by Mitch Lies
Over coffee one day in 1978, Bob Hockett agreed to buy out his four partners in Marion Ag Service.
“I had all these ideas to buy more equipment, buy this and buy that, and the rest of them didn’t,” Bob said.
Thirty-eight years later, Marion Ag Service is still expanding. And the five still meet almost daily for coffee, often joined by half-a-dozen other local farmers at Marion Ag Service headquarters, just outside of St. Paul, Oregon.
“If we’re not doing the right thing in the field, we hear about it every day,” said Bob’s son John Hockett, the company’s vice president of sales.
Indeed, Marion Ag Service is an agribusiness success story rooted in long-term relationships and smart growth.
As John put it: “Dad didn’t sit still very long.”
The company’s most recent expansion involves a 70,000-square-foot fertilizer plant, which includes two fully automated blending lines that will enable growers to get fertilizer blended to individual prescriptions.
Set to begin operation in February of 2017, the plant will increase the company’s storage capacity to 29,000 tons, nearly eight-fold of its existing capacity, providing opportunities for other companies to warehouse fertilizer in the facility, as well. The facility consolidates many fertilizer functions under one roof, delivering supply-chain efficiencies for the regional fertilizer marketers and users. The opportunity should help companies get product to growers in a timely fashion – something that can be at risk with the Willamette Valley’s current storage capacity.
“The windows for applying fertilizer are short sometimes,” John said. “Like this fall, it rained all October, so now (in November) everybody is going full bore.
“If everything works out perfectly, we can keep up,” John added. “But as soon as there is a hiccup in manufacturing or on the railroad, now you’re out of product. Growers aren’t fertilizing, and that’s a problem.”
The plant is among Marion Ag Service’s most aggressive expansions over its fifty year history. “This was a big step for us,” said Jeff Freeman, director of sales and marketing for Marion Ag. But it is far from Marion Ag’s only expansion.
Marion Ag Service set its roots in 1967, when Bob Hockett branched out from full-time farming, joined with Allied Chemical, and became one of the first liquid fertilizer distributors in the Willamette Valley. In 1976, Bob teamed with four other farmers to form Marion Ag Service, with a primary purpose of warehousing and marketing soft white wheat, and applying lime and dolomite.
Two years later, Bob bought out his partners and Marion Ag became the largest distributor of Ashgrove lime in Western Oregon.
In 1994, Marion Ag Service purchased St. Paul Feed and Supply and entered the dry fertilizer, seed cleaning, grain storage and feed markets. Also that year, company hired its first crop advisor. Today the company’s collective technical staff includes six full-time consultants that work with farmers and nursery professionals on a one-by-one basis, helping ensure growers get the most out of their crop productions.
Expansions continued in 1996, when Marion Ag purchased railroad access in Brooks, allowing the company to venture into warehouse agreements with key fertilizer manufacturers, such as Simplot, PCS and IRM.
In 1998, Marion Ag centralized its seed cleaning and conditioning, moving from downtown St. Paul to its headquarters, a few miles east of St. Paul. Also in 1998, the company began to develop private a label wholesale fertilizer service, which today services turf and ornamental resale professionals in eleven Western states, Hawaii and Guam.
Expansion continued in 2000, when Marion Ag purchased six acres adjacent to its new facility and constructed a prilling plant, which allows for flour lime and other nutrition components to be processed into a more easily spread form.
In 2005, the Aurora plant was expanded to accommodate growth in organic demand. The plant today is certified for handling of organic substrates.
Today Marion Ag employs roughly 100, and services growers from Albany to Portland in the agriculture, horticulture, nursery/greenhouse, turf resale and organics sectors.
Looking back, John said he believes one of the ingredients to the company’s long-term success lies in its ability to make decisions quickly.
“As opportunities came to the table, Dad and (COO) Tom (Wimmer), both being progressive, would look at each other and say, ‘This makes sense,’ and they’d do it,” John said. “And, for the most part, that continues today.
“If it makes sense and it is a win-win for the growers, as well as for us, we jump in and do it,” John said. “There is not a lot of hemming and hawing.”
He added: “As we went to our customer base, with whether it be grass-seed cleaning or blended fertilizers, and they wanted more and it made sense to grow our business in that direction, those were easy decisions to make.”
Other keys Bob identified are good employees and good customer service.
“You don’t have to drive very far to find a fertilizer plant,” Bob said, “and if you don’t have the equipment, the product and the people to take care of this guy, he’ll go down the street. And in a year or two, he might drift away and go to some company that will take care of him.”
Then there are those morning cups of coffee with growers sitting around a table, and the fact that Bob still produces grass seed.
“Dad might tell me, ‘Your fertilizer prices are too high,’” John said. “Well, he is the owner of the company and he is telling me my prices are too high, because he also is a farmer. That kind of keeps us in check.”