ARCO Dehydrating ends 7-decade run
LAKE PARK — The end of an era has arrived in the small western Dickinson County community of Lake Park, and in the state of Iowa, as ARCO Dehydrating has ceased production following a 71-year run.
It is the last alfalfa dehydrating plant in the state to cease operations.
The dream began in 1947 with Clayton Arnold, who had run a grain elevator and had also bought and sold livestock.
“He knew his way around the grain trade,” said Steve Krummen, one of the company shareholders and the plant’s manager for the last 50 years.
ARCO Dehydrating’s name was derived from the combination of two last names — Clayton Arnold and John Cory. Arnold ended up moving it ahead on his own, but the name remained.
ARCO Dehydrating took chopped green alfalfa and dried it. They expanded into pelleting it in 1956.
“The pellets facilitated the bulk handling of the alfalfa. Everything up until that time had to be put into 50-pound bags,” said Krummen. “In 1956 they built silos and put in a pellet mill. Once you pellet it, it handles a lot like shelled corn.”
He added the big selling point of ARCO pellets was that they were green and remained fresh, and they worked hard to maintain the freshness of the alfalfa pellets.
“They had a gas generator that would burn all the oxygen out of the air and then would put these pellets in an inert atmosphere while they were in storage,” Krummen said. “That would preserve the Vitamin A content in them.”
The benefit of dehydrated alfalfa pellets, according to Krummen, was that if the alfalfa was cut and processed immediately with heat, it created a pellet that was as green as field hay, and “chock full” of vitamins and protein.
“Feeding these pellets was just like turning cattle out into fresh pasture because everything was fresh and green, and that heat bonded the material together,” said Krummen, adding that controlled “gas storage” in solos was pivotal in keeping their product fresh because it couldn’t oxidize (turn brown).
“That’s why ‘Dehy’ was a special feed — it was chock full of vitamins and freshness, and it was green,” said Krummen. “If you bought a bag of something to feed your cattle, you would want something that was green, rather than brown or yellow. Color was important.”
From the time ARCO opened and until the last 20 years, the pellets were sold to area feed mills, including Kent Feeds and Golden Sun Feeds in Estherville, and other area mills. After those mills closed and until their own closing, ARCO switched to serving niche markets.
Krummen said 70 percent of their product went out as bagged pellets to be picked up by large distributors, who would warehouse the pellets and distribute them along with other goods to feed mills in a widespread area.
ARCO also sold dehydrated alfalfa meal
ARCO Dehydrating ran 24/7 during its peak summer harvest season until the last two years, shutting down only for a brief time on Sundays. They had a staff of 10 full-time and 15 seasonal employees in the busy season.
Krummen said ARCO peaked its production 10 years ago at 10,000 or 11,000 tons per year from 23,000 to 24,000 acres of alfalfa, within a 20 mile radius from Lake Park. Ten years ago the company switched from straight trucks to semis to haul the chopped alfalfa.
When the plant first opened, they hauled with tractors and wagons, and would lift the front end of wagons up with a winch to empty them. Two men would then scoop the hay into the elevator that took it into the dryer. Now it’s all automated.
Today the alfalfa was cut and dried in the field, then chopped and hauled to the plant, where it would be further dried in a rotary drum, ground and pressed into quarter-inch pellets.
“Pellet size matters because if you make them too big they have trouble holding together, and if they are too small it took a lot of power to force it through the dies,” Krummen said.
He added that, as the company was growing, production generated about 72 ton daily. Today, with larger equipment, they could generate 150 tons a day.
Over the years the plant has installed larger dryers, a pellet mill and a hammermill. Choppers are now 500 HP instead of 200 HP. The last 10 years they could harvest 100 to 200 acres of alfalfa per day, depending on yield.
A 1974 plant fire, caused by hot metal getting into the system, destroyed the wooden-structure mill building. It was replaced with the concrete one that stands today.
Krummen said there were several fires at the plant over the years — some before his time there. The plant was completely renovated in the 1980s with a new dryer and pellet mill, along with other new equipment to replace the pieces that had been installed in 1947.
Winds of change
Krummen said smaller feed mills closed when cooperatives took the reins of the feed industry, and computers generated recipes for low-cost rations that, in time, did not include alfalfa because of its cost in energy expended to make it, and the labor it took.
“As an industry, we used to make about a million and a half ton a year, and there were probably 150 or 200 dehydrating plants around the country, and I doubt if the industry now makes 300 or 400 thousand tons,” he said. “So that’s only 20 percent of what it used to be.”
The demand for dehydrated pellets is only about 50 percent of what it used to be because, in part, DDGs became a cheaper and plentiful option once ethanol plants began production. Krummen said the use of artificial Vitamin A beginning in the mid-1960s cost the industry some business because it didn’t include alfalfa and could be manufactured with other cheaper inputs. Additionally, the poultry industry stopped feeding alfalfa rations around the same time in order to eliminate the gluten factor, and that impacted sales.
Krummen said ice storms have become more prevalent in the last 20 years, which can kill alfalfa stands during the winter because, even though the plants go dormant during the fall, they still need to breathe.
“The climate is changing and that’s been hard on us, too. You might have 2,000 acres of alfalfa and if you had a bad winter, you might lose 1,200 acres of it,” Krummen said. “You only get half a crop the first year after you replant it.”
“We’ve had our ups and downs.”
ARCO hung on for as long as it did because, in part, the corn and soybean crop rotation helped finance them during lean years, especially selling corn and ethanol plants, according to Krummen. When the acres didn’t grow alfalfa, they were rotated with corn and soybeans.
In addition to less demand for its product, the decision to close the plant also came after the company could not find someone to manage the plant after Krummen retires. Local boy (and Krummen’s nephew) Lance Heikens was scheduled to take over the reins, but he developed health issues that would not allow him to be around the dust.
Ironically, one thing Krummen said helped them over the years was a good labor force of young kids who needed summer work.
“There were young kids who were willing to work in the summer time and we provided job opportunities for them,” Krummen said. “We sent a lot of kids to college over the years.”
Last November, company officials placed a photo on the internet of their last load of bagged product going out. Krummen said it generated comments from people all over the nation, who said they knew someone who had once worked there.
He added the Lake Park community was good ARCO as well, saying people would graciously put up with the dust and the aroma at times.
“Our community has been good to us. I can’t say enough about the people in Lake Park,” Krummen said. “They have supported us very well. We, in turn, have tried to give back to the community.”