A Thrive, Not Just Survive Mindset
By Barb Baylor Anderson
If Ken Dallmier’s son was just getting started in farming, his fatherly advice would be to raise primarily specialty, or identity preserved, crops. He says it’s a thrive, not just survive mentality.
“When you set up your operation to focus on quality, you can make a better net profit per acre,” says Dallmier, president and chief operating officer for Clarkson Grain. “Adopting that mindset, instead of relying on more bushels per acre, gives beginning farmers a better shot at success.”
Dallmier has had plenty of experience in watching the specialty soybean strategy work. Clarkson Grain is a long-time participant in the market and has increased its contracted soybean volume considerably in recent years. Clarkson’s Mattoon, Illinois, facility is dedicated to specialty production, housing 110 grain bins to segregate various soybeans for buyers and capitalizing on Illinois’ strong reputation for supplying high-quality soy among international customers.
“We essentially have 110 pockets to isolate organic and non-GMO soybeans by variety, quality, farmer and even down to specific fields,” says Dallmier. “It is about quality maintenance for our Japanese customers. We can trace from our facility all the way to every customer’s cooker. We meet food-grade specifications and no additional cleaning is needed after delivery, either.”
Clarkson Grain has been able to grow by nurturing relationships with customers but also maintaining a core group of farmers. Soybean production volume is contracted before any planter enters a field. Farmers agree up front to growing specifications, market price and premium each season.
“It takes a different mindset to set up for non-GMO and organic production. You have to meet quality standards to receive the premium,” says Dallmier. “We get calls from prospective growers when prices are low, not when they are high. And we have found that farmers who focus on price first are not the farmers who are most willing to set up their operation for quality.”
The next step in the process also is quality focused. Once soybeans are delivered to the facility, they are cleaned, color-sorted and placed into bins according to customer contracts.
This is where the next Illinois advantage comes into play. Infrastructure. Specialty soybeans are generally shipped in containers to food-grade customers in Asia and Illinois has plenty.
“Illinois infrastructure is so strong and that provides economic benefits. We can take advantage at every level of the supply chain,” says Eric Woodie, Illinois Soybean Association (ISA) trade analyst. “ISA helps promote container use by creating relationships with buyers for the long term. And with efficient shipping comes better value all the way back to the farmer.”
Dallmier agrees. “We can load bulk beans into containers or fill one metric ton totes and then load the totes into 20- or 40-foot shipping containers,” he says. “That has been especially useful this year. We have been able to remain open and available to customers during the pandemic because Illinois is in the middle of everything. We are never without containers.”
In fact, Illinois has fared much better than other regions that containerize soybeans, a competitive edge that has allowed Clarkson to ship to the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico this year, not just to the West Coast where most of their Asian market is serviced.
Clarkson loads containers onto trucks and transports them to Channahon, Illinois, where they are railed to the coasts for shipping. Trucks can make two roundtrips a day to the container facility.
“There is a market for containers going in and out of Chicago. That and five rail companies going through Illinois provides a huge advantage for us. We can acquire containers at reasonable rates and easily secure rail transit. It allows us to be a reliable supplier,” says Dallmier.
However, Illinois transportation infrastructure is not without some challenges. Clarkson finds there are times when not enough qualified truck drivers are available. That affects timeliness.
Local road conditions also present challenges for getting containers delivered efficiently.
“When roads are closed, drivers have to find alternate routes. That affects reliability and cost,” says Dallmier. “Similarly, farmers bringing product into our facility don’t always have the ability to travel roads rated for 80,000 pounds. It emphasizes the ongoing need for investment in local roads and bridges. We work with road commissioners on our routes because unfortunately local roads are left out of the financial discussion when interstate and rail issues are addressed.”
Tazewell County Engineer Craig Fink shares Dallmier’s concerns. He is responsible for a county highway system of 204 miles and township roads that add up to another 870 miles.
“The number one thing we are trying to do is recover 20 years of neglect on road maintenance because we have not had enough funding,” says Fink. “(The new) Restore Illinois provides money for us to sealcoat and preserve the road base, which is welcome funding, but we need to be able to do more than just reduce the deterioration. Bridges have received no increase in funding, so repairs remain well behind and that is a huge need for farmers and others in Illinois.”
While some downtime with rail cars and barges out of Beardstown, Illinois, can also create hiccups in transportation, Dallmier says the situations have not been insurmountable. He believes overall infrastructure will need to remain at the top of the agenda to maintain Illinois’ reputation for being a top specialty soybean state that allows farmers to thrive into the future.
“If you farm near a contract buyer, ask yourself if you want to satisfy a market need or be dictated by a commodity market price,” he says. “Quality-focused farmers can see better profits.”