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Elevator cooperatives make selling the harvest straightforward for central Illinois farmers

A squat, brick building by a couple of large grain elevators with a sign outside, which reads: "Grainland Cooperative Eureka."
Collin Schopp
The Grainland Cooperative offices and elevators just outside of Eureka is one of 10 locations owned and operated by the company.

After harvested crops leave central Illinois farmers' fields, they head to the closest grain elevator for processing and selling. The Grainland elevator outside of Eureka is one of 10 locations that make up the Grainland Cooperative.

By the end of harvest, the elevators will see tens of millions of bushels of corn and soybeans.

CEO Terry Bline says, like any business, the Grainland Cooperative grew in size and efficiency over time.

“Each of those 10 locations would have been 10 independent companies at some point in time,” he said. “Over the course of time, through consolidation, the 10 companies have gotten wrapped up into one. It’s just like many industries, where we’ve continued to see businesses go together.”

7 grey grain elevators rise into a cloudy sky in a rural area.
Collin Schopp
These grain elevators make up the storage capabilities of Grainland Cooperative's Eureka location.

Bline sad he doesn't know the exact numbers on how many area farmers use the 10 locations. He does know the elevators expect to handle around 30 million bushels of corn and 10 million bushels of soybeans this year. The co-op also sees a small amount of non-GMO soybeans and summer wheat harvests.

When those bushels come into the elevator, the truck or bin is weighed, tested for moisture content and any contamination and then dumped into storage. Bline said what happens next depends on the farmer's individual marketing plan.

“Some have very extravagant marketing plans that you might compare to somebody that’s maybe investing money,” he said. “Some, it’s more just, their marketing plan is, ‘I need money in my checking account, so I’m going to sell grain today.’”

The pace of work at the elevator is very market dependent. High prices for grain means a carousel of farmers coming in to sell. A rainy day where farmers can't harvest damp beans may bring them in to sell as well. These peak days could see as many as 1.8 million bushels of corn and 900,000 bushels of soybeans.

Bline said it's always something new when you're working with such a wide range of customers and conditions.

“A large amount of our corn goes into ethanol production,” he said. “But here at Eureka, we also have rail access that gives us access to all the top large railways. That can get us into all the major markets, particularly in Texas.”

Railroad access, like this crossing at the Eureka Grainland location, allow access to markets across the country and world for Central Illinois farmers.
Collin Schopp
Railroad access, like this crossing at the Eureka Grainland location, allow access to markets across the country and world for Central Illinois farmers.

The corn that doesn't become ethanol at plants like Marquis, Alto and BioUrja could become feed for the poultry and cattle markets in Texas, or head southeast for the pork and poultry markets there. Bline said a large amount of the soybeans are exported overseas to China.

The co-op has a second railway location in Emden that Bline said helps give them additional access to these markets across the country and the globe. This is also, partially, a result of a recent merger with Roanoke Farmers, which got the co-op up to 10 total locations.

“Again, I think that it seems to be a direction that many businesses are going,” Bline said. “Where we just need to continue to grow our business and get bigger to be able to provide the efficient service that customers expect.”

So how does this system work for the the farmers? As Bline explains it, farmers essentially own the business. As the company makes money, it retains some of the profits for working capital and pays the rest back to the farmers.

“So, right now, we’re about eight years behind in paying that back. So that’s where their investment in the company comes from,” Bline said. “So, it keeps the ownership current and it keeps it with the people that are currently using the assets, instead of somebody who’s maybe retired or hasn’t been in farming for a long time.”

A squat brick building next to a yellow arm structure and traffic lights that make up the scale for vehicles at the Grainland Farmers cooperative.
Collin Schopp
This weigh station is where the co-op weighs trucks and bins of grains before testing it for moisture content and any contamination.

This cooperation, being together in a business and pooling resources, extends to the atmosphere of the office itself. On a recent day, several farmers from different generations sip coffee in a break room and chat.

They talk about the weather, the different ways they run their farms and when's the best time to fit in a nap.

Bline said farmers love to network, and there's an opportunity to grow professionally and personally at the co-op.

“It’s kind of sad, in a way. I think we all think we’ve gotten too busy to take the time to spend much time just sharing a cup of coffee with somebody,” he said. “But it’s one of the things I kind of enjoy, seeing these guys still come here. We got a group of them that come every day and it’s kind of nice to see them, that they can share part of their day with each other.”

With the end of harvest season quickly approaching, the morning chatter over coffee will die down soon.

But the work doesn't end for Bline. The co-op has around 35 full-time employees — that number more than doubles when you add part-time and seasonal help. There's plenty to keep everyone busy.

“Maybe renewals for different resources we use from different vendors. Then employee needs,” Bline said. “Just either looking for new employees or different things. Our business is continually evolving.”

Bline started managing in the field in 1995 and has seen a good deal of evolution on the technology side of the elevator. From dealing with skyrocketing crop yields to making careful decisions about electricity usage, it's a new challenge every year.

Overall, he said, the harvest season made a spectacular recovery from the exceptionally dry summer. It will be the largest soybean crop the elevators have ever handled.

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Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.