Co-ops as community

The Farmers Cooperative Grain Elevator in Conway Springs is one of many “skyscrapers of the plains” that dot the Kansas landscape.
By Tom Parker
    If someone told Billie Chesney or Rebecca Hall that they needed to meet this guy or talk to that person, they’d track them down no matter how far apart they were or the amount of time it took.
    The couple shot their journeys across the state through a bug-spattered windshield with a small video camera, throwing in a few selfies, the camera held at arm’s length to frame their smiling faces like a pair of bookended parentheses around a towering grain elevator jutting monolithic toward the clear blue skies of Kansas.
    But that in itself was only a part of their story. Some of the rest was laced through their five-minute video, something they half-jokingly called their “what-we-did-on-our-summer-vacation movie.” The footage included grain elevators in Delphos, St. Francis, Goodland, Larned and others, interspersed with grainy historic photos shot through the rear view mirror of time and accompanied by the ukulele-driven “Over the Rainbow” rendition by Hawaiian crooner Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, which in retrospect was charmingly relevant to the Sunflower State.
    Their presentation, based on their Kansas Co-op History Research Project sponsored by the Chapman Center for Rural Studies at Kansas State University, was shown to members of the Kansas Farmers Union during their annual convention in Topeka in early January. With them was Tom Giessel, honorary KFU historian and Pawnee County Farmers Union president, who spoke on early co-operative history and the role KFU played in organizing farmers in the early 20th century.
    Dubbed “skyscrapers of the plains,” grain elevators and cooperatives have a colorful history in Kansas.
    Farmer cooperatives were brought about by a series of national events and legislation in the late 1800s and early 1900s, triggered in part by an economic depression throughout the farming community due to an unequal playing field with big businesses such as J.P. Morgan and Carnegie, Chesney said. From their beginnings they were more about people than business enterprise. One early co-op pioneer said, “Co-ops work because of the people.” Their success lay in working together toward a common goal and vision at a local level rather than at a national level.
    On a national level, cooperatives weren’t legal until 1912. Kansas, however, got an earlier start in 1878. At roughly the same period the National Farmers Union rose from the ashes of the Farmers Alliance, first in Texas in 1902, and then spreading across the South. Like its predecessor, NFU believed in cooperatives and worked to improve cooperative law. The organization reached Kansas in 1905, by which time regulations had improved dramatically, Giessel said.
    Those early co-ops were different than what we know today.
    “We think of co-ops as grain elevators, but a lot of them were founded to bring in groceries or ship in hay,” Giessel said. “Grain handling was just one aspect of it.”
    It soon became apparent that farmers needed both a local co-op and a regional co-op, not only for grain marketing but for grain purchasing. In 1915 the KFU formed a jobbing association that could buy from its own co-ops, a move supported by the state legislature.

Farmers Co-op Grain Elevator

    •    Belle Plaine, 125 S. Lincoln phone: 620-488-3537
    •    Conway Springs-East, 524 E. Parallel phone: 620-456-2222
    •    Conway Springs-West, 101 S. 4th phone: 620-456-2996

    •    April 14, 1953: charter granted
    •    Opened at the end of December 1954
    •    Jan. 12, 1955: first load of grain deposited
    •    1993: purchased the Belle Plaine location
    •    2004: purchased Conway Springs-West location

    In addition to grain elevators and storage space, Farmers Co-op Grain Elevator offers access to a feed mill, refined fuels, propane and fertilizer.
    Co-ops offer the farming community a place to store goods, but it also benefits the entire community, Farmers manager Pat Lies said.
    “We return profits back to farmers who then go out to our stores, our restaurants and our churches,” Lies said. “It’s also created jobs because most of the base is from our community.”

Danville Cooperative Association


    •    Albin, Okla., 93267 Osage Road Medford, Okla. 73759 phone: 620-967-4411
    •    Argonia-North, 146 N. Argonia Road phone: 620-435-6331
    •    Argonia-South, 313 N. Argonia Street phone:620-435-6510
    •    Bluff City, Kan., 116 N. Main Bluff City, Kan. 67018 phone: 620-967-4411
    •    Danville, 420 N. Ryan Avenue phone: 620-962-5238
    •    Newport, Kan., 950 E. KS Hwy 44 Anthony, Kan. 67003 phone: 620-962-5294
    •    Metcalf, 1819 W. 150 Street South phone: 620-967-4411
    •    Wellington, 801 S. F Street phone: 620-399-8669


    • Danville location founded in 1952
    • All locations have grain handling and storage facilities

    In addition to grain handling and storage facilities, Danville Co-op also provides access to self-service fuels, bulk fuels, bulk dry and liquid fertilizers, anhydrous ammonia, bulk cattle cubes, seed cleaning and farm supplies.
    Co-ops provide a way for farmers to get their grain to market, Danville Co-op manager Mike Morlan explained.
    “We’re just an extension of their farms,” Morlan said. “It’s also a way to give their goods and services back to them.”