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Cover Story: Agro-Culture Liquid Fertilizers - Solid Business, Rapid Growth

10 Sep 2023

www.agroliquid.comBy 1983 Douglas Cook had three failed fertilizer businesses under his belt, with a fourth just starting to take off. A seed salesman who grew up on a mid-Michigan dairy, Cook had an entrepreneur’s spirit and a dogged determination to make a difference in the future of Agriculture. His son-in-law, Troy Bancroft, joined him on his fourth and what would be his final foray into the liquid fertilizer industry—and a family business was born.

Today, Bancroft’s three sons—Nick, Albert, and Gerrit—also help run Agro-Culture Liquid Fertilizers (AgroLiquid); serving as Vice President of Operations and Organizational Planning, Marketing Department Manager, and Senior Site Operations Manager, respectively. And the job of running this family business is a big one.

In the early days Cook and Bancroft manufactured AgroLiquid fertilizers by hand, using five-gallon buckets and a mere 200-gallon reactor just outside St. Johns, Mich., on the site of the company’s now 750 tillable-acre research farm. Later they moved to a separate facility closer to the city of St. Johns where they also housed the company’s main office. In the early 2000s manufacturing facilities opened in Williams, Iowa and Goodland, Kan. It wasn’t until 2010 however, that a dedicated manufacturing facility was opened in AgroLiquid’s home state of Michigan.

Thirty minutes north of St. Johns, the small town of Ashley, Mich. lies on the Great Lakes Central railway. An important factor in the company’s growth, the railway allows product manufactured in Ashley to be shipped nationwide, and the company’s other manufacturing facilities are not the least of those destinations.

Today the company has four manufacturing plants in Ashley Mich., Williams, Iowa, Goodland, Kan., and Stockton, Calif. A fifth facility is currently underway in Eastman, Ga. “Strategically positioning our facilities close to the growers who need and use our products allows us to better serve them,” explained Gerrit Bancroft. “This spring, when the railways were backed up other companies struggled to get fertilizer to the fields where it was needed. While we do depend on the railways, our manufacturing imagefacilities across the country were able to compensate and keep our retailers and growers full with the products they needed to get off to a good start to the growing season.”

The Ashley plant alone manufactured over 11.5 million gallons of liquid fertilizer in 2013; 3 million gallons of that total account for the proprietary base formulas that are then sent across the country to AgroLiquid’s other manufacturing facilities to be included in the company’s final products.

Ashley Site Manager Tom Hoten explained that the company’s proprietary formulas have always been manufactured in Michigan; first in St. Johns and then in Ashley beginning in 2010. “We’re careful about who we share our proprietary information with,” said Hoten. “Our fertilizers are truly superior to the other products on the market and that’s because we value quality throughout the manufacturing process. We test at every stage of production, from the raw materials to the end product and only trust people with the product when we know they will take the process as seriously as we do.”

“Even our supplier relationships are integral to the process,” added Gerrit. The company requests samples of every raw material before agreeing to make a purchase, and once that purchase is made every delivery of the material is tested again to make sure it meets AgroLiquid’s high standards for inputs.

From there, every batch of proprietary material manufactured is tested for quality before it’s included in a larger batch of end product, and each batch of the final fertilizer is tested, too. Not only that, every load of fertilizer that leaves an AgroLiquid facility is sampled and those samples are kept on file for 18 months.

“Every step in both manufacturing and transportation is taken seriously,” said Hoten. “Most of our product is shipped in our own dedicated containers.” AgroLiquid owns 175 rail cars, 60 tankers, and 17 box trailers.

Family & Community Roots

www.agroliquid.comStill, despite the rapid growth—the company grew 30 percent annually through 2000 and has maintained a rate of 20 percent growth since—AgroLiquid remains true to the same family and small-community values on which it was founded.

Most people who know AgroLiquid’s CEO Troy Bancroft have heard the story of his first business venture. Not yet old enough to drive, Bancroft tells of the work he did during his summers as a youth, arranging labor from local teens who would help bale and transport hay which he would then sell. By his account, he was making good money for a boy his age at that time when his mother caught wind of the profits and prompted him to give every one of his helpers a substantial, retro-active raise in their per-hour pay. “I didn’t like it right at the time,” says Bancroft, “but it taught me a lesson that I’ve carried with me to this day. It’s important to give back and to treat the people around you well.”

That lesson is evident in AgroLiquid’s corporate culture and the way the company does business. At the company’s new world headquarters, opened last year just next to the site of the previous headquarters building, employees enjoy an on-site gym, walking path, rooftop sitting area, and cutting-edge kitchenette. Flextime options allow employees to balance work and family-life commitments, and in-house fitness and charitable contributions committees oversee on-going projects, events, and assess needs within AgroLiquid and the communities surrounding the company’s facilities across the country to determine where the company can best give back.

www.agroliquid.comLeaders from the company, including both ownership and employees, are also active in youth enrichment organizations such as FFA, 4-H, and Boy Scouts of America. In fact AgroLiquid’s Stockton, Calif. Site Supervisor, Richard Montiel, is an excellent example of the AgroLiquid culture at work on the ground. When Montiel realized the local Stockton, Calif. FFA chapter’s community garden project was missing an integral piece of the puzzle, a plant nutrition plan, he set to find out how he could help. What he didn’t realize was how deeply this simple act would connect him with the FFA community in his area.

Since then, Montiel has become one of Amy Madison, Fund Development Manager for California FFA’s, go-to volunteers. “It’s uplifting, exhilarating, and rewarding to see the students trying to create change for the agriculture industry,” said Montiel, who has now acted as a judge for FFA competitions such as Job Interview and Extemporaneous Public Speaking. “Being seen is important,” he added, “especially here in California, where we’re growing so quickly. It can make people nervous.”

Though Montiel had little experience with FFA before, he is quickly becoming a fixture in the local FFA community in California, and says people are beginning to recognize him for being a representative for AgroLiquid. “I took off my jacket at one competition and a kid came up to me and said he’d seen our company around,” said Montiel

As for that plant nutrition program, 2014 marked the first year local FFA chapters use AgroLiquid fertilizers to grow their community gardens. The project helps fulfill the community service requirements of their FFA membership; the foods they grow are donated to local food banks; a charitable contribution that echoes one made yearly nearer to the company’s home base.

www.agroliquid.comFeeding The World Through Research

Not only does AgroLiquid’s research farm, the North Central Research Station (NCRS), make food available for no charge to AgroLiquid employees, in 2013 the company donated more than 60,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables to the Greater Lansing Food Bank. All of the produce is grown on the largest research farm dedicated to plant nutrition in the country. A facility dedicated to one of the company’s founding tenets it helps AgroLiquid stand apart from its competition to this day.

More than 750 tillable acres of research ground north of St. Johns, Mich. is dedicated to fertilizer research on crops ranging from apples to zucchini, corn, and soybeans to grapes and watermelons. Senior Research Manager Dr. Jerry Wilhm has been with AgroLiquid for more than twenty years and has guided much of the research done on the farm since its inception in 1994.

“I remember when we first started the research farm,” said Wilhm, “I thought in a few years we’d have learned all we needed to know and we’d be done. But obviously that’s not the case. Every year we grow, expand and while we answer some questions we always have more. It’s part of getting better.”

One of the newest additions to the NCRS is a high-density apple orchard. Horticulture Research Manager Brian Levene says the orchard is one of the newest developments in the orchard crop industry. By clustering apple trees closer together – AgroLiquid has 1000 trees on about 1 acre – and using a trellising system to help support the weight of fruit, the trees are able to bear earlier and heavier than in traditional orchards. “These new orchard layouts are paying for themselves in just a few years,” added Levene, “Growers used to have to wait much longer to get a return on their investment.” And that investment is not insignificant.

Whether a grower specializes in row crops such as corn, wheat, milo, and soybeans or horticultural, vine and orchard crops such as apples, pumpkins, watermelons, and onions producer profitability is and always has been a top concern for AgroLiquid.

“When we started out agriculture was a really difficult industry,” said Troy Bancroft, “Farmers weren’t making much money. That was always important to Mr. Cook, to help farmers be more profitable.” That mission, To Prosper the Farmer, is something echoed throughout the company’s culture.“Research has always been an important part of our company,” explained Lonny Smith, AgroLiquid Senior Marketing Manager, “We never want a grower to have to test the product in his field. When our agronomists make a recommendation we want to be sure that recommendation is going to work for him. To do that we have to test it first, and thoroughly, ourselves.”

At a recent Research Field Day event at the NCRS that research was on display for growers and ag retailers from across the country. Beginning the day in the corporate office with classroom-style sessions in the company’s on-site conference facilities, attendees then moved to the NCRS’s Farm 12. There demo plots of corn, soybeans, sunflowers, onions, squashes, milo, wheat, and other crops allowed guests to touch, taste, smell, and feel the tangible results of the 2014 research season. Pulling up corn stalks to see the roots, peeling back the husks, digging up potatoes, and even sampling watermelon were common activities as attendees meandered through plots, talking to research employees and interns about the different fertilizer treatments and results.

“We hold this event every year,” said Wilhm, “and every year we have people from all over the country, and even outside the country, come to join us. It’s hard for some people to believe that you can put down less fertilizer and still get the same or even better results. Seeing the research helps reinforce what our agronomists and sales team are telling people in the field.”

Breaking Through Skepticism“Two of the biggest objections we hear in the field are about cost and nutrient availability,” explained Great Lakes Region Sales Account Manager Kurt Fisher, “At first it’s difficult for some people to wrap their head around the difference in our products versus conventional. There’s rightfully a lot of concern about mining the soil. Farmers depend on their soil; it’s their livelihood so they worry that by putting down fewer nutrients than they’re used to. Some think it will deplete what’s there, but it’s the added efficiency that makes the difference. When the fertilizer is more available and usable to the plant you simply don’t need as much.”

AgroLiquid’s enhanced efficiency fertilizers depend on proprietary nutrient blends and chelation technology to accomplish that better availability and usability, which also helps reduce the cost per acre even where individual products may cost more per gallon up front.

The company’s new headquarters facility features an in-house chemistry department with a full and part time chemistry team dedicated to developing new products and ensuring quality in new batches of the existing product lineup. Once developed in the lab, the NCRS staff tests out the experimental products to determine which are up to the company’s high standards. Only a small percentage make it, but when they do customers are always excited to put them to work in the field.

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Farmers Hot Line is part of the Catalyst Communications Network publication family.