Inducted: November 17, 2015
The history of the modernization of agricultural fertilizer processing, mixing, and delivery in Kent County would not have occurred as rapidly and successfully had it not been for the commitment and expertise of three prominent people in the early 1960s. The team of Al DeWitte of Blenheim, Maurice Neutens of Ridgetown and Terry Youlton of Ridgetown, was the driving force in what would become a long standing industry giant known as Kent County Fertilizers. And as founders of this well-known agri-business that shares the same as the County it operated in, these 3 gentlemen are being inducted into the Kent Agricultural Hall of Fame.
Kent County Fertilizers was formed in 1962 as part of a joint venture business model initiated by Cyanamid of Canada. Cyanamid was a major fertilizer company that established its initial factory at Niagara Falls in 1908.
By 1962, Cyanamid had expanded production to a variety of nitrogen and phosphate products from plants in Welland, Ontario. Their expansion was met with increased expansion from other fertilizer manufacturers, and Cyanamid's share of the fertilizer market was being challenged. With the loss of their largest customer, Canada Packers in 1961, Cyanamid shifted their focus to nitrogen products and embarked on a project that would change the way that fertilizer was handled and distributed in Canada. They adopted a trend of local, bulk blend fertilizer plants that had started in the United States. They believed that local plants would be able to out-compete the larger, more centralized granulation plants that their competitors were saddled with, particularly as the trend to higher analysis fertilizer blends developed. Up until this point, most fertilizer blends were very low in analysis - blends like 2-12-6 and 2-12-10 and 10-10-10 were very common. They were shipped pre-blended from the granulation plants to distribution points like CIL in Chatham where they were sent out to local dealers in 80 lb. bags. These bags were emptied into planters and drills. Cyanamid believed that local blend plants could offer higher analysis, customized blends and that bulk was a far more efficient way to handle fertilizer. Cyanamid's plan was to build a chain of 25 bulk fertilizer blending plants with 16 in Eastern Canada. These plants would be the distribution points for Cyanamid's fertilizer products to the farmer customer.
Through a joint-venture investment strategy, Cyanamid partnered with local businessmen. Partners were required to bring $5,000 cash up front to demonstrate their commitment, and Cyanamid loaned the business the balance of the funds to build the blend plant and fertilizer storage facilities. The business repaid the loan, after which time Cyanamid retained 50% ownership of the business. In return, the business was obligated to purchase and sell Cyanamid produced fertilizer.
The joint venture model was based on the recruitment of local individuals that were established and recognized in the farming community. Maurice Neutens fit that description having operated a very successful feed and farm supply centre in Ridgetown. He was a well-respected and honest businessman who backed many farmers financially during difficult economic times. He operated a fleet of trucks and supplied local farmers with bagged fertilizer from National Fertilizers of Ingersoll and CIL of Chatham. Terry Youlton recalls calling on Maurice one day in 1962 at his feed plant in Ridgetown when Cyanamid representatives were meeting with Maurice to discuss their joint venture idea. Terry was a fertilizer salesman for CIL at the time, and Maurice was one of his best dealers. Maurice said to Terry after the meeting: "these guys are talking about building a bulk fertilizer blend plant in Ridgetown and I think they are crazy". Terry was not quite as sure they were crazy, and he and Al DeWitte, a fellow salesman at CIL, contacted Cyanamid afterwards about the blend plant proposal, and that was the beginning of Kent County Fertilizers. Al and Terry negotiated with Cyanamid for two blending plants to be located in Ridgetown and Blenheim. These plants were revolutionary as they were among the first bulk blend plants in the Ontario fertilizer industry.
In 1964, Cyanamid built a blending plant at Tupperville. It was offered to Kent County Fertilizers Ltd. and Youlton became manager in August of that year.
In 1965, Cyanamid purchased Rainbow Chemicals in Tilbury and gained a second property in the deal at Eberts. Kent County Fertilizers purchased the Eberts location the next year and a new bulk blending plant was constructed with Youlton becoming manager.
The three managers established a dynamic relationship with supporting farmers. They sold fertilizer, seed, herbicides, and other crop production products. They also offered input financing, custom blending, delivery, spreading equipment, soil sampling, and field scouting of crops.
There were many challenges through the years from unstable farm economies, price wars in the industry, American imports, global competition and media disparaging fertilizer as having a negative impact on the environment although a study in the 1970s stated that the majority of phosphorous content in Lake Erie was from municipal waste treatment centres. Erosion control and soil testing could reduce the small amount of phosphorus that agriculture was contributing.
The fertilizer dealers were insistent upon developing organizations like the Plant Food Council of Ontario, the Fertilizer Institute of Ontario, and the Canada Fertilizer Institute. They believed that research and co-operation had to occur with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, the Provincial Ministry of the Environment, the Ontario Water Resources Commission, and the University of Guelph. Over the years, Kent County Fertilizers was very active at the committee and leadership levels in these organizations, producing three Presidents of the Fertilizer Institute of Ontario, now known as the Ontario Agricultural Business Association, and one President of the Canadian Fertilizer Association.
Rick Youlton, son of Terry, offered the following information that helps explain Kent County Fertilizers success:
"Kent County Fertilizers was always progressive and innovative in the area of crop production. We knew that agriculture was a non-exact science, and hence the opportunities for improvement and innovation were endless. Not only was this demonstrated in Kent County's decision to be the first bulk blender operators in Ontario, Kent County was also a leader in many areas of crop production.
Custom Application – Long before large floaters roamed the land, custom application of fertilizer was done with a 4-wheel drive pickup truck pulling a tote spreader behind it through rough fields. Kent County Fertilizers brought the second Loral air-assisted custom fertilizer floater/spreader in North America to Eberts in 1984. It revolutionized custom fertilizer application in its accuracy and productivity.
A few years later, Kent County Fertilizers introduced the custom application of metered, dry pesticide with fertilizer through the same Loral air-assisted device. This technology enabled the application of fertilizer and weed control at the same time in one-pass, saving the farmers time and trips through the field. Later, Kent County Fertilizers was the first to make available on-the-go impregnation of liquid pesticides onto dry fertilizer, expanding the weed control options that could be applied with fertilizer.
Terry understood that there was a better way to apply fertilizer than the traditional "composite" or flat-rate application method. He knew that some areas of a field did not require the same rate as other areas, and that yield and economics were not being maximized as a result of that. He set up some pull-type spreaders with a hydraulic ram on the rear gate setting so that the rate could be manually adjusted from the tractor seat. He also provided his customers with maps of their field to show them when and where to lower or raise the rate of fertilizer being applied.
The Maximum Economic Yield or MEY CLUB was started in Ridgetown in the 1980s by Henry Neutens, Maurice's son. It helped farmers better understand the factors that contributed to yield by benchmarking their production practices against each other. Advanced agronomies was always a trademark of Kent County Fertilizers.
Kent County Fertilizers was the first local agricultural retailer to adopt variable rate fertilizer technology back in 1994. Today, 20 years later, VRF is recognized today as a more responsible and efficient use of fertilizer in crop production.
Maurice Joseph Neutens was born in Belgium on January 22nd, 1910 to Adiel Neutens and Eugenia Naessens and came to Canada with his family in 1915. The family lived in Manitoba and then moved to Kent County.
Maurice married the former Mary VanLiersberghe and they had three children – Eleonara (Jake Mieras), Henry (Peggy Eadinger), and Jim (Mary O'Connell). They have 7 grandchildren. Maurice and his wife Mary, worked together in the farm and feed supply business, and both were also devoted to their family and were faithful supporters of St. Michael's Church in Ridgetown. He was Chairman of St. Michael's Catholic School Board, and also served as a Trustee on the Ridgetown District High School Board. Maurice's son, Henry joined in at Kent County Fertilizers in 1969, and managed the business when Maurice retired in 1981. Henry purchased his dad's shares at that time and became a full partner in Kent County Fertilizers. Following his retirement, Maurice continued to take the mail and visit with the Ridgetown staff every morning.
The Ridgetown plant sponsored minor hockey teams and supported many local functions in Ridgetown. Maurice was a member of the Ridgetown Curling Club and started golfing after his retirement. Maurice was presented with the Award of Merit from the Fertilizer Institute of Ontario in 1984, for his strong support of the Plant Food Council of Ontario, the Fertilizer Institute of Ontario, and the Canadian Fertilizer Institute.
Al DeWitte was born on October 18th, 1925 in Charing Cross, Raleigh Township. He is a 1947 graduate of the University of Montreal. In 1953, Al married the former Margaret Mortier of Raleigh Township and they had four children – Mary (Pat Weldon), Cathy (Rob Bellefleur), Chris (Monica), and Doug (deceased). The DeWitte's have 6 grandchildren.
In the community, Al was church organist, choir director, and composer at St. Mary's Parish in Blenheim for 60 years, and also wrote a history book of St. Mary's Parish. Al is a member of the Knights of Columbus, and has served as a Grand Knight, Council 1412, Ontario State Deputy, Canadian Supreme Director and Editor of Knights of Columbus State Bulletin (1986 – 1996).
Al is an Honourary Member of the Canadian Legion, and spent 15 years as a Rotary Club Member in Blenheim. Al was commissioned by the Fertilizer Institute of Ontario to co-author the book, "The Next Best Thing to Rain", which outlined the first 100 years of the fertilizer industry in Ontario. This book was published in 2000 and is the most complete history of the fertilizer industry in Ontario, and a testament of the pioneers that built the Ontario business. A copy was donated to each high school library in Ontario.
Al is also an avid baseball fan of the Detroit Tigers, and he spent many days assisting and supporting Chatham Minor Baseball.
Al served as the President of the Fertilizer Institute of Ontario from 1969-1970, and was awarded a TFIO honourary membership in 1992.
Al`s son Chris, who is a current employee and shareholder in the business today, says this about his Dad and Kent County Fertilizers -- ``The most astonishing thing about Al is his devotion to his family, and loving his wife, Margaret. All of his accomplishments would never have happened if it wasn't for Margaret. Al and his partners were greeted with much skepticism when they formed the first bulk blending outlets in Kent County. This skepticism came from competition, as well as from banks they were looking to get funding from. They were told they'll fall flat on their faces! They had to beg, borrow and steal to get funds to go along with the backing from Cyanamid. This took a tremendous effort and incredible risk to come up with money in the face of all the skepticism from the traditional, granulated, fertilizer companies." He said we need to remember that 'these young men had young growing families and they left good, secure jobs to start their own company, so they were great risk takers and had many sleepless nights. Kent County Fertilizers opened their doors in 1963 and eked out a profit in their first year! Remarkable!' Terry and Al remember very clearly that first year, and tell the story of how the profit was enough to buy the three partners a good steak supper.
Terry Youlton was born on June 6th, 1936 to Robert Youlton and Eva King. He spent a good deal of his youth helping his Grandfather King on their mixed farm operation between Clachan and Wardsville, often riding his bike 7 miles on weekends from his home in Bothwell to the farm. His love of his grandfather and farming influenced him to attend the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph where he met his wife, the former Mary MacDougall. They were married in 1956 and had four children – Rick (Joanne), Kathy (Don Rae), Douglas (deceased), and Peggy (deceased). Terry and Mary have 12 grandchildren, and 4 great grandchildren.
Terry was very involved with the Ridgetown community. He has been an active member of the local Rotary Club since 1962, serving as Rotary District Governor in 1997/98 in the Kent County and Michigan State regions, and has led various humanitarian projects in Pakistan, India, the Ukraine, China, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. He has received numerous awards, including the "Service Above Self" award, for his many years of Rotary work.
Terry is also involved with the Anglican Church in Ridgetown and in 2009, he was honoured with the Bishop Award for Excellence in Ministry for the Diocese of Huron. He and Mary also served as a National Team couple for the Canadian Anglican Marriage Encounter. His love of music resulted in his being a founding member of the Ridge Players theatrical group, where he both sang and acted for many years, as well as serving on the Board. He was also a trustee on the Ridgetown Public School Board.
Following the death of their son Douglas, Terry and Mary helped form the Bereaved Parents Group, and in 1999, Terry was named "Person of the Year" in Ridgetown.
According to his wife, "Terry always wanted to be a farmer. This job allowed him to farm thousands of acres in a different way. He loved his job and looked forward to going to work every day. He worked alongside of his men, and led by example."
Al DeWitte, Maurice Neutens and Terry Youlton combined to form a partnership and a Company that helped advance agriculture in Kent County. They became experts in crop production, and they provided innovative, quality services to the farmers they served. And like the farmers they worked with, they owned their businesses, were committed to the communities they worked and lived in, they loved their work, and were honest, hard-working people. These three men contributed to agriculture in Kent County with their entrepreneurial spirits, their work ethic, and their dedication to helping farmers succeed. They also excelled in serving their community in many ways.