St. Clair Service Co.: Serving With Spirit

St. Clair Service Otten

It was built in 1931 to serve the growers of St. Clair County by ensuring a safe environment, governmental compliance and agricultural education for youth. In 1981, St. Clair Service Co. was relocated to a new site, three miles outside of the Belleville, IL-city limits, and just 19 miles from St. Louis and North America’s largest river system.

But the everyday challenges that came with proximity to a big city and a highly regulated watershed only served to deepen its commitment. In 1998, Location Manager Francis Vahlkamp accepted the National Environmental Respect Award for his company’s outstanding environmental initiatives.

Fourteen years later, the next generation continues to carry out the cooperative’s now 81-year mission. Service to agriculture that has brought this retailer the 2012 Spirit of Respect Award.

Changing With The Times

“In the past 15 years,” says Christopher Otten, location manager and safety coordinator at St. Clair, “there have been 7,000 new homes constructed in a radius of 25-30 miles around us. We are in constant vigilance of maintaining our site with the utmost concern of safety for the environment and respect for our surrounding neighbors.”

One of the biggest changes the facility has seen since its win in 1998 is the use of technology.

“Agriculture today is a business and a lot of it is about technology,” says Vahlkamp.

According to Otten, to keep up with the pace, St. Clair now has computers in all their cabs, and offers variable-rate technology to their customers. A second anhydrous ammonia tank, new containment dikes, a 30-thousand gallon water tank in the fertilizer shed, a HAZMAT Unit on site and four additional sprayers round out the most recent improvements.

But while physical plant upgrades are necessary to maintain safe and effective operations, the skill with which these tools are used is more important to Otten.

“Safety training is an absolute ongoing thing you have to do,” says Otten. “If I get hurt or sick from breathing in this or that, what did it cost me? A lot.”

Training at St. Clair Service is intense, beginning in January and extending throughout the year. It is conducted by job description providing each employee with specific skills that allow them to become experts in their area.

Otten explains that the company’s record of more than 500 days without incident can only happen when employees are paying attention to the details.

“They’re taking the extra 30 seconds before they do something to say ‘is that right or wrong?’ If you take the time to do that, you’ll know if something doesn’t look right.”

“A” Is For Agriculture

“Do you know what color of milk comes from a brown cow?” asks Vahlkamp, speaking to a room full of first graders. Hands fly in the air. “Chocolate!” one student answered. A chuckle for some, but a representation of the disconnect between the next generation and the food that keeps them alive.

“It’s about agriculture,” Vahlkamp explained. “Young kids do not understand where the food comes from. They don’t understand how the farmer is making things better for them.”

Sharing the ABC’s of ag has been a mission since the company’s inception. After Vahlkamp retired from managing St. Clair in 2005, he remained actively involved in Ag in the Classroom, a program run by the Illinois Farm Bureau. This year, according to Vahlkamp, they will reach approximately 7,000 children.

In addition to 30 years of Ag in the Classroom, St. Clair, with Vahlkamp’s help, conducts field and facility tours and works with local high schools to share agriculture’s message of safety.

“Agricultural spirit is involved in knowing, understanding and getting with all the people to let them know that we’re doing the very best we can,” says Vahlkamp.

Vahlkamp, Otten and the first graders. Three generations with different ideas and knowledge about crop production. What’s important, Otten says, is to keep the message out there.

“What are we trying to do?” says Otten. “It’s not all about making money. You have to look at the grassroots. Why do I grow crops? It’s to help feed the world. If you can take somebody out of a big city who hasn’t seen anything but concrete their whole lives, and you bring them out to the farm and see that glow, it’s an amazing feeling I can’t even explain. They realize that ‘hey, agriculture is what takes care of this.”

Dedication and commitment at this level is not easy.

“You may not feel like you’re making a difference but if you get one person to get that light bulb go off in their head you’ve made the biggest difference you can ever make.”

Now that’s the spirit.

Note: For more information on the Environmental Respect Award program, which is sponsored by DuPont, click here.

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