SCRANTON — Mike Wedwick chuckles when asked about what this small town would be like without the Scranton Equity Exchange.
“It’d be just like Bucyrus. How about Gascoyne?” said Mike Wedwick, the Equity’s grain manager, evoking a similar chuckle from general manager Roger Goodfellow.
Wedwick’s assumption of Scranton turning into a ghost town may not be far off — at least not in the eyes of the Equity’s employees.
“It’s basically the community,” said Kim Hodell, the Equity’s truck shop manager and an employee of 32 years.
Scranton was destined to “fall off the map” after the coal mine east of town closed in the late ’90s, said Ryan Schumacher, the cooperative’s assistant manager for fertilizer and chemical sales.
“The equity picked up the slack,” said Schumacher, a Scranton High School graduate. “It means a lot to Scranton because of the jobs generated. It gives people a reason to come to town. Without the Equity, there isn’t much left on Main Street.”
The Equity has been a staple in the community for a century.
The cooperative that eventually became the Scranton Equity Exchange was formed 100 years ago this week. It still has the minutes from its first meeting on April 4, 1914, when it formed as “The Scranton Local.”
Today, the producer-owned cooperative is the engine driving the small agriculture-based community of less than 300 people.
Not only is it an elevator with a capacity for 2.3 million bushels of grain — with plans for expansion in the near future — it maintains several other businesses that don’t generate much, if any, revenue, all in an effort to keep Scranton from becoming another North Dakota ghost town.
The Equity operates a commercial feed mill, a fertilizer plant, an agronomy center, and a gas station with a hardware store inside — businesses essential to its wide-ranging and rural consumer base’s farming and ranching needs.
It also runs the town’s grocery store, lumber yard, auto parts store and truck repair shop, as well as the Frontier Travel Center truck stop in Bowman and a feed supply store in Buffalo, S.D.
Some of the Equity’s businesses that don’t generate revenue, “are supported by those that do,” Wedwick said.
Goodfellow, who has been with the Equity for 18 years and plans to retire in April, said the cooperative’s willingness to take on businesses that may not make money in an effort to keep residents employed and people coming to town has made a difference to the community.
“You see these small towns and eventually they lose their grocery store, then they lose (other businesses),” Goodfellow said. “In this case, there’s a large company that’s owned by the farmers that wants those businesses retained, so they have provided those businesses, and they’ve done it by taking profits out of the larger segments and making sure these businesses are available. So you come through Scranton and you see an awful lot of businesses — like the parts store or grocery store — that normally would have closed their doors and left years ago.”
Karen Goodfellow, Roger’s daughter-in-law, works for the grocery store and said it’s a necessity for the town, especially Scranton’s elderly who can’t go too far outside of town.
“Without the grocery store, your town starts dying,” she said. “Everyone will start going to a different town to get their groceries. So, for us to have the grocery store, it’s very important.”
Similar co-ops in southwest North Dakota came under the CHS, Inc., umbrella in the past two decades. Other independent cooperatives have been scooped up throughout the years.
Wedwick said the Equity’s ability to maintain its independence has allowed it to keep its businesses running.
“If we weren’t a locally owned, independent co-op, we probably wouldn’t have some of those,” Wedwick said. “That’s a huge thing to our customers, that we continue to support those things for customers and the community.”
Patrons and employees
The Scranton Equity’s cooperative has nearly 1,500 members. About 700 of them have acquired enough stock to vote on business matters.
“They earn stock as they do business,” Goodfellow said.
According to its website, the Equity is one of the three largest independent farmer-owned cooperatives in North Dakota. Its sales range between $70-110 million a year.
Nearly 100 employees work for Equity businesses in Scranton, Bowman and Buffalo, including about 60 in Scranton — and most of them are area natives.
“A lot of the people that deal here like dealing with some guys who are independent instead of some big corporation,” Goodfellow said.
The employees like working there, too.
Brent Sanford has been with the Equity a decade this month. He works in the feed department but has helped with different jobs throughout the cooperative.
“It’s been fun to watch the company grow,” he said. “There’s been a lot of changes.”
Hodell, who plans to retire soon, said he has always had good people to work with.
“I’d recommend it to anybody,” he said. “… The equity does a real good job of taking care of the patrons.”
Though the Equity is a big part of Scranton, the community isn’t exactly thriving on its youth.
Cleve Teske, the assistant grain manager, said an aging population means an aging employee base.
“We don’t have a whole lot of young folks, but it’s getting a little better,” he said. “Especially in the last few years when the economy has really been good in ag. We’re seeing a few more people real happy to be at home and working.”
Wedwick said the Equity must face retaining its best employees and hiring new ones over the coming years as it loses workers who have three or more decades of experience, including some of its managers.
“The biggest challenges are going to be trying to continue that and trying to replace people that had lots of years,” Wedwick said. “I don’t think our challenges, as a cooperative, are any different than anybody else’s. Everybody is dealing with the same pains.”
Throughout the years, almost everything about the Equity has changed.
“You almost want to say the only thing that hasn’t is the dirt itself,” Wedwick said.
Though some things are still the same — Sanford demonstrated the feed plant’s old-school bagging system and the elevators and feed plant operate much the same as they always have — others often change.
Like almost everything else in agriculture, advancing technology has meant constant updates in the way the Equity operates, from the equipment it buys to the advice it gives farmers and ranchers.
Goodfellow said the Equity recently hired two young agronomists to do field work with farmers, giving tips about what they should plant, and what chemicals and fertilizer they should be putting on their crops.
“You look at what your customers out there are wanting and if you want to stay in business, you provide those services or someone has to do it for you,” Goodfellow said.
Keeping employees educated about the latest agriculture trends and technology is key to the Equity’s success. Wedwick said embracing change means listening to individual managers, employees and customers.
“If you didn’t have the support of either/or, it would be much more difficult to keep trying to push boundaries because you know you’ve got the support,” Wedwick said.
As it turns 100 years old, the Equity has no concrete plans for a celebration or moment to mark its formation.
Instead, Friday — its 100th birthday — will be just another day in the life of an independent ag cooperative that continues to breathe life into its quiet, yet stable, small town.
“It’s the lifeblood of the community,” Teske said.