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(Newell Grain Growers Association) Manager helps even out co-op's ups and downs
Greenbank revives grain co-op in area troubled by battle for irrigation water

by Jacqui Krizo for the Capital Press

Ron Greenbank, manager of Newell Grain Growers Association, inspects a handful of white wheat from a 6,000-ton pile.
Ron Greenbank
Occupation: General manager of Newell Grain Growers Association near Tulelake, Calif., in the Klamath Basin

Age: 54

Hometown: Tulelake, Calif.

Education: Bachelor's degree from Oregon State University in agronomic crop science

Family: Wife, Jill; son Spencer, a high school senior; and daughter Lexie, a high school sophomore

Tulelake, Calif. - Ron Greenbank's dream was to return home and give to the farm community that he loved.

Greenbank received his bachelor of science degree from Oregon State University in agronomic crop science, where he studied plant breeding, crop production and agribusiness.

"I felt, with my agricultural degree, I had something to offer the area," he said. With his interest in different aspects of crop production, he became general manager of Newell Grain Growers Association in 1980 at the age of 25.

Greenbank's father was the Modoc County ag commissioner, and his grandfather, Earl McFall, had received a homestead in 1938. His other grandfather had helped build the Klamath Reclamation Project on the former Tule Lake.

"I wanted to be part of this kind of community, but you about needed a parent farming to actually farm," Greenbank said. "This was my way to participate in agribusiness and their way of life."

Farmers formed Newell Grain Growers Association in 1954. The grower-owned cooperative helped them become more competitive in the market. The co-op also offered centrally located storage bins and group insurance for members.

During his tenure, Greenbank and the co-op have weathered many crises and changes.

In 2001, the Bureau of Reclamation shut off irrigation water to 1,100 Klamath Project farmers to save the water for endangered fish. With water rights "appurtenant to the land" written into their deeds, many farmers did not believe the shut-off could happen and were not prepared. Without adequate water, most could not grow crops that year, and many went bankrupt.

"When people don't have guaranteed water, the banks don't want to loan," Greenbank said. "We had to find another bank."

Another challenge is fluctuating grain prices and yields.

He said the co-op's highest tonnage was 36,000 tons in 1983, and the lowest was about 12,000 tons in 2001.

He said less grain was grown between 1996 and 2001 because low potato prices forced many farmers to switch to hay, which stays in the field seven years. That meant there was less ground for the usual grain-potato rotation.

Even with the recent spike in wheat prices, generally low grain prices have presented a challenge.

"We couldn't go back to prices of two or three years ago at $80 per ton grain," Greenbank said. "Our expenses are up $300-400 per acre to produce grain. The prices must be $115-$120 per ton to break even. The power rate is increasing 2,500 percent. Fuel has nearly tripled from three years ago. Our fertilizer is produced by fossil fuel; the cost is way up for spray rigs and gas. Cost of renting land is up."

Bill Heiney, president of Newell Grain Growers board of directors, said when the prices went downhill, some of their buyers went out of business, breaking contracts.

"Ron stuck with us and the co-op paid off," he said. "Ron did a good job marketing."

He said Greenbank had to find another way of doing business to deal with the costs, expenses and membership. One was to increase the volume of grain.

In 1954 there were 80 people bringing in grain. Now there are 150 members, but only 15 harvesting grain.

"We began accepting non-members, and this year we have more non-member grain than ever before," Greenbank said. "Grain is the cheapest crop to grow, and a good rotation crop. We try to get non-member grain for volume; the more grain we run through, the less cost per ton."

Heiney said Greenbank kept the co-op together with his education, management skills and people skills.

"Ron has a great rapport with the buyers," he said. "The tanks are always in good shape; everything's clean and well taken care of."

He said Greenbank sells throughout the year, getting the growers a good price.

"He has developed a top-notch seed program, where the co-op sells clean seed to their members at cost," Heiney said.

Greenbank's philosophy is: "Keep your eyes open to any alternatives. Don't take huge risks.

"We try to get a high average price," he added. "We make sure everyone is on the same page. I inform the board members and work with them on when to sell."

Member John Prosser said Greenbank talks with the growers about the grain varieties and helps them decide what to grow.

"The elevator is open seven days a week to serve the member to get his crop in, as late as you want," Prosser said. "And they treat every grower equally."

He said he likes the tradition of family farms, and he's glad he lives out in the country, "But it's a lot more fun when the prices are higher."

Freelance writer Jacqui Krizo is based in Tulelake, Calif.

E-mail: krizohr@cot.net

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