A Long Time At It

Growmark Inc. began fuel distribution in the 1920s. Through several key partnerships, the company grew immensely in size and scope over the years, and it didn't shy away from the implementation of renewable fuels at a time when no one else would even consider it.
By Jessica Williams | October 01, 2005
It would be cliché to say petroleum marketer Growmark Inc., headquartered in Bloomington, Ill., has been "growing" steadily since its inception. But it's true.

As its name indicates, the company started as a group of local Farm Bureau cooperatives 80 years ago, and today its member base stretches through Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Ontario, Canada. However, the company's marketing arm touches Ohio, Oklahoma, Colorado and states in between. The company initially wanted to fill the need for fuel supply, and over the years, it slowly spread into other products: seed, propane, lubricants, steel structures, handling equipment, financing … and renewable fuels.

"We are an agricultural cooperative," said Mark Dehner, Growmark's marketing manager of alternative fuels. "A lot of our customers grow a lot of corn and soybeans. If we could help further markets for them, it just made good sense."

Growmark entered the renewable fuels industry in the 1970s when it began marketing ethanol in coordination with the Illinois Corn Growers Association. According to Dehner, who joined the company during this time, ethanol wasn't very fashionable back then. "When you pulled up to a pump, a lot of oil companies would designate that their fuel did not contain ethanol," Dehner told Biodiesel Magazine. "Well, ours did, and we continued to do so. It seemed we pushed the envelope for a while. Now it's widely adopted, and a fuel of choice. We feel proud to be on the cutting edge of that."

Growmark saw ethanol demand increase when flexible fuel vehicles began appearing in state fleets. The state began searching for E85 infrastructure, and Growmark stepped up to help. "We now have 10 to 12 E85 facilities that we service with our member co-ops, and we have another 10 to 12 slated for conversion or to build new," Dehner said.

After seeing success with ethanol, biodiesel seemed the next logical step. In 1995, the company participated in biodiesel demonstration trials conducted by the Illinois Soybean Association throughout Illinois. Several diesel fuel stations were chosen to sell B10 and B20 blends. At the time, Dehner was working at Stephenson Service Co., a Growmark station in Freeport, Ill. "We [had] 20 customers using B20," Dehner said. "It wasn't really that scientific, but we would ask customers how they felt about [biodiesel]. We had excellent results with that."

Growmark began marketing biodiesel in 2000. The company uses a "Home Grown Fuels" campaign to inform consumers that biodiesel has better vehicle performance, it's better for the environment with its clean-burning attributes, and it lessens the country's dependence on foreign oil. Since those initial demonstration trials, Dehner said biodiesel has become more economically positive. "It's just skyrocketed," he said of the industry.

Growmark has also delved into e-diesel, a blend of ethanol in diesel fuel. According to Dehner, the company is working with a variety of stakeholders trying to bring e-diesel to the marketplace. "It has excellent cold weather properties and excellent emissions," he said of e-diesel. "It may not be for every diesel engine out there, but there are excellent markets out there for e-diesel."

Dehner recognized it has taken some time for renewable fuels to catch on, although he feels the biodiesel industry has progressed faster than ethanol because the ethanol industry presented a model to follow. "The biodiesel industry has learned a lot from ethanol's progression: how to handle it, intricacies such as moisture and the cleansing effect of fuel in tanks," Dehner said. "Consumer acceptance was slow, but the agricultural market was interested from an 'I grow it, I want to use it' mentality. [The biodiesel industry] has created that emotional tie to the product. Economics have now helped drive it."

With the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Dehner said ethanol and biodiesel infrastructure should greatly improve. "[Before the energy bill became law,] we did a lot of splash blending because there was no terminal access," Dehner said. "Now E10 is in almost any terminal, and we're seeing that progression with biodiesel, probably a little faster."

To help introduce consumers to renewable fuels, Growmark member co-ops hold customer meetings that present the facts about ethanol and biodiesel. Dehner has spoken at many of those meetings. "I commend our member co-ops and personnel for doing those things," he said. "The educational process is important. Sometimes people have misunderstandings, and we just take it upon ourselves to help with that. When we're asked to do that, we think of it as part of our responsibility."

Key partnerships
Dehner said Growmark has 43 members throughout Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and Ontario. But since the company expanded operations into states like Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and others, Dehner admits it's tough to keep track of additional members.

Growmark recognized the importance of partnerships early in its history. The company got its start in 1927 when nine local cooperatives formed the Illinois Farm Supply Co., which eventually adopted the FS trademark. The group merged with the Farm Bureau Service Co. of Iowa in 1962, creating FS Services Inc. It merged with Wisconsin Farmco Service Cooperative and Producers Seed Co. in 1965, and consolidated with the Illinois Grain Corp. to form Growmark in 1980.

In 1985, Growmark partnered with agriculture giant Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM), consolidating Midwest grain terminals and merchandising operations. Dehner said Growmark and ADM recently renewed their agreement so that Growmark can continue marketing grain through ADM terminals.

Growmark acquired the assets of United Cooperatives of Ontario (UCO) in 1994, gaining 37 member cooperatives in the Canadian province. UCO was a 50 percent shareholder, along with Canadian energy company Suncor Energy Products, in UPI Energy LP. Today, both Growmark and Suncor work together through UPI to supply fuel to customers in Ontario.

In 1998, Growmark created a marketing alliance with Land O'Lakes in the feed business. Growmark also partnered with Novartis Seeds Inc. to offer seed solutions to their customers.

Growmark became part owner of Farmer's Forage Research (FFR), an interregional seed research cooperative in Lafayette, in 1999. Other owners included Land O'Lakes, Tennessee Farmers Cooperative and Southern States Cooperative. FFR conducted various soybean research studies for Growmark and the other owners, the company also studied corn, foliage and alfalfa, among other topics. In 2000, FFR created SoyGenetics LLC to solely operate its soybean-breeding program with Lima Grain Genetics and Land O'Lakes. Because Growmark is part owner in FFR, it also has a 43 percent ownership in SoyGenetics, according to the Lafayette company.

"We look at what our mission is and what role we play with customers and how we can benefit that," Dehner said of Growmark's list of partnerships. "I'd like to think we're pretty progressive when it comes to that."

Additional partnerships with Remington Seed, Agway Agronomy, Seedway Inc. and TruServ Canada Cooperative in the past few years have continued to expand Growmark's customer base, truly making them an extensive agricultural company and a strong supporter of renewable fuels.
"Our organization is extremely serious about renewable fuels," Dehner said. "We weren't always on the popular side of the fence, but we always thought it was the right thing to do. Everyone (in our organization) has been very positive when we've asked for resources in renewable fuels. They are eager to help."

Jessica Williams is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at (701) 746-8385.
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