location, explained the original Heartland Co-op formed in 1987 with a merger of three cooperatives in Panora, Dallas Center, Minburn and Granger. Over the years, Heartland merged with several more cooperatives and has grown to be one of the largest farmer-owned grain companies in the United States. The co-op, which has about 75 locations across Iowa, still is growing and is now looking at out-of-state sites.

According to White, there were once hundreds of co-ops across Iowa, but now there are less than 30.


How a co-op works

In a co-op, farmers invest their money to have grain storage, marketing tools and other services. They do business with the co-op to realize the gains.

Heartland mainly deals with grain, but it also deals with agronomy, petroleum and feed.

“We want to be a farmer’s partner the whole way through the process,” pointed out White.

White came to Heartland’s Fairfield site in July 2015. He oversaw the final construction work, opened the co-op and has run it since then.

Heartland wanted to build a facility in southeast Iowa to expand its territory and ownership. The 160-acre spot east of Fairfield on Nutmeg Avenue was chosen because of its good location along both Highway 34 and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Rail Line.

White said Burlington Northern has a nearby high-speed crossover. A crossover is a pair of switches that connects two parallel rail tracks that allow a train on one track to cross over to the other. Because of the crossover, White said trains are able to travel east or west when they leave the Heartland facility.

“Market access was a big one,” said White. “Access to the Burlington Northern railway is something we didn’t have before. With the BN, we can ship more, further and cheaper … to California, Texas, Mexico, Kentucky, Georgia, the Carolinas.”

A BNSF train pulls onto the facility’s nearly 2-mile long rail line a few times a week.

“The train crew hops out and our guys hop in,” said White. “All employees take training and know how to drive the train.”

Monday, Jerry Nelson was driving the locomotive, driving it forward, with stops every 30 feet so that corn could be loaded into an empty car. The locomotive was pulling 113 cars, and White expected to load 108 of them with about 450,000 bushels of corn.

White added that the train crew is met by a BNSF van. Sometimes they are taken to stay at a local hotel to wait, and at other times, they are taken on to Eddyville where they switch to another train.

As the grain is loaded, White said his crew monitors its grade because the buyer is expecting a certain grade to be delivered.


Grading corn

USDA guidelines state that U.S. No. 1 yellow corn must have less than 3 percent damage, and less than 5 percentage for No. 2. If a mixture of corn loaded in a car has more damage than allowed, it might have to be offloaded, mixed back in with the stored corn and then reloaded into the car.

“We try to maximize grades and stay in the boundaries,” said White.

If the crew can load the train within a set number of hours, it receives a bonus from BN. If they take too long, the co-op has to pay BN for “holding up its train,” said White, adding that it usually takes 10 to 15 hours to load a train, but it varies depending upon the quality of the grain, equipment failures and other issues.

Heartland has eight steel grain storage bins on the site that hold 425,000 bushels of grain each. The 150-foot-tall concrete bin holds slightly less than 1 million bushels of grain. The concrete bin also houses the dump pits and the elevator to move the grains to the silos.

“It is used more for loading and unloading because it is more stable than the metal bins,” said White.

According to White, Heartland Co-op had just under $1 billion sales last year and expects a whole $1 billion this year.

“As a cooperative owned by the farmers that do business with us, as we enjoy, they also enjoy a part of those returns,” said White.

Jefferson County is benefiting from having the co-op located here because of the property taxes it pays. According to the Jefferson County Assessor’s website, of the three properties combined that Heartland owns in the county, it is bringing in a whopping $337,860 in property taxes. The grain elevator was assessed at more than $14 million. Heartland also purchased two other properties — a house on the north edge of the plant, valued at $75,000, and a parcel of land assessed at $21,000.

After watching the crew load corn into a train car, the group of students listened to a panel of area people working in the ag field: Dee Sandquist, a Jefferson County supervisor and farmer; John Sandbothe of Jefferson County Farm Bureau; Jason Steele, an area resources soil scientist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service; Rebecca Vittetoe, an Iowa State University Extension and Outreach field; and Woody Orne from Legacy Ag Solutions.

All five of the panelists said their day-to-day work depends upon what the season is.

“Winter is the busiest for a field agronomist,” said Vittetoe. “It’s the time of year when farmers have the time to attend meetings and learn about advances in ag.”

They also agreed that it is the people and the challenges that they enjoy most about their jobs.

“I love … educating someone about ag,” said Sandbothe.

As far as job skills, “A farming background helps,” said Steele. “But if you don’t have it, you can learn it. Find a partner to teach you.”

Vittetoe told the students not to forget their soft skills, like communications and being a team player.

As for the future of agriculture, “The job description for a farmer is going to change,” said Sandbothe.

Orne said technology will become more important and more readily available and affordable for family farms as well as corporate farms.

Sandquist predicts there will be more opportunities for organic, specialty crops, using cover crops to improve soil health, and aquaculture.

The students’ visit to Heartland Co-op was part of a series called Fairfield WORKS!, a program started by the Fairfield Area Chamber of Commerce last spring to showcase career opportunities available in the Fairfield area to local high school students.

In addition to showcasing careers and the “many pathways to prosperity,” the series gives students the opportunity to discuss life skills, such as personal finance, insurance, resume development and interview skills, which will help them succeed as adults.

The program is relevant to both students planning to obtain a college degree and those planning to directly enter the workforce after high school.

Fairfield WORKS! coordinator Brittney Tiller, from the chamber office, said the program has inspired a career fair on March 13 for FHS students. The students will be leaving school for a half day to visit businesses and spend the other half hearing from people aligned with their possible career choice.

Those interested in registering, receiving an email reminder for all upcoming Fairfield WORKS! events, or have questions about the program can email Tiller at events@fairfieldiowa.com.

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