By Rae Wagoner
Director of Communication
Kentucky Soybean Promotion Board
Editor, Kentucky Soybean Sentinel
Hopkinsville Elevator Company, Inc., is the state’s largest farmer-owned cooperative, and according to Assistant Grain Manager Ben Westerfield, “that’s the key to our success.”
Back in 1968, a small group of farmers developed plans for forming Hopkinsville Elevator as a cooperative. Approximately 180 investors proceeded to buy an existing grain facility to serve local needs. The co-op grew through the years to over 3,000 patrons serving more than 100 counties in Kentucky and Tennessee.
In addition to the original Hopkinsville facility on Skyline Drive, there are now additional facilities in Russellville (Russellville Elevator), Auburn (South Union Elevator) and Guthrie (Planters Elevator) plus the “crown jewel” of the co-op, the Casky Branch located near Pembroke in Hopkinsville. Combined, the elevator system has a storage capability of more than 16 million bushels.
The Clarksville River Terminal, located in nearby Clarksville, Tenn., is owned by the co-op, allowing grain to be quickly and easily loaded onto barges on the Cumberland River for river transport to New Orleans.
“Ninety-nine percent of our beans go through New Orleans on their way to overseas markets,” Westerfield said during a recent tour of the Hopkinsville facility, “so access to the river is critical. The river terminal is our outlet to the world and lets us take advantage of markets outside the USA that a lot of land-locked elevators just can’t reach.”
In addition to overseas markets, Hopkinsville Elevator has grown the business to include the spirits industry and the pet food industry as clients.
In a time when many grain elevators do exactly what grain elevators have always done – buy grain – Hopkinsville Elevator offers far more than the standard service. Westerfield describes the co-op as being fully integrated because it sells inputs, seed, crop insurance and chemicals to the farmers through the co-op-owned Agri-Chem.
Westerfield says the farmers can then grow the highest quality grain at maximum yield, and then come back and sell it at the elevator.
“We sell seed, chemicals and crop insurance and offer financing at competitive prices on the front end,” Westerfield said, “then we buy grain for equally competitive prices on the back end. If we make money, our farmers make money.”
“Producers these days are savvy,” he continued. “They understand the market and compare prices on everything, they are highly capable, and they know exactly what they’re doing.”
The same can obviously be said of the elevator’s board of directors, which Westerfield holds in high regard. “Our nine board members have been proactive, not just for right now, but looking on into the future,” he said. In addition to making the operation fully integrated, in 2003 the board invested in 94 percent ownership of Commonwealth Agri-Energy, LLC, a 30 million gallon per year fuel-grade ethanol production plant – the only one of its kind in the state.
“Yes, the only fuel-grade ethanol production plant in the state belongs to a group of farmers,” Westerfield said with a smile.
One not-so-secret aspect of Hopkinsville Elevator’s success is that the co-op is constantly investing in itself, growing at a rate of 1,000 bushels of storage capacity per day, according to Westerfield.
“We are constantly updating and improving,” he said.
A quick glance at the company’s highlights proves this to be true. When the co-op was organized in 1968, it purchased an existing 634,000-bushel elevator, which included a 2,000-bushel dryer. A few growth highlights include:
1975 – Built concrete elevator with 352,000-bushel capacity
1976 – Added 507,000-bushel concrete annex
1977 – Acquired Lilly Bros. Farm Supply
1979 – Built high-speed barge loading facility in Clarksville, Tenn.
1983 – Acquired 450,000-bushel riverport terminal in Clarksville
1991 – Acquired 870,000-bushel elevator in South Union
1994 – Acquired 547,000-bushel elevator in Russellville
1997 – Acquired 1,399,000-bushel elevator in Guthrie
1998 – Purchased 50 percent of Agri-Chem Farm Supply
2003- Invested in 94 percent ownership of Commonwealth Agri-Energy, a 20-million gallon/year fuel grade ethanol plant
2006 – Constructed a 725,000-bushel storage bin in Casky
2007 – Constructed a 725,000-bushel storage bin in Casky
2008 – Constructed a 725,000-bushel storage bin in Casky
2011 – Added the last of four 725,000-bushel storage bins in Casky, bringing total storage to well over 2 billion bushels
2012 – Purchased the remaining portion of Agri-Chem, making it a 100 percent cooperative owned seed/supply service