Cargill Inc. started out as a grain trading company by building thousands of elevators in rural areas that farmers could reach in a day by horse and wagon.
Today, being close to farmers isn’t as important as it once was. Farmers are just as informed about price and demand trends as Cargill is. Many of them now run huge operations that are spread out over many miles. And most farmers also store their own grain, timing its sale to maximize revenue and profit.
To stay on top of the global grain business, Cargill needs to do more for farmers than simply buy, store and trade their goods. Its old model of making a profit on the difference between what it paid to buy grain and got paid to sell it is no longer enough.
“Making money through grain sales isn’t over, but it’s changed,” said Roger Watchorn, president of Cargill’s North America agriculture supply chain. “Cargill is reinventing itself to provide our farmers with new services to continue to add value in an age when information on commodities is readily available and many farmers have their own storage.”
From a single storage facility in northeast Iowa more than 150 years ago, Cargill created a vast network of grain elevators throughout the Midwest. Today, it is the world’s largest trader of food — storing, processing and moving vast amounts of oils, grains, meat and cocoa around the globe, though the privately held company doesn’t disclose precise figures.
Even as the company has expanded into businesses that range from salmon feed to transoceanic shipping, it remained a grain trader and the business is often the leading contributor to its quarterly profits.
“Cargill [now] has an even stronger emphasis on commodity trading and being the leading merchants of grain. The core of what we do is trade grain,” Watchorn said.
But as in industries as varied as real estate and entertainment, digital gadgets and the internet have eroded the grip on information that middlemen used to have in the agriculture industry. Farmers now access real-time market data and decide themselves when is the best time to sell. Cargill has evolved its business model in the process.
As farm size has ballooned in the last 35 years, many growers built their own storage facilities to save transportation time at harvest, said Ed Usset, a grain marketing specialist at the University of Minnesota.
“The farmer’s territory has widened out,” Usset said. “He doesn’t have time to be running 20 miles down the road and back to unload his truck.”
Cargill used to operate a much larger network of small grain elevators in tiny communities across the Midwest and Great Plains. But the rise in corporate farms, which has accelerated in the past two decades, means fewer growers making the trek to the local elevator. Many traders have closed these smaller locations as farming has consolidated.
Now, Cargill and its big competitors like CHS, Archer Daniels Midland and Bunge, are focused on fewer, but larger and faster, elevators.
“As farmers make investments in storing grain, the value of our infrastructure has evolved from being about pure storage capacity to more about the efficient handling and movement of grain,” Watchorn said.
Farmers often sit in long lines at these storage facilities waiting to unload their crops. Firms like Cargill now advertise the speed at which they can get a farmer in and out of an elevator, Usset said. “Speed is a service to farmers,” he said.
These large, efficient elevators are less about storage and more about getting the grains checked in, loaded on a train or barge and off to market as quickly as possible.
Under the old model of many small elevators dotting the rural landscape, a one- to three-car train would be loaded at a time. That eventually evolved into 25-car units, then 50-car units. Today, there are many facilities across western and southern Minnesota that have the capability to load a 100-car train in about eight hours. Each rail car can hold about 3,500 bushels of corn. These shuttle-loading elevators, as they are called, can unload an individual farmer’s goods in minutes.
“It reduces the time it takes to get to market and is a cheaper transportation method, so more money goes to the farmer,” Usset said.
By reducing lag time and getting the grain to port quicker, Cargill saves money that it can use to offer farmers a better price for their goods.
Cargill led the industry more than a decade ago by releasing a software tool that farmers use to get the best price for their grain. The tool allows a grower to tap into the knowledge of Cargill’s global trading team, which will sell it on their behalf. Cargill’s competitors have since created and marketed similar tools.
“I think Cargill has been aggressive over the years, but they get matched quickly,” Usset said.
Cargill also uses satellite imaging and apps to help U.S. farmers forecast crop production, which can give them a better sense of their market risk.
Use of blockchain technology is a hot topic in the food industry, too. Blockchain was originally developed as an accounting method for cryptocurrencies but has been applied to a number of industries. By sharing and storing information in real-time, blockchain could allow consumers to scan a QR code on a food product and trace its ingredients to the source. The meat industry is at the leading edge of this, but there is interest in using it to trace where grains come from as well, Watchorn said.
He sees the company as an interpreter of the global food market and an advocate for the farmer. “Farmers are asking Cargill, ‘How do you address the growing concern on labeling?’ ” Watchorn said. “The value we bring to farmers are the insights we have.”
The company hopes these new ventures in its very old grain trading business help it maintain its position on top.
Usset, an academic researcher, said he has had farmers pull him aside after he gives a speech and ask him what Cargill’s real motivation is for all its pricing tools and services.
“They’ll say to me, ‘What are they trying to do?’ like they are trying to be surreptitious about something,” Usset said. “I say to them, ‘You are thinking too hard. They want to handle your grain. They want you to use their facility. They don’t make money if they don’t handle grain. It’s really that simple.’ ”