A new multi-million dollar grain drying facility in Bloomer is the brainchild of River Country Co-op and Bloomer Farmers Union Co-op administrators, and is partially being funded by savings from the April 1 merger that makes the Bloomer co-op a part of the larger River Country Co-op.
The new facility is projected to profit the co-op $20 million in gross sales by the year 2014, said Bruce Mlsna, general manager and chief executive officer of River Country Co-op. The co-op as a whole will bring in $70-$80 million.
The state-of-the-art grain dryer and plant will be efficient, drying 4,700 bushels per hour.
“We can dry a semi of grain in four minutes,” Mlsna said. “We can unload them as fast as we can load the next truck.”
He said the company did a market analysis and found a lack of similar facilities in the area.
“Bloomer didn’t have grain, so it was a perfect fit,” explained Randy Bina, vice president of the co-op’s grain department.
Bina also said there is a definite need for grain drying in the area, and that the operation will service farmers in Chippewa and its surrounding counties, for about a 30-mile radius, that currently have to truck their grain further out to be dried.
“It’s bigger than Bloomer’s economy. It’s more like northwest Wisconsin, focusing on River Country Co-op’s territory,” Bina said.
Merging the two co-ops
The merging of River Country Co-op and Bloomer Farmers Union Co-op made the project more feasible, as the Bloomer company would not have been able to build a facility of this caliber on its own, said Mike Rinzel, general manager of the company’s energy division and former general manager of the Bloomer Farmers Union Co-op.
“The vastness and the dollars required just weren’t there (before the merger),” Rinzel said. “It’s better off for our patrons if they work together rather than compete.”
“There’s no sense in spending farmers’ money twice,” Bina added.
The money saved was put into investments like the grain plant and remodeling of the Bloomer store, said Mlsna.
Additionally, the administrative office in Bloomer and those employees now work out of the Chippewa Falls office on River Street.
“The premise behind it (the merger) was to save the stockholders money,” said Mlsna. “The ultimate result is the savings we generated allowed us to build this grain plant.”
The merger is really a consolidation of the two co-ops and eliminates redundancy in their services, as both companies sold propane, fuel oil and had Cenex convenience stores, Rinzel said. It also allows the company to offer farmers contracts and hedging capabilities it didn’t have before.
Rinzel will be able to offer marketing help to farmers to try to get them the best prices for their grain.
The company will need “four or five new employees immediately for the plant’s operation, and then that will blossom into many more,” Bina said, explaining that he expects more workers to be added down the road. The construction of the plant has also created a number of jobs for local contractors, builders and utility workers.
River Country Co-op currently employs about 250 people.
The new plant has access to rail lines, one of the reasons the site was chosen for the project. There are no immediate plans or needs for using rail to transport the grain, but Bina said it may be used in the future.
“We have to develop the market for that,” he said.
Grain drying means mechanically removing some of the moisture from the grain by moving air through it until the grain moisture is in equilibrium with moisture in the air, according to the University of Wisconsin-Extension.
The grain farming process is comprised of multiple phases — from the harvesting of the crop to its storage, and then its sale. For the purpose of the drying plant, the first step is the farmers bringing the grain to the site to be dried. Then, it is graded and dried.
Farmers can choose to store their grain at the plant in the storage facilities or they can choose to store it at their own farms.
In drying corn, the removed moisture causes moisture shrink, or the reduction in grain quantity from the drying process. Bina said corn must be at 15 percent or less.
Building the plant
Construction is underway on the 15-acre site at 16779 98th Street, adjacent to the co-op’s current agronomy plant on the south side of Bloomer and across from the Pines Ballroom. The plant is expected to be completed by September.
Progress, however, is evident. The plant is about 50 percent done, according to Mlsna. Three grain bins are completed and fastened down.
At its completion, the plant will hold a 730,000 grain bin, the 4,700 bushel-per-hour dryer and two 75,000 bushel wet bins to accommodate both corn and soybeans. There will also be state-of–the-art sampling and drying equipment.
The facility will be able to hold about 900,000 bushels in storage. By 2013, Mlsna said the co-op expects there will be a 1 million bushel storage capacity in the same facility.
“It’s very sophisticated,” Bina said. “It’s the newest one, so it’s state-of-the-art.”
The co-op as a whole
The grain drying plant will be headed under the Bloomer Grain division of the company.
There are several other divisions of the co-op in addition its agronomy sector: energy, consumer and hospitality.
“Our company is pretty diversified,” Mlsna said, adding it’s that way by design, so that there is a balance. “If one division is to under-perform, another seems to make up for that.”
The Cenex store in Chippewa Falls was affected by the new Highway 29 bypass. Mlsna said the store’s revenues fell about 50 percent. To cope with the loss, staff was reduced and hours of operation went from 24 hours to 16 hours per day.
That’s what spurred plans for the 29 Pines Travel Center that sits at Highway T and Highway 29 a few miles from the border of Chippewa and Eau Claire counties.
“We actually bought land five years prior to that to recoup some of the revenue that we knew we were going to lose,” Mlsna said.
By opening the new location, which includes a convenience store, hotel and conference center, the company was able to make up for some of that lost revenue. The hotel is owned by a group of shareholders, but River Country Co-op operates and manages it.
Future of the co-op
The co-op has seen a 10- to 15-percent growth per year in the past 10 years, and has paid out about $5 million to shareholders and members in that same time frame, Mlsna said.
The Cenex store in Bloomer is undergoing remodeling. It will be what Mlsna called a “hybrid store,” selling hardware, boots and shoes and playing host to a convenience store and service shop, making it a full-service station.
The co-op also has stores in Cadott, Jim Falls and Boyd.
“We expect to grow. We need to grow to compete with other companies,” Mlsna said. “We have long-term plans. As our business grows, we’ll add (to it).”