HANLEY FALLS - This summer, the Farmers Cooperative Elevator Company of Hanley Falls (FCE) celebrated the 100th year since its founding in 1912. Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced FCE was ranked among the top 100 largest agricultural cooperatives for the first time.
"We got an email a couple months ago from one of the vendors we do business with that said 'Congratulations,'" said Scott Dubbelde, FCE general manager. "We said, 'For what?'"
Then the FCE board of directors and staff got the September/October issue of "Rural Cooperatives," a publication of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA ranked FCE 95th out of the top 100, with $359 million in sales revenue and $160 million in assets for 2011.
According to the Minnesota Grain and Feed Association (MGFA), FCE was incorporated in 1998 after the Farmers Elevator Company of Hanley Falls merged with elevator operations in Cottonwood, Echo, Taunton and Minneota and purchased facilities in Minnesota Falls, Granite Falls, Ghent and Montevideo during a period of two decades.
"We handle corn, soybeans, wheat and oats," Dubbelde said. "We're completely owned by our members. Our farmers, customers, patrons who own us elect a board, which hires management."
According to Dubbelde, it's a local co-op business model that has been around for a while but was regularized by the Capper-Volstead Act of 1922, which exempts agricultural cooperatives from some provisions of the anti-trust laws.
"It's doing business with yourself," said Mark Vandelanotte, who farms near Cottonwood and has been a member of the board of directors since 1996. "You've got some ownership in the company. We've got a lot of good, loyal customers and a lot of good, loyal employees."
Dubbelde said to become a member of the co-op, a customer merely needs to do $1,000 worth of business a year. Dividend checks are based on the volume of business a member does, but in running the business and electing the board, it's one member, one vote. Dubbelde estimates the core membership at around 1,700 and gaining yearly.
FCE member Wes Cole has farmed near Cottonwood for 41 years and has been working part time at the Hanley Falls elevator since 1978. He is currently chairman of the board of MGFA.
"I've been going into the co-op ever since I was a little kid," Cole said. "You're basically part owner of the company. It's much easier to talk with local people about making changes or grievances. It's harder to talk to big companies."