Driving on Highway 24 through St. Marys in Northeastern Kansas, one structure stands out from the rest. On the west side of town, a multi-storied fertilizer tower gleams in the sunlight — part of the headquarters site for J.B. Pearl Sales & Service Inc.
Upon closer inspection, it’s obvious that the ag retail outlet has been on this ground for several decades (in fact, it dates back to the company’s founding in 1961). And while it blends seamlessly into its surroundings, the fertilizer building and tower aren’t even one year old yet.
According to Doyle Pearl, co-owner/general manager, the reason for this mixing of traditional with modern is simple – to meet customer needs. “Like a friend of mine once said, churches are built with their busiest day, Easter Sunday, in mind,” says Doyle. “We did the same thing here. The rest of our facility was fine, but we needed the ability to load and blend fertilizer for our busiest week or two of the year better than we were able to previously.”
And this was something sorely lacking with J.B. Pearl’s old fertilizer building and blending equipment. In fact, says Troy Pearl, co-owner and special projects manager, the company was constantly trying to keep pace with the increased demand for fertilizer in its Kansas territory, and failing. “I remember many times coming in at 4:30 in the morning to start loading trucks so we could have all of them loaded by daylight when the rest of the crew arrived,” says Troy. “We just couldn’t keep doing that the way our business was growing. We needed a better way.”
O.J. Pearl, co-owner and agronomy sales, agrees. “One of the things that best describes J.B. Pearl as a company is consistency,” says O.J. “But that was beginning to suffer using our old fertilizer building and system.”
Too Much To Keep Up
Until last year, J.B. Pearl handled all of its fertilizer needs in St. Mary’s with an 800-ton storage facility and rotary blending equipment. Still, as Troy points out, the company was storing up to seven different products on a regular basis. “Logistically, it was very difficult to keep every product that our customers wanted on hand at all times,” he says.
Speed was also becoming a factor. “As our trucks and machines kept getting bigger, loading them in a timely fashion became a real challenge,” says Troy. “Again, none of us wanted to keep coming in four hours early during our busiest times or miss the opportunity to fill customer orders for fertilizer during their busy seasons.”
To solve these issues, Troy began researching the idea of J.B. Pearl installing a new fertilizer building in 2007. First, he had to decide whether or not this new structure would be situated on a new company ground or become part of its existing facility. “Our current outlet is located between railroad tracks on one side and Highway 24 on the other,” says Troy. “But when it was all said and done, we decided to make it work on the footprint we already had.”
Once this was determined, Troy set about trying to find the kind of fertilizer blending system that could fulfill J.B. Pearl’s needs. “I had this idea to work with tower blenders, but I wasn’t 100% sure,” he says.
Then, Troy happened across The A.J. Sackett & Sons Co., Baltimore, MD, at an Agricultural Retailers Association convention. “They seemed to have what I was looking for,” says Troy.
For the next few years, J.B. Pearl and Sackett worked together — in tandem with a local engineer — to come up with a design for a complete fertilizer building/tower/blending system. “This plant is very different than other fertilizer plants since it’s at a relatively small storage facility, unlike the huge mega-plants that have recently been built,” says J.C. Remsberg, sales & marketing representative for Sackett.
As Troy remembers, Sackett’s recommendations also lead to some changes from his original plant design. “The one thing I had to do was move where the leg pit was located in the building because of where Sackett’s people said they could put it,” he says.
With the finished design in hand, J.B. Pearl next had to decide where this new structure would be located on its existing grounds. Ultimately, the company demolished its old maintenance shop and moved it to a building that came up for sale just a few blocks away.
“We broke ground on the new building in May 2012,” says Troy. “And we were producing our first products there last December.”
The new J.B. Pearl fertilizer building has 3,000 tons of storage capacity across seven different product bins. According to Troy, one of the unique features of this structure is a single, center-located conveyor that handles all fertilizer movement. “That was one of the design challenges we faced because it’s a little more untraditional than most fertilizer facilities,” he says. “I wanted to be able to receive products via railcars or trucks on the same conveyor, giving me the option to have them go up the elevator leg for mixing and loading or into my storage building. This would also allow me to reduce the amount of equipment we needed, which was another high priority on my wish list.”
According to Don Pearl, co-owner and maintenance supervisor, another special feature of the storage building is its durable design. “There is more than 70 tons of steel that went into the concrete used to build this facility,” says Don. “And I was happy we went with 16-foot concrete walls because you can get some kick-out at the bottoms of traditional fertilizer buildings as bolts rust out from wear.” In addition, the doors on the storage bins have special flaps installed to prevent product from spilling out when they are full.
The environmental aspects of this new facility are also a plus, says Doyle. “Kansas doesn’t require ag retailers to conduct fertilizer loading and unloading under roof, but that has always been a concern in our minds here at Pearl,” he says. “But now, we are not only doing our loading/unloading under a roof, but we have the ability to even shut the doors to our building if we want to to cut down on the dust or stray prills.”
A Tower Of Power
Of course, the centerpiece of this new structure is the blend tower. Its many features include:
It can hold up to 120 tons of storage in nine overhead bins, meaning that all products are available for use at all times.
It contains twin weigh hoppers which work in 2 pound increments to finely tune custom fertilizer blends.
It has twin Bombay-style doors to move loads from the mixer into a surge hopper, which prevents the segregation of materials.
According to Troy, one of the best features of the blend tower is its ability to load trucks with 25 tons of custom blended product in as little as eight minutes. “The overhead storage is ideal for that kind of speed,” he says. “It used to take us two to three hours to load all of our trucks and machines, but not anymore.”
Still, in his mind, the most important part of the new J.B. Pearl blend tower is its High Intensity Mixer (H.I.M.) unit. Situated in the heart of the tower, the H.I.M. is designed to blend and coat fertilizer products thoroughly and gently in a matter of seconds — a big improvement over the company’s previous mixing option, says Troy.
“We were doing some urea coating with our old rotary blender, but it didn’t really work that well,” he says. “It was messy and slow, taking approximately one minute per ton to blend. So it would take me seven minutes to do a typical batch, but the quality of coverage still wasn’t there even then. Since the quality wasn’t up to what I thought our standards should be, we had this service available, but didn’t really promote it to our customers.” However, he adds, many of them continued to ask about receiving these kinds of blends from J.B. Pearl.
Things are much different now using the H.I.M. “The H.I.M. dispenses coating in the center of the unit and blends it from both ends in as little as 10 seconds,” says Troy. “Now, I can run a batch in 30 seconds and it will be perfectly coated.” In fact, he adds, J.B. Pearl is so pleased with how well the H.I.M. has performed its coating duties that the company is not only promoting this service to its customers, it is also doing some custom fertilizer blending/coating for other companies on a contract basis.
Now that the new fertilizer building and blend tower are meeting its present needs, J.B. Pearl expects this to remain the case for decades to come. “When we were planning this structure, we were told by Sackett and our engineer that we could build something that would last 20 years or 50 years,” says Troy. “50 sounded better.”
“That’s why we put stainless steel in our overhead bins,” adds Don. “There was quite a bit of an upcharge to do this, but if we hadn’t, I would have been re-painting these units every three to five years. Having something that would last instead for what would be double our company’s current age sounded like a much better plan to me.”
Better still, J.B. Pearl even has some room to grow on its current site if circumstances demand it, says Doyle. “We’ve doubled the size of our dry fertilizer business in the past few years, and we could conceivably expand our current building by 20% if we needed to,” he says. “Overall, we will continue to follow the model my parents, James Bernard (J.B.) and Eileen, founded the company on — providing the services and products to allow our customers to do what they do best: Perfect crop production agriculture.”