Agribusiness tour showcases Insight FS Cooperative

Dan Hansen

Subhead: Local, state officials tour co-op’s fertilizer storage facility


As part of its continuing efforts to promote and showcase Wisconsin agribusinesses, the Wisconsin Agri-Business Association (WABA) recently sponsored a tour of the Insight FS Cooperative’s large northern Wisconsin fertilizer storage facility.

WABA is a nonprofit trade association that gives a strong voice to Wisconsin agribusinesses by offering various educational and training programs and provides services that include representing agribusiness interests before the State Legislature and state regulatory agencies.

More than 1,800 participating members include:

  • Feed, grain and farm supply companies;
  • Fertilizer, chemical and spray equipment manufacturers and distributors;
  • Cooperative and independent agronomic retailers and applicators;
  • Crop consultants, food processors, soil labs, environmental consultants, engineers and transporters;
  • Agronomy managers, crop advisors, nutrient management planners;
  • Custom applicators, and;
  • University and technical college educators and  government agency representatives.

WABA Executive Director Tom Bressner explained that twice each year the association spotlights one of the state’s agribusinesses. “We invite local officials, and reach out to our state representatives and give them an opportunity to learn more about these businesses, and see what they do,” he said.

“We want people to understand that we’re all about safety,” Bressner emphasized. “Three years ago there was a big fertilizer explosion in west Texas. We’ll guarantee you that’s not going to happen in Wisconsin because of the work we do to ensure safety. We want everybody here today to walk away knowing more about one of their neighbors – that they’re good people and they run good businesses.”

Customer service

Joel Zalewski, northern operations manager of Insight FS, informed tour participants that his company is a retail division of GROWMARK Inc. that has been serving a variety of customers in Wisconsin and Upper Michigan on a cooperative basis since the 1920s. Insight FS and GROWMARK are affiliated companies with the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation.

“Across the state, Insight FS currently has 340 full-time employees, and we employ roughly 180 people seasonally to help us accomplish our mission,” he said. “We rely on them to safely operate nearly 500 licensed motor vehicles, and facilities across the state that provide grain, feed, refined fuels, propane, fertilizer and crop protection.”

To provide some additional perspective on the scope of the company, Zalewski related that the most recent annual sales revenue was $233 million – $85.5 million from refined fuels, $17.5 million in propane sales, $13.5 million from feed, and $18.7 from grain.

“Our agronomy department recorded sales of $98.1 million, and we’re also the state’s largest author of nutrient management plans,” he added.

Safety and training

Zalewski also noted that the company’s safety committee includes employees from every location. “They meet monthly to discuss current issues, plan policy and track progress. They also inspect facilities on a regular basis to ensure compliance with industry regulations and company policies,” he said.

“They’re task is to keep us focused on safety, and that’s particularly a challenge in an industry that’s so cyclical like ours,” he said. ”It’s easy to deal with safety many months of the year, but when spring hits and everything has to be done in two months, it’s really a challenge.”

Customer service and training are emphasized for all employees, according to Zalewski. “Our crop specialists receive continuing education every year so they can provide reliable current information to our growers. Employees who operate large equipment receive training twice a year at the Arlington Agricultural  Research Station, where they keep current on industry issues, equipment calibration and general equipment operation,” he explained.

The Antigo location has 45 full-time employees and 25 seasonal employees. “We have three facilities: the fertilizer plant that you’ll see today, our retail office, and our convenience store that’s along Highway 45,” he said.

“We serve customers as far south as New London, as far east as Bonduel and north all the way into the U.P. of Michigan. In Antigo our annual gross sales revenue ranges between $30 million and $45 million, and that’s largely dependent on commodity prices such as fuel, propane and fertilizer, which can fluctuate dramatically.”

Plant tour

After learning about the company and the services it provides, it was time to get a closer look at the expansive fertilizer plant.

The large structure is dominated by a tall tower at the front of the building, under which spreader trucks pass to be filled with fertilizer specially blended for each farm and crop field.

“The tower includes a 20,000-pound scale and two 20,000-pound blenders, Each fertilizer load begins with a delivery ticket based on the agronomist’s analysis of the specific blend that’s needed for each crop field,” Zalewski remarked.

“The different ingredients are dropped into the scale and then into one of the blenders, where they’re mixed into the proper blend, which finally goes into the trucks that follow the lane beneath the tower.” he added.

Zalweski said the tower operator has a PA system so he can speak to the drivers. “There’s a camera that allows him see down into the trucks so he can efficiently manage the loading operation. It’s not a high-tech or highly automated system, but it is very effective.”

The inside of the huge building features several storage bins that are filled with the various ingredients during the winter months so everything’s ready for the spring planting season.

“Ingredients are moved from the bins by a front-end loader and emptied into a pit that serves as a load-out to the tower,” Zalewski related. “His mission is to make sure the tower operator has all the product he needs at all times. The processor in the pit has a filter that removes on lumps or any debris. The fertilizer goes up the elevator across on a conveyor to another elevator that takes it up to the distributor that fills the tower.”

Continuing mission

Insight FS has a long-term strategic goal that emphasis developing and training employees, according to Zalewski.

“We don’t have the luxury anymore of bringing in a lot of people who were raised on small, traditional farms, and come to us used to running equipment, working hard and working the long hours we put in,” he said.

“We try to compensate for that by doing a lot of training and mentoring within. When we find those employees who have the character and ambition we’re looking for, we work really hard to develop them and provide a nice career for them.”

This spreader truck is one of nearly 500 licensed vehicles operated by the Insight FS Cooperative.
The operator of the fertilizer tower blends ingredients to meet the specific needs of each crop field.
The Insight FS Cooperative’s fertilizer storage facility in Antigo provides material for its customers throughout north central Wisconsin and Upper Michigan.
Joel Zalewski,
Insight FS Cooperative Northern Operations Manager
Tom Bressner,
WABA Executive Director