By Kris Leonhardt
MARSHFIELD — Cooperatives began as cheese co-ops, local businesses working together to meet common needs. Between the years of 1890-1920, the concept exploded as approximately 14,000 farm cooperatives were created.
The purpose of a farm cooperative was to market crops while supplying products and services to its members. Today, farm cooperatives remain major components of the agricultural industry.
While farm co-ops are run like businesses, they are designed to save their members money. Locally owned and controlled by the people it serves, a co-op’s board of directors sets the policy and hires a manager to oversee the day-to-day operations of the business.
ProVision Partners Cooperative was formed through the April 2015 unification of Harmony Country Cooperatives and Central Wisconsin Cooperative, which in turn were founded through four historic co-ops: Harmony Co-op, established in 1915; Marshfield Co-op, established in 1912; Stratford Farmers Cooperative Produce Company, created in 1926; and Wood County Co-op, formed in 1944.
“There were co-ops probably in every small little town,” said ProVision Credit/Marketing Manager Dawn Beihoffer. “Mergers have happened to kind of get everybody a little better buying power, sustainability, because there were times when some of the coops were failing.
“In 1995 Harmony Co-op out of Colby merged with Wood County Co-op. Wood County was kind of the Vesper, Arpin, Pittsville area. They became Harmony Country Cooperatives. … At almost the same time, Stratford Farmers Coop merged with Marshfield Co-op — that was actually in the beginning of 1996 — to become Central Wisconsin Cooperative.
“Those two companies kind of ran on their own until 2015 when Central Wisconsin merged with Harmony to become ProVision Partners Cooperative.”
“The name has really reidentified our company and really helped our growth,” added Rob Larson, ProVision general manager. “It’s not just the name. It is really want goes behind the name and the branding programs that we have done.”
“(The name) came out of many hours of meetings and rebranding sessions. … If you break it down, there is a lot of content in there that really stands for what we really are: the vision and the vision of the future and what we are going to try to create and become and what we want to be to the producers and the consumers. The ‘pro’ comes from a lot of things: the proactive, the producer, the professional. … The ‘vision’ part comes from being a visionary and trying to look to the future and where we are going and set that path,” Beihoffer said.
While ProVision has roots as a farm cooperative, the company’s operations are geared toward the consumer. Anyone may become a member.
“If you don’t buy anything, you won’t earn any patronage, though, because it is based on your purchases,” explained Beihoffer. “But if you do, you earn patronage.
“Anyone can buy from us. It’s just that patrons will share in the profits of the company.”
While livestock feed comprises its largest business component, agronomy — seeds, fertilizer, or anything needed to grow crops — is an important part of the company’s offerings as well. Also included in its distribution are a variety of energy products, such as bulk petroleum or LP gas, as well as a chain of convenience stores.
The Auburndale expansion
“Part of our Auburndale development is a new convenience store,” said Beihoffer. “We also have one in Pittsville, Stratford, Colby, and then there is our new 5,000-square-foot store that (opened) May 16 in Auburndale.
“There is also a new state-of-the art feed mill being built (there) that will be opening this fall.”
“The Auburndale store is kind of the flagship in our company for convenience stores,” said Larson. “We have three other ones, but we haven’t really built a convenience store in this company since the mid-90s. It was time to add another convenience store, but when you are doing this, you have to have the right location.”
The decision to build in Auburndale came following a feasibility study that identified a need to replace aging facilities. The site’s proximity to a four-lane highway, heavy rail traffic, and its centralized location in multiple markets made it an ideal place for the development.
“With the size and scale and with government relations coming down, we needed to build because our facilities are aging,” Larson explained. “With our facilities aging, we had to build these facilities for the future.”
When the Auburndale development is completed, the facilities will be home to a feed mill with an 180,000-ton-per-year capacity, a 12,000-ton dry fertilizer plant, the convenience store, a retail store, and sales and support staff offices. The existing agronomy plant will be used as a feed commodity facility.