By Chris Umscheid
LISBON– As the door opens, three cats– Charlie, Tater and Loca– enthusiastically and lovingly greet their human. While saying good morning to them, he turns on the light. Before his coat is removed, a phone call has to be made to a supplier. Then, a call comes in from a customer.
So begins another day for Solon’s Jason Owen, owner and president of Progressive Agricultural Services.
The former stockbroker and executive traded in a comfortable downtown Cedar Rapids office for a job in a Solon feed mill, with visions of owning it one day. Instead, fate or the hand of God steered him north to Lisbon and a grain elevator and feed mill which had stood empty for at least seven years. Owen said he started scouting the property early in 2010, realizing early on there would be a lot of work ahead of him.
The mill needed to be rebuilt; there was no hope of retrofitting it to contemporary standards.
“It had outlived its useful life,” Owen said. However, initial plans to “take a D9 Caterpillar bulldozer and level the place” soon turned to preservation as he learned more about the history of the mill.
With help from Beryl O’Connor, current mayor of Lisbon and long-time director of the Lisbon History Center, Owen discovered a plat map from 1892 showing an elevator and mill. The complex covered the same seven plots of land he had purchased. As an example of the mill’s history, Reuben Andreas purchased it in 1922 and was making the first pellet feed in Iowa. The unique (at the time) product was sold under the “Honeymead” brand. The Andreas family went on to become key players in the Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) company.
“Without a doubt, they were overwhelmingly directly responsible for ADM’s success today,” Owen said. The more he researched, the more Owen came to realize the mill’s history and importance to the community. Owen shifted into a plan to de-construct, restore and renovate. Solon’s Dick Schwab, known for his handcrafted celebration barns and other projects, was enlisted to help.
“It deepened my emotional investment in the place. It’s cool. It’s got a cool story to it,” Owen observed.
Owen took possession in May 2010, and within days, his plan turned to ash, literally. A contractor removing old metal parts inadvertently dropped some slag: flaming molten metal. When combined with 100-year old, bone-dry wood, a conflagration soon resulted requiring a dozen area fire departments to respond.
“The fire was a big deal, and it set us back,” Owen recalled. “But now we’re literally rising from the ashes.” A significant theme at Progressive Agricultural Services will be “rising when we’ve fallen,” he added. Perseverance is also a cornerstone for Owen, who preached on the topic in December at the Solon United Methodist Church.
“We, as Christians, have a duty to persevere. We all have a cross to bear. This whole project has been a test of perseverance, a test of faith.” Owen noted there have been several times when he could have “taken exits off of the road I’m on,” but instead he has stayed the course.
Why? Life in the world of finance “didn’t fill my tank spiritually.” But owning a feed mill does.
“It satisfies my desire to do the kind of work I want to do. I want to work with my hands, to put in an honest day’s work.” Owen also is able to use his college education in chemistry and business as well as his MBA in finance. “If you own the mill and are working with your workers, leading them, it combines the work with the momentum built up through all of the education.” It’s also an enterprise where he has frequent, daily contact with his customers. “And I enjoy that,” he said.
Owen acknowledges Iowa’s agriculture-based economy and feels a comprehensive agriculture-based feed mill will do well in the area. “We’re not just the ‘Lisbon Feed Mill’,” he insists. The name is Progressive Agricultural Services for a reason. “It’s all about diversifying. We’re going to do a lot more than just make feed.”
Once the under-construction, fully modern mill is completed, Owen will have the ability to make any animal feed desired. The goal is to be up and running in early May or late June of this year, and a head-start on construction was made possible by a mild winter. Already dirt and concrete work has been accomplished.
“It’s exciting to me to see, because we’re moving ahead. We’re doing work that we shouldn’t be able to do this time of year.” At the heart of the mill will be a dozen 30-ton capacity storage bins.
He already sells pet food, grass and hay seed, and is a dealer for Lone Star Feeds and Conklin Company, Inc. fertilizer. A garden center is in the planning stages along with offering equine products. A full service farm store is also in the works, which will incorporate one wall of a brick warehouse which likely dates back to the 1920s.
“There’s a lot of different things we’re going to do. We want to be a good community member and a good neighbor.” Owen envisions his complex as a place people want to come to, a place for farmers to relax, catch up on the markets (a DTN Farm Network terminal is planned for the near future), drink coffee and eat kolaches (baked by wife Lisa). In addition to being a place people will want to come and do business, Owen wants it to be a place people will want to come and work at, too.
“We’re going to be creating jobs here,” he said. Owen anticipates 10-15 employees by the end of his third year and is quick to point out these truly are jobs created as they did not exist previously.
He is especially proud of his first hire, John Prasil, a third-generation farmer from the Lisbon area. “I would not be where I’m at without him. He is the definition of a key man.” Owen noted, “(Prasil is) very knowledgeable, he knows the market, he’s trusted and respected in the area.” Owen plans to hire a fourth-generation farmer from Mount Vernon “once I see the right equation on the balance sheet.” He sees a good potential employee pool in the area with a base that not only knows the area but knows how to work.
Simply put, Owen said, “nobody’s going to out-work us, or out-think us.” His company’s motto is “Dedicated to service,” and he intends to fulfill that promise with educated people dedicated to doing blue-collar work utilizing their knowledge and experience. In addition to making a life for himself and his family, Owen also wants to be able to have his employees make a life for themselves and their families as well.
With Charlie climbing up into his red beard, Owen was asked what’s next after the mill, the store, and other potential enterprises.
“We’ll just have to see where it takes us. There’s more behind it.”
Progressive Agricultural Services is located at 102 E. 5th Ave. on the north edge of Lisbon along the railroad tracks. Hours: 9 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. daily with 8 a.m. until noon on Saturdays. For more information, telephone 319-455-2370 or e-mail at Jason@proagiowa.com . Owen hopes to have a Facebook page soon and to eventually develop his website www.proagiowa.com , into a portal to the business for his customers.