Creating a market for soybeans in West Michigan

August 17, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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Anyone who has driven past the Zeeland exit on I-196 in the daytime has seen Zeeland Farm Services: It's the shining cluster of huge silver grain elevators that can hold 4.5 million bushels of soybeans, corn and other grain and can be seen several miles away.

About 30 years ago, ZFS had a 12,000-bushel elevator for storage of farm animal feed. Cliff Meeuwsen ran that elevator pretty much by himself since the early 1970s. Then one day in the late `70s or early `80s, he hung a sign on it: "Buying Soybeans."

"Everybody laughed at it," he said, because hardly anyone grew soybeans in West Michigan, and "there was really no market for them."

"I was the first one in the area to buy soybeans," he said, then he clarified that: "I was the only one in the area to buy soybeans. And we created a market for it."

That market keeps growing.

Today, Zeeland Farm Services is a $300 million family business owned and operated by the three Meeuwsen brothers: Cliff (who is president), Arlen and Robb. ZFS employs about 230, including about a dozen family members. The corporation has its own brand of specialty soybean oil products, Zoye, which will soon be on the shelf in Meijer stores. Other soybean products produced by ZFS are sold through much of the Midwest and in Asian countries including Japan, Korea, Singapore and Vietnam. Kikkoman, the Japanese company that makes soy sauce, also buys soy protein from ZFS.

The business began as Meeuwsen Produce, started around 1950 by Robert (Bob) G. Meeuwsen. Soon the name became Meeuwsen Produce & Grain, when the Meeuwsen family began dealing in feed for farm animals, in addition to their ag produce business.

Cliff Meeuwsen started working in the family business as a youngster. He has fond memories of loading thousands of watermelons by hand into his father's truck and helping deliver them to stores and produce markets around Michigan — also unloading them by hand, of course. Perhaps the memories really aren't so fond. When one starts working at an early age in a family business, he joked, "You learn what jobs you want to grow out of."

Around 1971, the family business opened its first grain elevator and Cliff began running it as a one-man operation, while Arlen worked on trucking the grain. Bob Meeuwsen was running a fleet of freight hauling trucks for hire. In the late 1970s, Meeuwsen Produce & Grain was reorganized as Zeeland Farm Services.

Cliff Meeuwsen said that while he was hauling feed to farms all over Michigan, he noticed a lot of soybeans were being raised in eastern Michigan and he wondered why no one grew them in West Michigan. He remembers talking to a seed company salesman who said there were new varieties that might grow well in West Michigan. That inspired Meeuwsen to put up his "Buying Soybeans" sign.

At first, only a couple of West Michigan farmers gave soybeans a shot. One was Cliff Harmsen, who "showed everyone that you could grow good soybeans in West Michigan," said Meeuwsen.

"So Cliff brought me some of the first soybeans that came into the Zeeland Farm Services elevator, and from there, it grew. A lot of other guys started growing them," said Meeuwsen. "Soybeans in West Michigan had a late start but they grew fast."

Cliff Meeuwsen
Zeeland Farm Services
Position: President
Age: 58
Birthplace: Zeeland
Residence: Holland
Family/Personal: Wife, Karen; two sons, Eric, 33, and Brian, 29.
Community/Business Involvement: Elder at Community Reformed Church, Zeeland; board of directors, National Oilseed Processors Association, Washington, D.C.; Ottawa County Farmland Preservation program.
Biggest Career Break: Putting up a sign on a ZFS grain elevator offering to buy soybeans.

Meeuwsen and his brothers bought the soybeans and trucked them to other states for processing, which begins with crushing to extract the oil. The Meeuwsens then trucked the remaining soybean meal back to Michigan for animal feed. In 1992, their father sold the grain elevator business to the Meeuwsen brothers and concentrated on his trucking business for a few more years until he retired.

In 1996, the Meeuwsen brothers opened their own soybean processing plant next to their elevators. ZFS also has its own lab, said Meeuwsen, "and people who can run that lab and do the tests" that are part of soybean processing.

Despite its continuing growth and its startling visual presence in Zeeland today, ZFS actually tries to keep a fairly low profile, according to Meeuwsen.

"We're a fairly large business that very few know anything about. A lot of people don't know what soy processing involves," he said, adding that "it's a very intense business. It takes a lot of capital."

For example, the soy processing plant that took them a year to build is actually considered a small one in the industry, he said — but it required the installation of $55 million worth of equipment in it, to crush about 25,000 bushels of soybeans a day. A total of about 10 million bushels of soybeans pass through Zeeland Farm Services each year.

Meeuwsen can name scores of food products that incorporate some part of the soybean — and many more non-food products that also incorporate something from soybeans, such as fabrics, paints, shampoos, leather substitutes, paper coatings, plastic and diesel fuel, to name a few. Ford Motor Co. uses foam padding in its car seats that is made from soybeans.

ZFS now has four divisions. In addition to its ZFS umbrella organization that includes the 4.5 million bushel grain elevator, other divisions are Zeeland Farm Soya, which processes the soybeans; and Zeeland Food Services, which refines the soybean oil — about 100 million pounds a year. Its specialty oils are typically sold to health food stores in the Midwest, and some are exported. Zeeland Freight Services is the fourth division, which includes 80 trucks. In addition to hauling its own soybeans and oils, the business has trucks-for-hire moving ag products such as green beans and other trucks hauling recycled materials throughout West Michigan. Those materials range from scrap steel to railroad ties.

"We haul seven or eight loads a day of our own (soybean) oil," he said, to bottling plants in Detroit and Chicago. Some also goes to food processing companies around the Midwest and some is shipped by rail to the East Coast.

ZFS also has a storage and animal feed facility in Georgia, and an office in Wisconsin, where it markets by-products from the dry fractionation process for making ethanol from corn. Those products are used in animal feed and human food and are sold all over the country.

Ethanol is an industry that is "continually making itself more effective and efficient," said Meeuwsen. "A lot of the naysaying going on about the ethanol industry is based on old news. New technologies are making ethanol very efficient."

As for the economy today, "we're having a reasonable year," said Meeuwsen. But, he added, he could not describe it as a "good year." The company’s non-agricultural trucking business, in particular, has been impacted by the recession.

Although ZFS does not grow soybeans, it does rely on good weather for its livelihood, and some years are better than others, he said. "This year (West Michigan was) very cold; the crop is way behind," he said. "It takes rain and sunshine, and heat units, to grow a good crop," said Meeuwsen, noting that this July was one of the coldest on record.

ZFS is a very green company — in more ways than one. A couple of years ago, ZFS built a new $3 million office building designed to LEED specifications to reduce wasted energy and natural resources. Its trucks run on bio-diesel made from soybean oil, and several years ago, ZFS invested in a pipeline that brings methane gas from the nearby Autumn Hills landfill to power its soybean processing plant.

Meeuwsen said continuing education is highly regarded among his family and throughout ZFS in general. It might be considered a necessary ingredient in agribusiness, where science and technology are making profound changes at an accelerating rate.

"I put myself through a lot of courses over the years," said Meeuwsen, although he does not hold a degree. He guesses he has taken about 10 night courses at Davenport University and a couple at Michigan State University in East Lansing. He also did some course work at Texas A&M back in the 1990s, as they were ramping up their soybean processing business. Texas A&M is "one of the best schools in the country" in the science of soybean processing, said Meeuwsen. He also attends seminars and conferences several times a year.

The continuing education is essential to staying ahead in their business.

"We have 230 family members, as far as we are concerned," he said, referring to all the employees of ZFS. "We want to keep people employed in a way that has a future to it."

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