CPS: A Marston Odyssey
Driving south down Interstate 55 in Missouri, observers are likely to notice a curious sight. Throughout this part of the state are thousands of bent or broken trees, victims of a severe ice storm that hit the area during 2009, leaving local residents with plenty of clean-up and repair work still being conducted more than one year later.
Yet, despite this damage from Mother Nature, the county has its share of blessings from Mother Earth. Thanks in part to nutrients from the nearby Mississippi River and naturally-rich soil, agriculture thrives in this part of the Midwest. Among the wounded trees are endless fields of all kinds of crops — corn, soybeans, cotton, wheat, and rice. According to area natives, some of this land has been farmed by local families for generations — and will likely be for generations to come.
To keep the growers in this agricultural community supplied with their crop input and custom application needs, ag retail giant Crop Production Services (CPS) has established what it calls the Mid-South Division. Consisting of more than 15 locations, the Mid-South Division has a lengthy service area following the course of the Mississippi, stretching from Cape Girardeau, MO, in the north to Dumas, AR, in the south.
Overseeing this group is Steve Martin, general manager. With the company for more than 10 years, Martin calls himself a “hometown boy,” growing up in the region and working in agriculture his whole life. In fact, his first job in 1980 was with fertilizer supplier Terra Industries, where he spent 20 years learning the trade. This employment background makes him intimately familiar with the wants and needs of CPS’ numerous grower-customers in the area, particularly when it comes to crop nutrients.
“Our growers are a hard-working group and expect that same level of commitment from their business partners,” says Martin. “If we promise to deliver them a load of potash or DAP (diammonium phosphate) at a certain time on a certain date, then we better be able to come through for them.”
Unfortunately for CPS’ Mid-South Division, delivering on this promise has been sometimes difficult. As with many ag retailers in this part of the country, CPS works with third-party supply terminals in the region to source its fertilizer. For the most part, says Martin, this works out pretty well. However, on occasion, this arrangement has proven challenging for CPS, particularly during the busiest time of the year for the company — early spring.
“The problem we were running into was that the third-party terminals were on a different work schedule than we were,” he says. “While our growers are in their fields working, our locations stay open. It doesn’t matter if its seven days a week; whatever it takes to get fertilizer to our customers is what we will do. But we were having trouble doing this and staying ahead of the sometimes short application season because many third-party terminals didn’t want to stay open seven days a week. Most of them wanted to close at 5 p.m. on Friday and not re-open until the following Monday.”
Another issue with the third-party suppliers, says Martin, has been caused by nature occurrences in any river-based community — namely, water levels. “In the spring, the Mississippi sometimes rises too much for river terminals to operate,” he says. “At other times, the water is too low. In both cases, these high/low water events would cause our third-party terminals to close, which meant we sometimes couldn’t get the fertilizer we needed to supply our grower-customers.”
After enduring this set of circumstances for a couple of years, Martin had had enough. In his mind, he began to kick around the thought of CPS taking matters into its own hands by building its own fertilizer terminal on the Mississippi River to supply the northern portion of the Mid-South Division. “At first, building our own facility was just a pipe dream of ours,” he says. “But ultimately, I was the one catching all the crap when our outlets couldn’t deliver fertilizer to their customers on time, so I thought ‘why not?'”
Looking at the bigger picture, Martin believed such a move made financial sense as well for CPS. “On paper, the northern part of our division was moving approximately 125,000 tons of fertilizer per year,” he says. “This meant that any facility we put up could be used to supply just our CPS locations. We didn’t have to wholesale fertilizer outside our group to make the plant work.
“But it was really more of a defensive move on our part rather than an offensive one,” he continues. “I was constantly hearing griping from folks because our retail plants couldn’t get fertilizer on time, especially with the application season getting more compressed each year. Also, we needed to find a way to get product to our retail locations while not at the mercy of the river stages.”
When fertilizer sales for the marketplace went through the roof during the boom times of 2007, Martin decided it was time to act on his pipe dream. He approached CPS’ senior management with the company’s plan. Looking at the numbers and supply chain benefits, the management agreed that the time was right for the northern portion of the Mid-South Division to have its own fertilizer terminal on the river. It approved the project, providing the effort not cost more than $15 million to complete.
With approval and budget in hand, Martin set about finding a construction partner that could fulfill CPS’ requirements for the new facility. Without hesitation, he hired Stueve Construction Co., Algona, IA. “I’d worked with Stueve before, with the company having built nine plants during my career,” he says. “They always were exceptional in their eye for details and great about getting everything finished on time, so I had no trouble with working with them for this important project.”
Throughout 2008, Martin worked closely with Stueve personnel Jack Burns, president, Russ Buscher, director of engineering, Dr. Reynold Franklin, design engineer, and Dan Burns, CEO, to flesh out the facility specs. Remarkably, say all the players involved, this process went very smoothly, with the initial ground-breaking taking place on Feb. 1, 2009 as planned. Jack Burns credits Martin’s vision and pre-planning for keeping things on time.
“With many of the projects I’ve worked on in the past, you end up with scope creep, with the construction specifications being changed throughout the process because of the owner’s wants or vendors supplies,” he says. “But when you clearly define the scopes at the beginning of the project and not make changes, things flow very easily towards completion. The CPS project was like this — well thought out in advance so we had no surprises pop up to slow us down.”
One of the most important decisions regarding the new facility involved its location. According to Martin, he wanted a spot on the river where fertilizer barges could quickly unload their cargos and geographically be at the heart of the distribution range of the northern part of the Mid-South Division (approximately 75 miles in radius). He also wanted extra space around the terminal to expand in the future if necessary. Following some careful consideration, Martin ultimately chose nearby Marston, MO, for the facility.
“Not only is Marston just north of my office in Portageville, MO, but it has the added benefit of being the only harbor site between St. Louis and Memphis that has never been shut down due to high or low water levels,” he says. “That meant we would never have to worry about moving fertilizer from this location to our retail outlets.”
Once the site was picked, Martin entrusted Stueve with not only doing the main construction on the facility, but with hiring all the sub-contractors as well. “It made things so much easier for me to just have to make one call to Russ or Jack if I had any questions,” he says. “They would find out from the other partners and call me right back.”
With all the pre-planning and lack of scope creep, the Marston facility was completed on time and open for operation by November 2009 — only nine months after the initial ground-breaking. “Better yet, the total cost of the terminal came in under budget,” adds Martin.
A Mega Operation
Seen from an aerial image, the Marston facility is massive, covering thousands of square feet on the banks of the Mississippi River. The facility features liquid fertilizer tanks supplied by A&B Welding, a huge dry fertilizer storage building dominated by two Waconia Manufacturing-supplied blend towers, and a liquid fertilizer loading shed. There’s even a maintenance shop, where CPS services a fleet of 10 hopper bottom trailers and five transport tankers.
In liquid fertilizer, the Marston facility is equipped to store 18,000 tons of product. This is delivered to truck drivers through a nearby two-bay shed, which is controlled through an automated system supplied by Kahler Automation, Fairmont, MN.
“To get a load, all a driver needs to do is pull up to the keypad and punch in his driver code,” says Martin. “The shed will then open up and the liquid fertilizer can be dispensed.” Once the product is loaded, the system will automatically send an e-mail confirming the order and letting customers know their liquid fertilizer in on the way.
“There’s even a safety feature in this system that won’t put more than 80,000 pounds into any tanker,” adds Martin. “This prevents any driver from leaving our facility with an overloaded truck.”
Of course, the heart of the complex is the dry fertilizer storage/loading building. This structure can hold up to 51,000 tons of crop nutrients at a time, making it the largest fertilizer terminal in the Midwest. Inside, holding bays are filled floor to ceiling with urea, DAP, potash, and the like.
Despite this size, however, the entire building can be run by as few as two employees, using John Deere front-end loaders and a sophisticated automated control system from Kahler. “We have two 14-ton blenders in one tower for blended products while the second tower consists of a holding bin for straight products,” says Martin. “In terms of speed, our operators can deliver a 24-ton load of straight fertilizer in five minutes or the same size load of blended product in eight minutes.” The terminal can even distribute other crop nutrients such as micronutrients or stabilizing products.
Besides its size and speed, the other impressive thing about the Marston facility is its design. For those unfamiliar with Midwestern geography, Marston is situated within the New Madrid Seismic Zone. In 1811-12, this region experienced what many scientists consider to be the strongest earthquake in U.S. history, measuring more than 8.0 on the moment magnitude scale. The quake destroyed the town of New Madrid, MO, changed the course of the Mississippi River, and was felt as far away as New York City and Boston, where church bells reportedly rang as the ground shook in Missouri.
Today, almost 200 years later, the area is still prone to minor tremors. “We typically get ground-shaking about four or five times per year, with most not registering more than 1.0 to 1.5 on the magnitude scale,” says Martin. “But because scientists predict another big one could occur at any time, we have to be prepared for it.”
This meant building the Marston facility with various earthquake-resistent safety measures. This includes having anchoring systems on the Waconia blend towers and the terminal’s 500,000-gallon ammonium thio-sulfate storage tank. In the dry fertilizer storage building, all of the walls are rodless and self-sustaining. According to Stueve’s Buscher, this will not only allow the structure to better weather a severe ground-shaking, but allows for more product to be kept within the bays because of its inherent lateral strength.
“Since the Marston plant is sitting on a fault line, it’s very beefed up for earthquake prevention,” he says. “In fact, we’ve built facilities in California that aren’t as beefed up as Marston is to withstand seismic activity.”
Within the next five years, Martin expects the northern part of CPS’ Mid-South Division to be delivering approximately 200,000 tons of fertilizer to grower-customers per year. With this added volume, he expects the Marston facility to pay for itself in as little as seven years.
“Once that happens, I would like to look at the possibility of building another fertilizer terminal to supply the southern half of the Mid-South Division,” he says. “But for now, I’m just happy knowing our retail outlets in the northern end will be covered when it comes to getting their fertilizer out on time.”