September 7, 2022
New customers who drop by central Iowa’s Terra Products to buy cattle feed might easily mistake Jay and Dillon Buline for employees instead of owners.
The brothers — Jay, 35, and Dillon, 30 — come from a long line of farm entrepreneurs, so running the agronomy and animal nutrition retail business seems to come naturally for the young farmers. In fact, you might say they’re old hands at it, even at this age. The brothers and their father Bob bought a Nichols, Iowa, feed company over six years ago when Dillon was just graduating college.
So what does it take for young farmers to run a business like this?
“It takes good people,” Dillon says. “We’ve been so fortunate hiring talented people who fit the roles in both the farm and at Terra Products. Every employee we have, whether it’s a semi driver or office manager, is an expert in their field. In turn, that allows Jay and I to focus on other elements of the business.”
Starting a business before you’re 30 is one thing. Focusing on improving or growing a business and not just the day-to-day grind is the next step. It’s why farmers hold strategic planning meetings away from the farm so they can discuss the future direction of the company.
Yet, the Bulines have focused on tweaking the business since they signed the papers. They had to get comfortable with their own entrepreneurial impulses before they could get comfortable running a business.
“In college, I changed my major three times because I didn’t want to do just one thing. So when I began to understand the word entrepreneur, I realized it’s OK to feel this way,” Jay says. “Get into things, try things, and if they don’t work, move on.”
Looking to diversify
Jay had been working for John Deere and Dillon was about to graduate college when both brothers decided to come back to the farm. At the same time, they wanted to diversify the family income stream.
“Jay and I are both entrepreneurial to the core, so we decided if we came back to the farm we would have to diversify and find our own niche,” Dillon says.
Fortunately, the brothers have complementary interests. Jay leaned toward agronomy and equipment, while Dillon enjoyed livestock. Dillon likes numbers and software, while Jay leans toward operational management.
So when a nearby retail feed dealer said he was retiring, the Bulines bought the business and never looked back. The brothers soon transformed the old feed company into a full-service retail operation with agronomy, seed, marketing, animal nutrition and a diversified feed business.
“It took a few years to gain customer trust, but we had 100% retention, and we were pretty proud of that,” Jay says.
These days they split time between Terra Products and the family livestock and grain farm near Lone Tree, Iowa. Bob remains the farm’s owner-senior manager, but he liked the idea of diversifying.
“It’s been a good fit,” he says. “We’ve had good synergy between the farm and Terra.”
Another opportunity came along when an older feed mill in Iowa City came up for sale. It was 2019, and Terra had started making private-label feeds and feed for hog operations.
“We were starting to get noticed,” Jay says, “but we had to go to other facilities to make feed, so buying this Iowa City facility made sense.”
Adds Dillon: “We went from buying [and] selling premixes and concentrates, to manufacturing actual feed, and that brought on more staff to manage.”
Calling it a “huge risk,” Dillon says, “All these old feed mills are slowing down and falling apart. It came down to us having the passion and telling ourselves: We’re going to make this work, regardless of what everybody else is doing.”
Over time, they added yet a third store in Wilton.
No novelty here
While it may be novel to some, buying and building a complementary business is just the latest in a series of ventures for the Bulines.
“Over the years, we’ve tried to find new opportunities,” Bob says. “We’ve done everything from trucking grain and seed corn to detasseling. One key is keeping a labor force busy. We grew seed corn for a number of years, and for a time, they asked if we would get into custom detasseling. We jumped on that idea, and we grew from one to three machines as we added more clients.”
The Bulines wanted to continue diversifying so they launched an e-commerce site in January 2021. Now you can show up at Terra or go to its online store and order your livestock and pet feed to have products shipped to your farm.
“The walk-in business of a feed store is shrinking,” Dillon says. “We wanted to do research on hobby farmers or small farmers who were buying through e-commerce. It made us realize this is the way the world is moving.”
It’s not without challenges, but they eventually learned how to work with Amazon and are now moving more products to private labels.
“We’re capitalizing on every single product we have,” Jay says. “We enjoy creating new private-label products and launching them to marketplaces. We have a laundry list of products, but up until we moved online, we were just selling a handful of them.”
A future in fish
In the Bulines’ search for new profit streams, their latest focus is on making and selling feed for a different kind of livestock — the burgeoning aquaculture market.
“Fish farming feels like a unique opportunity,” Jay says. “The Midwest should have just as much aquaculture growth as the coasts, and they will need feed. We don’t want consumers buying from China, which may be growing fish with practices that wouldn’t be favorable to U.S. consumers.
“We’re trying to emphasize the health of a fish raised in a recirculating aquaculture system, which is typically found inside a shed and is super sophisticated,” he explains.
The challenge is a lack of fish processors in the Midwest, so local fish farmers have to cut and ship their own product. One idea the Bulines are mulling over is to set up their own growth contract business, like a hog integrator, but for fish. They would own the fish and set up contracts with farmers to grow them. But like any new supply chain it’s a chicken-and-egg dilemma right now. How do you create a perfectly logical and needed supply chain where once there was none?
“The bottleneck is processing. We don’t have anyone to process, like a Tyson,” Jay says. “We would also need a bunch of farmers to build fish farms, and a food company like HyVee or local meat markets, to commit to this.”
Who knows what will happen, but knowing their track record, don’t bet against the Bulines.
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