Visionary ag entrepreneur John Cory sees big opportunities in small niches

One of the greatest rewards of my ag journalism career is building a network of idea-filled friends around the world. They keep me focused on the future, even while while we cherish our years of relationships. For me that includes 7 years at Farm Journal, 30 years at Professional Farmers of America — and now, a dozen years with our three-generation family firm, Renewable Farming LLC. 

September 3, 2021  By Jerry Carlson  A few days ago, longtime Pro Farmer friend John Cory e-mailed Merrill Oster, whom I'd joined in 1972 to co-found Professional Farmers of America. John also referred to me, so I asked him for an update on his career track. We'd met at Pro Farmer seminars years ago. I learned that John sees the best opportunities in farming just as we do: Based on Renewable Farming's favorite themes of healthy soils and biologically based crops. 

John's father laid the foundations of Renewable Farming long before its concepts went viral. And long before a major slice of consumers realized healthy, non-GMO food is the best medicine for building their immune systems.

I realized that the story of John Cory's career confirms:

1. Renewable Farming — his label is Regenerative Farming — provides the product line of foods which a growing fraction of consumers want. 

2. Processing companies like his, a milling firm, will contract with growers who can provide reliable, high-quality non-GMO grains and other products for the ever-growing base of customers who want the healthiest food for their families.

So — I resolved to simply let John Cory tell you his story of discovery. Like me, he cherishes his many friends. And like our family firm, he's dedicated to good health for all the people who buy his food products.

My story

By John Cory, Managing Director and CEO, Prairie Mills Products LLC, Rochester, Indiana

 

In reconnecting with you, Jerry, I'm happy to learn that all seems well in Iowa, and your adventures carry on after your Pro Farmer career. A Bloomberg Radio interview the other day triggered fond memories of all of those early days of Pro Farmer seminars across the Midwest. For a lot of us young guys back then, these were actually training labs for learning how to trade futures and hedge our risks.

Actually, within some of those groups of eclectic farmers, young and old, friendships across the country were established. My best day this summer was at the airshow at Oshkosh a month ago — hanging out with a bunch of Piper Comanche pilot friends I'd not seen for two years since Covid changed the world. Friendships matter, all across life. Some of the best people I've ever known are farm folks. For all of us from rural zip codes, there is truly a kindred spirit, a common language and a collegial bond forever, across the globe and beyond languages. 

John Cory

Some of those 1970s friendships became vital when the economic wheels of agriculture fell off in the 1980s. A whole generation of guys my age, plus or minus about 10 years, had to reinvent their lives, their careers, and sometimes their families.

Beyond the drama of the 1980s, life went on. Many of my generation of farmers who went into other things were well-equipped with financial tools and skills for trading and merchandising. They were able to adapt into new directions, outside farming.

Seldom will you find one of us who left farming who hasn't had an unusual career path. There are a lot of folks like me who've remained plugged into agriculture all these years — even though the devolving circumstances of the 1980s reshaped our lives.

So after studying your Renewable Farming website, I found it a bullseye into much of my company’s ultimate strategic direction. 

It actually began on a cold sunny day in late November 2015. One of my friends convened a meeting with three growers and me south of Frankfort, indiana to visit about cover crops — but a lot more than that, too. As I walked into a field of knee-high cover crops that had been fertilized with composted materials from windrows in a neighboring field, I saw a future radically different than "modern" ag was in 2015.

Prior to that field trip, for years I'd visited with agronomists and asked, "Why are we using 1930-style soil probe tests for N-P-K and some micronutrients, when the real story is 'What is actually happening biologically and capability-wise within a cubic yard of dirt?'" 

In other words, how alive or dead is the soil? What is its current organic matter and production capacity relative to existing natural and amended resources, and within the context of water availability and holding capacity? 

On that fall day, I told my friends that a part of the American Heartland will forever be changed before my generation ends. I said it'll move toward something new. The "new" is what I'd call Regenerative Agriculture.

Since then, I've seen several dozen practitioners relentlessly experiment with this emerging style of farming. In my assessment, we are all in the first inning of the ball game, and the best is yet to come. As with any developing arena of business, the ones going first get lots of arrows in their backs from the peanut gallery crowd, but this is more than a fad-style development.

In the next 20 years there will be a major food niche established, based upon this sort of farming. I find some of the current ideas interesting, some of the so-called champions a bit annoying, and some of the proclamations being made a bit absurd. Right now it is a tiny niche in the food industry, still in its infancy. But it has tremendous potential for our firm if I can figure out how to market into this niche at the grocery store and get the economics to work. 

Friends of John left to right: Greg Downing, Gordon Smiley, Dave Chance.
John Cory is on right. "We were on Dave's farm in November 2015."

Meanwhile, my little business is what it is: a niche milling company focused on:

  • Industrial products: (feedstock for pharmaceuticals, adhesives, etc),
  • Commercial baking (English muffins, breads, etc),
  • Food service (pizza chains, high-end white tablecloth restaurants, etc),
  • Retail products (niche retail product lines, from Sams Online to Kroger to others),
  • A final co-product is cattle feed, so nothing goes to waste. 

Before I bought this company,  I exited a private equity firm that focused on middle-market manufacturing and services companies with revenues between $50 million and $500 million. I spent lots of time trekking across America assessing where durable trends in the food industry were headed. I specifically sought those trends closest to the farm. A deal I chased hard and lost out on was a family owned milling business in western Montana. A guy named George Gillette moved faster than I did to buy the company. George Gillette has had quite a storied career across many industries, but he has nearly always had a hand in the food and ag business. Somebody ought to write a book about the colorful life of George Gillette. Half of George's life was wildly crazy, but the other half was unbelievably prescient, and he typically arrived ahead of the crowd.

Then he'd exit deals when everyone else showed up. George saw in the Montana company exactly what I saw: this firm was a segment of America's future food arena. It could be marketed like the California wine people had perfected: They sell the experience.  It is "experiential marketing", or selling the sunshine from the vineyard. You see the farm, you see the grain, you meet the farmer, you see the harvest, you can touch the grain, you can see the milling, and then you can buy the bread that has the aroma that drew you into the store.

Fair Oaks Dairy has since perfected this same model on a grand scale for dairy products. Some of their operations are strategically located on freeways, such as I65 between Merrillville and Lafayette, Indiana.

After I lost the Montana deal to George Gillette, I kept looking for a niche operation, and at Thanksgiving weekend 2005, I discovered Wilson's Corn Products. I saw an ad and figured it was merely a feed mill — not anything I'd be interested in. Turned out, it was a dry corn mill. I went to see it and met the selling owner. Three days later I made an offer and was ready to close the deal. But tragically, the seller died. I had to wait months before I could resume the process to purchase. Finally on Sept. 15, 2006, the deal closed.

Because of the location — no proximity to freeway traffic — this was a bit challenging. I couldn't use the same agenda the Montana business had exploited. The interesting thing about Wilson's Corn Products was that, by my assessment, I concluded I had bought the last independent dry corn mill in America that could be run as both a Batch and Continuous Run Mill. All the others had been bought up by the major players and closed down.

A few years into owning the mill, I hired a guy named Marvin Woods to mentor me in a number of areas. Marv was the retired chief operating officer of Bunge's dry milling operations around the globe. He ran the Danville, IL Lauhoff Grain for years near our family farm. Marv was a brilliant engineer, and one of America's best innovators for segments of America's food industry. A great book could be written about him too. It would tell the story of Kellogg's Corn Flakes, and how he created the world's first and only continuous freeze dryer for fruits like strawberries that go into cereals and salads.

Marv told me I had bought the last and best niche mill in America, and the trend toward developing unique niches was where the future would shine brightest. Marv confirmed much of what I'd thought when I bought the business.  

Original mill, still in excellent condition

Regenerative Farming will probably never occupy more than niche status in American farming — unless event risks (such as war) develop to limit access to resources that modern farming relies on. Characterization of how big or small or niche-type Regenerative Farming Farming is or isn't is a bigger discussion. For folks like me, these trends are vitally significant, and will live long past my journey on earth.

The real focus of the matter has to do with the current and future vitality of American soils, their capabilities and why. The current  practice of how nitrogen is applied, whether through commercial fertilizer or raw manure, will be challenged in years ahead by rural water discharge issues. These forces will create needs for new practices and new technologies, such as composted pelletized "organic" bio materials, where a developing science of carbon-metrics will be applied.  

My father Richard Cory, now 87, was an early adopter of technology and Best Practices throughout his farming and business career.  In the 1970s, before I graduated from Purdue, he had built a 1,600-acre profitable farming business and owned two John Deere Dealerships. Dad had raw entrepreneurial skills as good as any, and good instincts about trends and sustainable endeavors. Like most everybody in farming in that 1980s era, he navigated through the tumultuous decade-long storm, and he ultimately prevailed. 

Much of his success was by God's grace and provision, but the rest was by hard work, good decisions and stick-to-itiveness.  Before Dad retired, he perfected a style of farming that was remarkable, and the forerunner of what I see in today's Regenerative Ag efforts. 

John Cory's Dad, Richard

Between 1988 and 1994, Dad began a collection of agronomic practices that were radically different from everyone else. He used to call it "minimalistic farming." He would say, "The less you touch it, the better it is. Low touch farming." He never let weeds grow, and he never let nutrient deficiencies cause yellow and stunted corn. To the untrained eye, his corn and soybean fields looked from the road like everyone else's. But to those that were informed, the fact  was that what he was doing was remarkable. Dad lived a pretty much low-key sort of life, and seldom said much to anyone about what he was finding out.  His last planted crop was harvested in October 2004. That year, Dad harvested over 1,000 acres of corn averaging well over 250 bushels per acre, with 60 pound test weight at 15 % moisture. Dad's soybean harvest was over 85 bushels per acre. The handful of agronomists that knew his style also knew that the biology of his soil was beyond anything they'd seen.  

General Mills is promoting Regenerative Farming. North Dakota's oracle of Regenerative Ag, Gabe Brown, seems to have made inroads enabling General Mills to attempt to codify various standards they think they can use for marketing. The fact is — this is inning 1 in the ball game, and while about half of Gabe Brown's proclamations are spot on in my eyes, the rest is a lot of marketing hubris that I take issue with. Problem is though, he's succeeded in getting USDA people to try to codify rules to define Regenerative Farming practices. Essentially, they are merely updated organic farming rules, or in other words codifying “Certified Organic 2.0”. 

My mill is Certified Organic, and while we can do organic, 90% of my business is non-GMO. But there are some fundamental issues I have with the current basket of bureaucratic oversight which organic certifiers have over production, or the lack thereof. The current direction some folks are headed tend to create an aura of wrongheaded ideas, such as “one size fits all” and declaring that agronomic practices in one part of the country are suitable for standards and codified rules for all.

Last Saturday, at one of my friend’s farms, I saw evidence that a farmer can build organic matter in soil faster than I’d ever guessed. About eight years ago I saw this field of his at the beginning of his new adventure, and Saturday I was impressed. He had installed underground irrigation for a parcel of land that was an arid sugar-sand field, where typical corn yields would seldom exceed 90 bushels per acre. Now, corn yields are often past 200 bushels. As I studied the soil, the field today is nothing close to what it was eight years ago. There is more biological activity happening this summer than probably happened in the entire decade of the 1990s.  As you dig into the sand, you now are beginning to see the creation of carbon and a sandy loam soil structure.  

Last Thursday, with a bunch of farm buddies of yesteryear, we trekked to Rantoul, Illinois to the world's biggest antique farm show. That hot August day was the second best day of the summer for me, hanging around a bunch of lifelong friends and experiencing the first smells and feels of harvest, with familiar machines of childhood.

That "Half Century of Progress Farm Show" last week proved that I am a hypocrite farmer. I stood there watching a 1973 John Deere 4320 pull a moldboard plow past our side-by-side Gator. As that tractor passed us by, and the plow turned over the dirt, it was the smell of the soil that took me back. As much as I love the wonders of modern ag technology, the incredible speed and size and precision of modern machines, there is something special about the raw simplicity of what we all saw at Rantoul, Illinois.

Perhaps, I am not a hypocrite. Perhaps there is a way to take some of the new and some of the old and weld ideas together, and then do what ought to be done. This summer and fall as we approach harvest, we are busier than ever.  When we meet up I’ll tell you about a new niche that has almost doubled my company in six months. I think next year will be huge.

 
The ultimate harvest is many days away, and this is good. Not a better day can be found than at harvest — in the midst of God’s kindness to us all.

 
John Cory, Managing Director, CEO, Prairie Mills Products, LLC
401 East 4th Street
P.O. Box 97
Rochester, IN 46975
 
Visit the Prairie Mills Products website at http://prairiemills.com  The company contracts with farmers for the quality grains they need.
 
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