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Town & Country Supply Association's new fertilizer plant is located right next to the railroad tracks, a necessary feature for the plant. The co-op hopes to open the plant in mid December 2017. Submitted photo.

MT farm co-op plans December opening for fertilizer plant

LOCKWOOD, Mont. — A farm cooperative in eastern Montana hopes to open a 22,800-ton fertilizer plant capable of blending 240 tons per hour here by mid December.

Town & Country Supply Association, based in Laurel, Mont., has been contemplating such a plant for close to a decade, says general manager Wes Burley. Robert Williams, president of Town & Country's board of directors, says the co-op has been looking for a site and trying to get plans in order for about three years.

"It finally came together," he says, adding that Burley's work on the project and the assistance of First Interstate Bank were integral to the progress.

The association's older fertilizer plants can't keep up with the tonnage necessary to supply the needs of customers, and the co-op also wanted to take advantage of larger unit buys in order to stay competitive in pricing with other companies, Burley explains.

"We think we're going to be more timely in getting product out to be spread," Burley says. And he believes the bulk purchases that will be possible will make products more cost effective, even when adding the consideration of paying for the new plant.

"There's a real need to have a full-year supply in the area," says Williams, who farms near Joliet, Mont. "This facility is going to be top-of-the-line as far as blending fertilizers, and they will be able to send them out by truck load."

The nearest similar facilities are in Moccasin, Mont., and Wolf Point, Mont., and any others in Montana are in the Golden Triangle of northern Montana, Burley says. He says North Dakota has quite a few of the plants as well, and much of the logistics lie in availability of rail access.

Burley says the high-intensity mixer at the plant will be "state-of-the-art."

"It will allow us to quickly produce quality custom blends based on what the soil tests recommended for various crops in huge quantities," he says.

The plant will have a bin for more than 9,000 tons of urea nitrogen and a 5,000-ton monoammonium phosphate bin, as well as other bins holding thousands of tons of other components. No ammonium nitrate will be used at the plant.

Burley began his career as a fertilizer plant operator and says the new facility is more than he could have imagined just a few decades ago.

"Back when I was doing it, it would take me an hour to load out 35 tons," he recalled. "Now we're blending it at 240 tons an hour, and we can receive product in at 600 tons an hour. You can just imagine how much faster this will be."

The co-op's base territory extends from Big Timber in the west to Miles City in the east, and from Winnett in the north into Wyoming in the south. Burley believes the plant will get business from farmers outside that area as well. The plant also will include a bagging operation, and wholesale opportunities will be available.

Town & Country's old fertilizer plants, located in Hardin and Edgar, will remain open and will be used for fill-in loads. Agronomists still will work out of those locations, and chemicals will be available there.

Town & Country sells feed, fuel, fertilizer and a variety of supplies and has convenience and ranch stores in Laurel, Billings, Bridger and Hardin. The plant is the next step in the growth of the co-op which came to be in 1997 through a merger of the Laurel Co-op Association of Laurel, Mont., and the Co-op Service Center of Billings, Mont. Farmers Union Association of Big Horn County also merged into Town & Country in 2009.

In its first full year ending January 1999, the co-op posted $8.86 million in sales. By January 2014, sales were up to $115.26 million. Burley says sales have trailed off due to lower commodity prices, but he expects $88 million to $92 million in sales this year. And even though the total sales are lower, profitability has remained around the same.

Burley and Williams both credit a focus on service to customers as a reason for the growth. Burly says they've focused on "putting people on the ground and knocking on doors" to find new business. And Williams says constant updating and maintaining of equipment have kept operations efficient.

"It has been a fantastic experience," says Williams, who has been on the board of directors throughout Town & Country Supply Association's existence.

Williams is enthusiastic about the future of the co-op in general and the fertilizer plant in particular. He says there is room for growth at the Lockwood site. The fertilizer plant will fill an 85-car train, and he believes in the future there could be potential to fill 110 or 120 cars. He anticipates a warehouse there for chemical and a spot for 30,000 to 60,000 gallon propane tanks.

"Our whole goal in this is to make sure we can take care of our customers and to make sure we're here for them for the long haul," Burley says. "We anticipate ag being a strong part of this area certainly for my lifetime and we believe well into the future."

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