Wheeler Brothers Grain Co.

Reaping what they sow and what their forebears sowed in Oklahoma
Written by: 
Neil Cote
Produced by: 
Dana Merk-Wynne

There’s merit in going with the grain. It’s why in 2017, an agricultural company will celebrate a century of steady growth on the fertile flatlands that make Oklahoma an integral part of America’s bread basket.

As its second hundred years begin, Wheeler Brothers Grain Co. seems poised for continued growth amid those amber waves where a couple of enterprising brothers planted the company seeds in 1917; a fourth generation remains rooted in the family-owned business and true to the forebears’ work ethic.

What started out as a 15,000-bushel wooden grain elevator in a small rural town in the Sooner State has since become a full-service enterprise with an imprint that stretches as far as the eye can see on those vast plains. Wheeler Brothers buys grain from farmers and stores it at elevators in 17 locations with capacity for 18 million-plus bushels, primarily in northwest Oklahoma, where it seeks the most opportune time to market.

Wheeler Brothers Grain Co.

A 46-mile short-line railroad owned by Wheeler Brothers links the company’s Watonga headquarters with the Union Pacific line, which gives access to the Texas and Louisiana ports on the Gulf of Mexico. Following the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Wheeler Brothers became one of the first Oklahoma grain companies to transport grain via rail to millers in Mexico.

Fertilizer is sold in bulk, both dry and liquid, and serviced for farmers, who also can take advantage of Wheeler Brothers’ agronomy services to better the odds of a bountiful harvest. Seed, chemical, feed, and various farm supplies are also sold.

Prairie savvy

So, aside from being a heavyweight on its home turf, what sets Wheeler Brothers apart?

“Customer service and the retention of employees,” says Todd Lafferty, co-CEO, general counsel and great-grandson and great-grandnephew, respectively, of Frank and William Wheeler, who got the process going. In 1917, they bought a small grain elevator in Watonga, a town 70 miles northwest of Oklahoma City, and then another in Carlton to the northwest of Watonga. The company grew dramatically after Frank’s son, E.O. “Gene” Wheeler, bought out his uncle and father in the early-1940s.

Austin, Todd and Ladd Lafferty joined Wheeler Brothers after first working outside the company. Austin and Ladd were both in the commodity business working for multi-national grain companies. Austin joined the company first in 1994, then Ladd in 2002. Todd came aboard in 2003 after practicing law in Amarillo, Texas for 11 years. Their initials are represented in the company-owned AT&L Railroad, which was named in 1985 by their grandfather, Gene Wheeler.

“Our grain company president, Mike Mahoney, has been here over 40 years, and our railroad president, Danny Williams, has been here over 30 years. Several of our managers have been here a long time too, and they’re familiar with the fields in their area and their customers,” Todd Lafferty explains. “That’s very important; there’s a big learning curve here. When you can retain your best people, it’s good for your business.”

Hard red winter wheat, a versatile grain that’s planted in the fall and popular in baked goods, makes up the bulk of commodities stored and sold by Wheeler Brothers, with corn, milo, canola, soybeans and sesame also staples. Daily prices are posted, and an association with Kansas-based AgTrax Technologies, which provides advanced accounting software for agribusiness, works to the benefit of Wheeler Brothers and its clients alike. The company also has lasting ties to Commerce Bank in Kansas City, which knows agribusiness inside-out.

With fertilizer sales a reliable revenue source, Wheeler Brothers has several facilities where it blends fertilizer to meet a farmer’s specifications. And with today’s agriculture being more and more technology oriented, Wheeler Brothers has certified crop advisors who can be consulted for crop management, including such services as soil testing, integrated pest and herbicide control, and fertilizer application.

“Our managers are continually in the fields, monitoring what needs to be done,” says Lafferty. “They can tell them [the farmers] what applications give their crop the best opportunity to succeed. We are also able to do variable rate applications because fields often are not uniform in their needs. Maybe a part of a field needs more of a specific crop input than another part. We’ll determine that for them. The producers get more bang for the buck when they work with us.”

Uncertain forecast

Whether the agricultural industry as a whole gets more bang for its buck from a new White House administration remains uncertain, but Lafferty sees room for optimism, explaining that over-regulation has been a growing concern in the grain and feed industry in recent years. With President Donald Trump, there’s hope for mitigating this trend.

But global trade is another issue, and one in which the agricultural industry may dissent from the new administration. Lafferty’s hoping that Trump will take the interests of U.S. agriculture into account if he does live up to his campaign promise to renegotiate economic deals. The Trans-Pacific Partnership may be for all practical purposes dead, but Lafferty believes at least part of it should be resuscitated.

“The more markets we can open up worldwide, the more it benefits our industry,” he says. “I see the other side—especially manufacturing—but from an agricultural standpoint, we would like to see some variation of it pass that boosts global grain trade.”

A time to celebrate

Whatever’s on the agenda in Washington, next May has been chosen to be a time for Wheeler Brothers to honor its past with an eye toward the future.

At the local high school, there’ll be a catered meal, country music, door prizes, company hats and a slide show of historical photos that will include a 1922 photo of Frank Wheeler toiling away in the first grain elevator and early photos of Watonga’s first concrete elevator being built in 1945. Other photos will include a feed yard that was started in 1968 to hold 2,000 head of cattle that when sold in 2014 had a capacity of 27,000 head.

That’s a lot of history to celebrate, and 100 years of a growing enterprise warrants a good time.

Strategic Partnership(s): 
Commerce Bank