Woolsey Bros.: No Stopping Us Now

Owner's son Ron, left, and longtime facility manager Randy Goodman.
Owner’s son Ron, left, and longtime facility manager Randy Goodman.

Being one of the few remaining independent, family-owned retailers in its area, Woolsey Bros. Farm Supply (No. 98 on the 2011 CropLife 100), Vandalia, IL, is faced with some formidable challenges going forward as they draw near 60 years in business.

The business opened its doors in 1954 as a partnership between current Owner Herb Woolsey, fresh off a stint in the U.S. Army, and his late brother Gerald. It began as a Honnegger’s, a poultry and feed dealer that once operated in south-central Illinois, before becoming one of the area’s most-trusted ag retailers by 1958. These days, Woolsey derives the majority of its business from liquid fertilizer sales and services such as custom application. What began with a “very used applicator truck with 30-foot booms” has now expanded into a fleet of 14 applicators with booms as long as 90 feet.

The company also vends crop protection products, mainly glyphosate, as well as seed while also maintaining a healthy grain business, which is managed by Herb’s son, Ron Woolsey.

“Between all of the new technology that’s out there, and the EPA and different Department of Ag laws, it’s almost impossible to do the small family business like we’re doing now,” says Randy Goodman, facility manager. “Nowadays, we’ve got to wear a lot more hats, and that makes it harder to keep up with every single aspect of the business when the busy times hit.”

As you process that quote, be sure to emphasize the word “almost,” as Woolsey is more than holding its own against some of the larger retail outfits in their area such as FS Seed Inc. (with a branch directly across the street) and Crop Protection Services, Inc.

Despite a brutal growing season in which spray applications overall in the area were down due to the drought, this past season still saw the company spray over 200,000 acres and reach a peak of 70 full-time employees during the spring planting season. All as the number of small family farms, traditionally its bread-and-butter client, continues to shrink and the global inputs market becomes increasingly more diversified and competitive.

Changes Bring Challenges

Now with 33 years under his belt at Woolsey, one can be sure Goodman has witnessed quite a few changes in the market.

“We were the first ones to do Roundup in this part of the world, so we used to just assume when we went to spray a bean field that it’s Roundup-Ready,” says Goodman. “Now, you’ve got to remember ‘no, it’s not.’ You’ve got the Roundup-Ready, but you’ve also got the conventional and the LibertyLink beans.

“It used to be there were only a handful of chemicals out there,” he continues. “Herb told me that when he first started we had Bicep, Prowl, atrazine and Princep, and those were the major hitters. That’s what everybody used. Now, there are so many generics coming into play. You’ve got the name brand players and then you’ve got the generics, which are cheaper.

“From a retail standpoint, we’ve got to adapt to that and figure out how we can still do name brand and stick with our suppliers while competing with the generic market. But if we find we can’t compete with the market, then we’ve got to do what’s best for our customers.”

Many other aspects of Woolsey’s day-to-day operations have changed as well, such as how customers are served. Before, according to Goodman, many of the company’s grower-clients relied solely on Herb.

“When I started here, I was very surprised at how many customers personally relied on Herb for all of their needs,” says Goodman. “I mean, the whole nine yards — seed, fertilizer, the insecticide — everything. I’d ask a customer ‘What are you putting on?,’ and they’d say ‘I don’t know, ask Herb.’”

While it may be more difficult to pull off these days, that old school, family approach is a large reason Goodman believes the company remains competitive. “Customer confidence is big for us. You’ve got to have that trust,” he says when asked what he believes sets Woolsey apart. “Herb still does a big customer appreciation dinner every year, where all of our customers are invited. I’m not sure a lot of companies still go to that expense with the economy the way it is.”

Still, most of the time it comes down to the bottom line: What price is the grower paying, and how is Woolsey Brothers going to help improve the customer’s profitability.

“In my opinion we try our best to compete price-wise with the big people,” says Goodman. “On the other side of that, I’ve had people say that they’ll pay Woolsey’s just a little bit more because they know that we’re going to do what we say. Herb is a military guy, as is Ron, and he’s very, very adamant about punctuality. If we tell a guy we’re going to be there at a certain time, we’ll be there.”

Tracking Product Changes

Another challenge for a localized retailer like Woolsey is keeping up with all the changes in product chemistries. Whereas in years past a quart of atrazine, for example, would prove sufficient, now the same results can be had by applying a mere fraction of that quart. It may save the grower money and is better for the environment in the long run, but in the end the retailer loses out on potential revenue that must be gained back elsewhere.

“Now you’re applying a tenth of an ounce or less, where before the same job called for a quart,” says Goodman. “The technology is just unbelievable and it’s only going to get more intensive.”

Making matters even worse for any retailer is the exploding cost of doing business, with fuel prices and other overhead costs at an all-time high.

“For example, normally with our nitrogen we have to purchase in June to lock in our best price, but in the past couple years the best price hasn’t been then, it’s been later,” says Goodman. “So then we’re stuck with a high priced commodity and we’re going to take a hit. I guess that’s one of the hardest things for a retailer our size — trying to be as fair as we can to the customer while also protecting our profit margins. Sometimes, you’ve got no choice but to cut into those margins out of compassion.”

It’s that compassion for customers, coupled with a family feel and knowledgeable, trusted employees that currently sets Woolsey Bros. apart from the its competition — and likely will continue to do so for another half century.

Leave a Reply

CropLife 100 Stories
CropLife 100CHS To Build $3 Billion Fertilizer Plant In North Dakota
September 5, 2014
The fertilizer plant in Spiritwood will be the single largest investment in CHS history, as well as the single largest private investment project ever undertaken in North Dakota. Read More
CropLife 100BRANDT Acquires Lemon Ag Services
August 4, 2014
The acquisition of Lemon Ag fits BRANDT’s aggressive corporate strategy of providing superior agronomic advice and services for customers in central Illinois. Read More
CropLife 100Wilbur-Ellis To Relocate Agribusiness Division To Denver
July 16, 2014
The move Eastward will allow Wilbur-Ellis’ Agribusiness Division to be more accessible to relevant geographies and is expected to enhance communication and collaboration among the division’s nearly 3,000 employees. Read More
CropLife 100CHS To Acquire Illinois River Energy Ethanol Plant
May 1, 2014
CHS has signed an agreement with Sinav Ltd. to acquire 100% of the company's stock, which includes Illinois River Energy, a 133-million-gallon-per-year ethanol plant at Rochelle, IL. Read More
Top 100 Articles
CropLife 100The Andersons Acquires South Dakota Plant Nutrient Manufacturer Kay-Flo
May 20, 2015
The Andersons, Inc., ranked No. 22 on the CropLife 100, has purchased Kay Flo Industries of North Sioux City, SD. “This Read More
CropLife 100North Central Farmers Elevator, Wheat Growers Unification Approved By Board, Still Awaits Member Approval
May 13, 2015
The Boards of Directors for North Central Farmers Elevator (NCFE) and Wheat Growers (WG) have voted to approve the Unification Read More
CropLife 100AgGateway’s Barcoding Initiative Progressing Nicely
May 8, 2015
According to legend (or Wikipedia), the first step towards modern bar codes came back in 1948, when Bernard Silver, a Read More
CropLife 100Pinnacle Agriculture Acquires Minnesota Retailer
April 14, 2015
Pinnacle Agriculture Holdings, LLC, ranked No. 6 on the CropLife 100,  has successfully acquired Liebl Ag, LLC in Ada, MN.  Read More
CropLife 100CHS, Aurora Cooperative Complete Fertilizer Storage, Grain Shuttle Loading Facility
April 13, 2015
CHS Inc., the nation’s leading cooperative and ranked No. 5 on the CropLife 100, and Aurora Cooperative (ranked No. 21) Read More
CropLife 100GROWMARK Acquires Missouri Refined Fuels Terminal
April 2, 2015
Bloomington, IL-based GROWMARK and Magellan Pipeline Co. have entered into an agreement in which GROWMARK will acquire the refined fuels Read More
Latest News
ManagementA New Sprayer Company & UAV Research In The Spotlig…
May 21, 2015
CropLife’s Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sfiligoj talk about a Dutch sprayer manufacturer entering the U.S. with a super-sized entry and Read More
HerbicidesFirst U.S. Sale Of Enlist Duo Herbicide Made By Dow Agr…
May 21, 2015
Dow AgroSciences has recorded the first U.S. sale of Enlist Duo herbicide with Colex-D Technology. This marks the first commercial Read More
CropLife 100The Andersons Acquires South Dakota Plant Nutrient Manu…
May 20, 2015
The Andersons, Inc., ranked No. 22 on the CropLife 100, has purchased Kay Flo Industries of North Sioux City, SD. “This Read More
EquipmentNORAC Options Coming To TerraGator
May 19, 2015
Utilizing NORAC’s Standard Control technology, boom height control is now available for TerraGators with Airmax Precision 2 and Benson Booms. This Read More
Crop InputsHelena Introduces New Soil Health Product
May 19, 2015
Helena Chemical Co. is helping agricultural producers maximize yields and efficiency with the introduction of Liquid Chisel, a new product Read More
Stewardship4R Nutrient Management Planning Certification Now Avail…
May 19, 2015
The American Society of Agronomy (ASA) and the International Certified Crop Adviser (ICCA) program announce a new specialty certification in Read More
Environmental Defense Fund logo
Paul SchrimpfEnvironmental Defense Fund: Appreciating Partners
May 19, 2015
I WAS deep in the throes of preparation for the Commodity Classic meeting that took place this past February, trying Read More
WebinarsUpcoming Webinars
May 19, 2015
Register for one of our upcoming Webinars or access our archive of past Webinars to view recordings of presentations that may be of interest to you. Read More
Syngenta Sign
Seed/BiotechSyngenta Responds To Lawyer’s Victory Claim In Vi…
May 18, 2015
A plaintiff’s lawyer has issued a public statement claiming that damages have been awarded in the Agrisure Viptera corn lawsuits Read More
StewardshipCould Australian Water Trading Approach Fit In Californ…
May 18, 2015
Ten years of drought isn’t a good thing. It doesn’t help the bottom line of farmers or the health of Read More
SpreadersDutch Sprayer Manufacturer To Enter U.S. Market
May 18, 2015
Dutch self-propelled sprayer manufacturer Agrifac Machinery has announced intentions to enter the U.S. market with two models of sprayers available Read More
FertilizerTFI Weighs In On Fertilizer Rail Transport Bill
May 14, 2015
With today’s House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure as a backdrop, The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) registered its support for policies Read More
ManagementA Visit To The 2015 Environmental Respect Spirit Award …
May 14, 2015
CropLife’s Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sfiligoj talk about a recent visit to the CPS Spirit winner in St. Stephen’s Church, Read More
StewardshipBayer Entomologist Issues Statement On Annual Honeybee …
May 13, 2015
Richard (Dick) Rogers, Principal Scientist / Entomologist, Bayer Bee Care Center for Bayer CropScience LP, today issued the following statement Read More
Crop InputsKansas State Researchers Announce Resistant Kochia Brea…
May 13, 2015
Kansas State University researchers say new research helps explain why an invasive weed is developing resistance to a well-known herbicide, Read More
RR2X soybeans surround untreated check (center)
HerbicidesUSDA Study: Glyphosate Application More Prevalent In So…
May 13, 2015
Glyphosate—known by many trade names, including Roundup—has been the most widely used pesticide in the United States since 2001. It Read More
AdjuvantsHelena Chemical Introduces New Drift Control Adjuvant J…
May 13, 2015
Helena Chemical Co. introduces Justified, an innovative drift control agent designed to improve the performance and precision of spray applications Read More
CropLife 100North Central Farmers Elevator, Wheat Growers Unificati…
May 13, 2015
The Boards of Directors for North Central Farmers Elevator (NCFE) and Wheat Growers (WG) have voted to approve the Unification Read More