Research-driven

A grumbly stomach can tell you when you’re hungry, but not what kind of food it needs to boost depleted nutrients. Devouring an entire chocolate cake might quiet the stomach, but it’s probably not the best selection. For crops, throwing straight nitrogen at plants may not be the best choice for optimal growth, either.

Really looking at what plants need and the best way to provide nutrients prompted Douglas W. Cook, or “D-W,” to use 5-gallon buckets to experiment with different formations of liquid fertilizer. The concept was to create highly efficient fertilizers for fruit and vegetable crops by using more refined raw materials, making them readily available to plants.

Key Points

Agro-Culture Liquid Fertilizers has small beginnings in Michigan.

The family-owned company has grown 20% every year since 2000.

Company supports Farm American effort to bring awareness, appreciation to ag.


Cook’s 1960s and ’70s research was the foundation for Agro-Culture Liquid Fertilizers, which manufactures and markets in-house formulated and branded liquid fertilizer products.

By 1983, key products were developed, and Cook incorporated the company with his son-in-law, Troy Bancroft, and their spouses, Eloise and Jill (respectively). They established a company headquarters just west of St. Johns in Clinton County.

Cook died in December 2010 after a long battle with cancer, but the company he founded is enjoying marked growth in developing environmentally friendly products: Balanced formulations that include micronutrients result in more usable plant food in smaller quantities, Troy says.

“They were originally designed for fruit and vegetable crops, but it responded the same way in row crops,” Troy says. “In 1987 we expanded our product line out West.”

Growing business

Today ACLF serves over 40 states, as well as Canada, Mexico and Belize. There are 16 regionally located, corporately employed sales account managers who support a network of over 120 individual area managers and ag distributors, employing several hundred sales representatives.

Troy cites three main factors for his company’s growth: exceptional employees, family ownership and what may be the largest plant nutrition research farm owned by a fertilizer company.

Established in 1994 and located just a few miles northwest of ACLF headquarters is the North Central Research Station. It includes 500 acres divided into nine farms and 2,800 plots, growing more than 30 different crops including an orchard, vineyard, plenty of fruits and vegetables, and row crops.

“Everything is replicated, analyzed and statistically summarized,” Troy says. “We look at everything, including how the product is applied and utilized.”On staff at the research station are two Ph.D.s, two agronomists and a team of farm operators. “This research can provide validation of our products,” he says.

Satellite locations across the U.S. are used to test for regional recommendation differences in all major agricultural areas. One of ACLF’s newest products, AccesS, is a proprietary, high-sulfur formulation intended for application anywhere 5 pounds or more of sulfur are recommended.

“It’s good that we have lowered sulfur in the air without diesel emissions, but it has depleted the soil,” explains Nick Bancroft, 28, who has a bachelor’s degree in crop and soil sciences from Michigan State University and a master’s in business administration, and is vice president of organizational planning and operations. “AccesS provides more sulfur and it has been very successful — we sold it out.” Eight more products are currently under development.

For growers, ACLF provides soil-testing, and training on agronomic practices and services, including application practices. “If what you put out there doesn’t get into the plant, it’s like throwing gas at a car — it doesn’t do you any good,” Nick says.

Anchored by family

In addition to Nick, Troy’s other two sons are also involved in the company. Albert Bancroft, 26, is the marketing communications manager. Gerrit Bancroft, 23, recently graduated with a degree in agribusiness from MSU and is the site manager of the company’s new Ashley facility.

Responsible nutrient management, Troy says, is the cornerstone in ensuring the viability of farmland for generations to come.

The company recently announced its financial sponsorship of the program promoting the NASCAR No. 78 Farm American car, designed to draw awareness and support for American agriculture.

“As a company, we believe that farmers and ranchers are not given the positive credit they deserve for the work put in to feed this nation,” Albert says. “By joining a non-ag company to provide a platform to educate the consumer about food production, [ACLF] is unique; we’re doing this to support the people that support us.”

Focused on growth

Beginning in 2000, the company established a goal of growing 20% every year for the next 20 years. Troy admits it was a lofty goal. “But, we’ve done that, even exceeded that,” he says.

Two major production facilities were added at Williams, Iowa, in 1997 and at Goodland, Kan., in 2000. The Ashley facility went on line this year and has the capability to make ACLF’s complete 35-product line. It is the only plant that produces micronutrients and specialty products. In addition, the Ashley plant will produce some critical ingredients used in ACLF products.

The decision to move major production from St. Johns to Ashley was because of the rail line. The tracks in St. Johns were taken out some years ago. “We need the rail. We have 145 cars,” Troy says.

The headquarters will remain in St. Johns, and there is discussion of expanding the office.

Having family ownership has been beneficial for business. “People like doing business with a family-owned company, and we like hearing from them. They can see us, they can talk to us,” Nick says. “As we grow, it will remain a priority to retain that relationship. We have good employees. We take care of them, and they take care of us and our customers.”

As the company grows, Troy recognizes that obtaining that 20% growth each year will be difficult. “But, owning our own research and development, marketing, sales, production and distribution make us different,” Troy says. “It’s a global market — and an exciting time to be in the fertilizer industry.”

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centered on FAMILY: Agro-Culture Liquid Fertilizers is a family-owned company. Its founder, Douglas W. Cook, died in late 2010, but the business is carried on by his son-in-law Troy Bancroft (right) and Troy’s sons Nick (left) and Albert. Also part of the operation, but not pictured, is another Bancroft son, Gerrit. On this day, the digital sign in front of the St. Johns headquarters was advertising an open house for the new plant in Ashley.

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ENVIRONMENT-CONSCIOUS: Two new large storage facilities were added to the research station this year. This one is designed to contain all product stored there in case of a catastrophe. The building also stores equipment and produce grown at the farm. After picking and weighing all of the fruits and vegetables produced in the tests, ACLF donates them to charitable organizations.

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RESEARCH-BASED: Stephanie Zelinko, field agronomy research manager, and Jerry Wilhm, senior research manager, examine corn growing at the research station.

This article published in the September, 2011 edition of MICHIGAN FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.