When Craig Gustafson took a job pumping gas at the Polk County Co-op during high school, he never imagined he’d someday become the director of agronomy operations of Federated Co-ops. But that he did.
“I went from working at the station to working in [the co-op’s] feed mill,” Gustafson said, recalling that people said the idea of people – especially women -- pumping their own gas would “never work because it’s too stinky!”
At that point, it was the heydays of dairy farms and livestock production in east-central Minnesota and western Wisconsin, but as herd numbers thinned in the 80s, Gustafson turned to agronomy. He worked at the old Chisago Lakes Co-op as a feed and agronomy laborer when that co-op merged with Princeton Co-op and Isanti County Co-op to form Central Rivers Co-op, which later became Federated Co-ops.
After many years of spreading fertilizer and operating a sprayer, Gustafson became the fertilizer plant manager at Federated’s Osceola location, not far from the farm where he grew up and now owns with his wife. In 1997, Gustafson was promoted to eastern agronomy division manager, a role he held until this past summer when Federated restructured some key roles in agronomy following Mike Melberg’s retirement. In July Gustafson became the director of agronomy operations.
Gustafson’s strong history with the co-op helps him, as he described, “bring all the locations together to work in harmony.” As he oversees all six Federated agronomy locations he “identifies opportunities . . . for running the business efficiently.” Those efficiencies may come in the form of better communication, placing people in the right place, helping managers run their facilities, or finding ways to allocate resources.
He said he focuses on “building a network of communication between all locations.” Sometimes that translates into addressing the challenges of retaining good workers throughout the agronomy system. Sometimes that means finding ways for the locations to share equipment. “The replacement costs of [state-of-the-art] equipment are skyrocketing,” he said. As a result, it’s essential to use equipment to its fullest capacity across Federated’s service areas. And, Gustafson said, “We have to have true professionals, top-notch people” to provide Federated’s key services.
“It requires quite a balance to come together and remain profitable,” he said, and that’s where “fielding the relationships with all the managers comes into play . . . the more efficient we are adds price savings to our customers.”
“We are trying to get a good return back to our customers, [co-op] owners,” he said.
Gustafson’s open door mentality, willingness to listen, and his easy-going nature help him get location managers involved in agronomy decisions. But, “in the event of a tie, I’ll be the tie breaker,” he said with a chuckle.
Gustafson truly understands the business of farming. “You don’t just take anyone and make ‘em a farmer.” As the son of two farmers (his parents), Gustafson has farming in his blood. Today he calls farming his “hobby” as he and his son manage 350 acres of corn and soybeans. “My son takes care of things on the mechanical level, and I make sure everything is there [for the crop] on a nutrition basis.”
“There’s just something about farming, he said, adding that his “hobby is a lot of work, but I enjoy the rewards of the labor.” And that pretty well sums up his goal for Federated growers: Finding the rewards in their labor.