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Testing Times for a Giant U.S. Co-op

A commodity slump and farmer retirements pose challenges.
One of the co-op’s fuel refineries in the 1950s.

One of the co-op’s fuel refineries in the 1950s.

Photographer: Michael Cannon

At the start of the Great Depression, some grain growers in Idaho banded together to command better prices for their crops. Today, after a string of mergers, that farm cooperative is the largest in the country, with 550,000 farmers represented by 1,100 voting member co-ops and 75,000 farmers with individual votes. After five years of breakneck expansion, CHS faces slumping commodity markets and plunging oil prices, which have cut into its two largest businesses: refined petroleum products and grain handling.

With almost $35 billion in annual revenue, CHS is an agro giant in its own right, alongside the so-called ABCDs—Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill, and Louis Dreyfus. “It takes that scale to play,” says Carl Casale, who as chief executive officer has presided over an expansion that has netted CHS a presence in 25 countries including Brazil, Hungary, and Taiwan.