Laurel Grain Company serves farmers through 56 years
LAUREL, Del. — Just a year after incorporating and building the initial grain handling facility in 1965, Laurel Grain Company, started by a group of area farmers each putting up $5,000 per share for its launch, needed to double its capacity.
The success of its first year drew more farmers interested in storing grain for a later sale and a more convenient outlet during harvest.
“I think it surprised a lot of them,” said Tom Wright, longtime board member whose father was an initial shareholder in the company. “You have to think, at the time to put up $5,000, that was a pile of money.”
In the next decades, the company’s capacity continued a steady increase to now hold more than 3 million bushels of corn, soybeans and wheat.
Now entering its 56th year, longtime shareholders and board members said those continual expansions have helped keep the facility relevant and competitive but more than that, its farmers and shareholders holding to the shared mission of serving the area’s agriculture has kept it thriving.
Laurel Grain Company was born out of a general meeting on May 28, 1965 of farmers including former Delaware Gov. Elbert N. Carvel.
Wright said farmers then had many options to sell crops but as more farmers added combines to their operations, the increase of shelled grain led to more waiting in line at area feed mills at harvesttime.
Having their own storage was attractive to the farmers as well, just as it is now, in being able to capture a better price during other times in the year.
That summer, tanks, a dryer, elevator and scale were built on land purchased from the Southern Delaware Truck Growers’ Association behind the Laurel Auction Block and by fall the company started receiving grain and has not stopped operating since.
In the years after Laurel Grain began, other farmer-owned elevators popped up throughout Delmarva but none have had the same longevity.
“We were a good example of what could be done,” Wright said. “The board members over the years were not concerned for just themselves but for what was good for the farming community.”
The company now has 110 shareholders owning 295 shares with about 50 active members storing grain at the facility, according to Burton Messick, a Laurel farmer and company president since 2007.
Each share entitles the farmer to store 5,000 bushels of grain at the facility but they can also rent additional storage.
Messick said Laurel Grain now has twice the capacity for what shares are sold as growers also can rent storage on top of what their shares buy.
“Nowadays, most farmers have two or three shares but store maybe 75,000 bushels,” Messick said. “We do it all. We buy, we sell, storage, we’re a complete service. We have succeeded and thrived over the years.”
Keeping the facility up-to-date and efficient, especially during harvest, has been one key to it lasting for generations.
Messick said on average, it takes a truck 30-45 minutes to unload and get back to the field, noting on their busiest day, some 200 trucks went across the scale.
“We can move people in and out of here pretty quick,” he said. “We can handle 150,000 bushels a day without any problem.”
Owning storage capacity, but not having to shoulder the full responsibility of the entire facility has also been helpful for small and medium-sized farms.
“They bring it here and they don’t have to worry about it,” Messick said. “When you have tanks at home, you’ve got to manage it. A lot of guys don’t want that hassle or don’t have the manpower. That’s the big thing we provide.”
“If the grain company weren’t there we’d have to build tanks” on the farm, said Travis Hastings, the company’s board secretary and whose late father John served as president for 13 years. “That allows us to sort of spend our money elsewhere.”
Board members said from its inception, the company was created to serve its shareholders and the area’s farmers and those who have joined the board over the years have maintained that mindset and the company’s customer base, its farmer shareholders, have stayed loyal as a result.
“We have the same purpose in mind, to serve the farmers. That’s the primary purpose,” Messick said. “We have the same goals. That’s why we’ve done as well as we have.”
Hastings added many board members remain involved until, or even after, they stop farming.
“They’re there because they want to see this thing succeed,” Hastings said of board members. “There’s no special treatment or anything like that, no benefit to it over any other shareholder.”
Wright said he got first-hand proof that no shareholder or board member was above any other. One year, while farming for Bill Hopkins, the company’s first president and manager, Wright said he thought since he was using Hopkins’ trucks he should be able to jump ahead in line at the facility and get back to the field quicker. He was sorely mistaken.
“Boy, did I get a good reaming out the next day, from Mr. Hopkins himself,” Wright said, now laughing. “So I learned my lesson the hard way.”
The company’s employees play a big role in the facility working efficiently, too. With the exception of new grain manager Keith Steininger who started in 2019, Messick said all the employees have been at Laurel Grain for 20 years or more. Office manager Dawn Brittingham has a 38-year tenure, going back to days of all paper records and having to bring in three more people during harvest time to manage all the paperwork.
“I just have enjoyed the atmosphere,” Brittingham said. “All of us have been here for a long time. We just get along very well. And we have a good rapport with the farmers.”
And there are no signs of slowing down at Laurel Grain Company, said Messick, who, along with serving 30 years on the board, doubled as the company’s grain manager at two different times while president.
An additional 550,000 bushels of storage was added in the last two years and the company has the room to expand more.
“We’ve got plans for expansion well into the future. We’re not done yet,” Messick said. “I don’t see any reason why we can’t be here another 20 years.”