Wallowa County Grain Growers celebrates 65th year

<I>Elane Dickenson/Chieftain</I><BR>The Wallowa County Grain Growers will celebrate its 65th annivarsary with an open house Saturday, May 9. Prizes will be given for the best 1940s-era costumes.

Wallowa County Grain Growers has reason to celebrate this week, with a 65-year history as the county's longest lived agricultural business.

Founded at the end of World War II as a cooperative by a group of local farmers, Wallowa County Grain Growers continues to play a major part in the life of local ranchers and farmers.

Though selling and storing grain now plays only a small part of its business, the cooperative has diversified through the years and is as important as ever to farmers and ranchers, and many of its customers are now townfolks.

It is an important part of Wallowa County's economy, giving jobs to about 50 full- and part-time employees, including those who work for the agronomy division in Island City.

Last year, boosted by high fertilizer prices caused by record oil prices, WCGG had a record year in sales and services, over $20 million.

Its diversified business includes retail sales, John Deere and New Holland machinery sales, feed mill, seed plant, agronomy (fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide), a card-lock commercial gas outlet, farm equipment service and repair and equipment rental.

Formerly housed in an old building on Depot Street, WCGG completed a 20-year plan in 1995 by moving all of its operation under one roof in a new 40,000 square foot building on the south side of Enterprise on Hurricane Creek Road.

Jim Butner, who started working for WCGG as a 19-year-old in the feed mill, retired in 2007 after 48 years with the business. "I think that when I became manager, we grossed $3 to $4 million a year; now it's about 17 million," he said at his retirement.

Bill Nightingale, who moved from Mt. Vernon, Washington, succeeded Butner as manager. "We're looking forward to 65 more years of business," he said about the business' 65th birthday.

The cooperative got its start back in 1944, when the late Cy Kooch - who was interviewed by the Chieftain back in 1996 - was ranching on Lower Prairie Creek. According to his recollection, Morris Knapp, one of the owners of the Woolgrowers Warehouse, approached him about buying that business. He then contacted Vic Searles and Harry Wade, about getting other local farmers together to buy out the Knapp brothers.

Kooch and the others enlisted the support of many of Wallowa County's farmers and ranchers, and after chairing a series of town hall meetings to build more support, Kooch ended up as president of the fledgling co-op for its first dozen years.

With the aid of Extension Agent Garnett Best, the farmers organized and made a stock offering, raising $4,000 from the sale of preferred stock and $14,000 in capital stock. They financed the remainder.

Kooch, in 1996, asked, "It's been a good thing for the county, hasn't it? I'm glad we made the effort."

WCGG will celebrate its 65th birthday Saturday, May 9, with a big open house from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.Customers are encouraged to drop by the business at its "new" home on 901 S. River St. in Enterprise for the occasion.

There will be prizes for the best 1940s era costumes, and free hot dogs and soda will be served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. There will be a big sale on clothing, hardware, feed and more, and everyone is encouraged to sign up for a grand door prize, a gas barbecue grill.

"Judges will decide who has the best costumes," said Jim Pace, retail store manager, who has worked for WCGG for over 30 years. The top winner will receive a $50 gift certificate, and the runnerup will win a $25 certificate.

Though many things have changed over the decades at WCGG, Jim Pace pointed to one tradition that has remained the same: selling live baby chicks every year in early spring. "This year I think was the biggest for baby chicks in a long time. People are getting back to basics. ... Some people came down and hung around just to watch the chicks, and reminisce about the old days," Pace said.

Like many businesses, Pace said that in the present recession WCGG is "tightening its belt and looking for efficiencies," but he foresees a long future for the farmer-owned coop. "It's going to be here for farmers, ranchers and the whole community for many, many years to come," he said.

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