CHS, the nation’s largest farmer-owned cooperative, said Monday that it will pay out $600 million to its owners — the largest cash return ever by a U.S. agricultural co-op.
Farmers, ranchers and member cooperatives across the United States are getting the money. Minnesota has the most CHS members — 24,559 individuals and co-ops — and they will get $116.3 million in payments, the most of any state.
The payouts illustrate the continuing strength of the agriculture and energy sectors, where CHS earns its profits.
“It is hugely satisfying,” said CHS CEO Carl Casale in an interview. “A lot of company owners live on Wall Street. Ours live in Minnesota and North Dakota.”
CHS earned a record $1.26 billion for the fiscal year that ended in August, up 31 percent over 2011. Three-fourths of the profits last year came from CHS’ energy business. Its oil refineries in Montana and Kansas earned high margins thanks to favorable midcontinent crude oil prices.
The cooperative also offers a wide array of farm-related goods and services, from grain handling to feed production to financial services. In Minnesota, CHS owns grain terminals in Savage and Winona.
“All of our businesses performed well, and energy was just extraordinary,” Casale said.
The 2012 payout is 39 percent higher than last year’s, which was the previous record. After Minnesota, North Dakota was second in overall payouts, with 17,594 members getting $103 million. South Dakota, with 14,622 members, was third, getting $48.1 million.
“Agriculture has been the bright spot for the U.S. economy,” said Todd Ludwig, CEO of the Truman, Minn.-based WFS cooperative serving 4,500 producers in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa. “It’s actually thrived through most of this downturn.”
WFS has received a $1.3 million payment from CHS, and expects to receive additional equity and equity payouts, Ludwig said. Some of the money will be paid to WFS’ members, and the rest will be invested in new facilities, he added. WFS members’ checks will range from a few hundred dollars to nearly $100,000, he said.
The payouts vary widely because they are based on how much business a farmer or co-op does with the Inver Grove Heights-based parent cooperative. “It’s a unique system in the business world,” Ludwig said. “It works well for farmers.”
The distributions have begun to the nearly 1,200 member cooperatives and nearly 50,000 individual members and others, CHS said. CHS also is distributing cash to member cooperatives to redeem equity they earned in prior years. CHS said it also will redeem equities of eligible individual members throughout 2013 and will also pay quarterly dividends to owners of CHS preferred stock.
Casale said some of CHS’ profits are being invested in a major upgrade to its Kansas refinery, expansion of grain handling facilities in the Pacific Northwest and a nitrogen manufacturing plant in North Dakota.
CHS recently reported a 17.5 percent drop in its first-quarter earnings compared with a year earlier. Casale said those results “would not put us on the same trajectory that we achieved in 2012.”
CHS was created in 1998 from the merger of Cenex and Harvest States co-ops. Its revenue is more than double those of the next largest cooperative, the Dairy Farmers of America.