Photo Credit: Maddy Boehme (M. Catton & Co., LLC)
BY ANGELA CATTON
If you live in a rural community, the term “farm to fork” is a familiar one. If you live in “The Ice Cream Capital of the World®, the term “farm to spoon” is much more relevant. And if your cooperative is North West Rural Electric Cooperative, the term “farm to spoon” means economic development and an opportunity to support a 106-year-old dairy manufacturer that calls Le Mars home.
July is National Ice Cream Month, so designated by the late President Ronald Reagan to pay tribute to his favorite dessert. Nowhere in the U.S. does this recognition mean more to community development than Le Mars and the rural electric cooperative that serves it.
Ice Cream Capital of the World®
Le Mars, located 30 miles north of Sioux City, might best be described as a bedroom community. But the residents of Le Mars (pop. 9,967) might better describe it as a bedroom community – with a view.
Le Mars has grown up alongside a family-run dairy operation which has become one of the largest ice cream manufacturers in the U.S. In 1994, Le Mars was officially recognized by the Iowa legislature as “The Ice Cream Capital of the World” thanks to the fact that more ice cream is made by Wells Enterprises, Inc. in a single location than in any other city in the world. This claim to fame has punctuated the community’s tourism industry as fans of ice cream and the Blue Bunny® brand descend upon the community for events such as the annual “Ice Cream Days” festival and to visit the Ice Cream Parlor, located in the heart of the downtown’s vibrant business district. In fact, on June 12, Wells Enterprises cut the ribbon on its re-imagined and rebranded Wells Visitor Center and Ice Cream Parlor with an expanded ice cream menu and interactive experience. Learn more by visiting www.ilovewells.com.
Family ownership and the sweet spot of success
Wells Enterprises, Inc., founded by Fred H. Wells Jr. in Le Mars in 1913, currently employs nearly 3,500 workers across the country and proudly remains family owned. Fred’s great-nephew, Mike Wells, the third-generation leader, continues to advocate for the cultivation of business, workforce recruitment and development, and the dairy industry in an area of the state that some might think is “the sweet spot” for commercial viability.
The success of Wells Enterprises began to draw the attention of neighboring states that had tried to lure the organization away with the promise of a richer business climate and a plentiful supply of milk. In the early 2000s, a volatile dairy commodities market and a shortage of dairy producers in the area led Wells to contemplate a move from the community it had called home for generations. During this time, Wells was outgrowing its corporate office in Le Mars. The need for more space, more access to transportation and storage for its product, and a guaranteed supply of raw milk from regional producers topped the long list of needs that Wells required. Enter North West Rural Electric Cooperative (REC).
North West REC is a rural electric distribution cooperative headquartered in Orange City and serves over 7,200 members in the Iowa counties of Ida, O’Brien, Plymouth, and Sioux. It purchases its power from Northwest Iowa Power Cooperative (NIPCO), a generation and transmission cooperative located in Le Mars. During the mid-1990s, NIPCO established economic development policies to support efforts to strengthen and encourage commercial opportunities within the NIPCO service territory. NIPCO’s six distribution cooperatives and one cooperative consisting of six municipal electric utilities have been able to leverage these policies to cultivate a business landscape that creates and retains jobs, promotes business start-ups and expansions, and improves quality of life for western Iowans, while ensuring the safe, reliable, affordable and environmentally responsible delivery of power.
North West REC, working in concert with NIPCO, Iowa Area Development Group (IADG), city and county partners, and the local economic development corporation, was able to pull together a financial and incentive package that included revolving loans, federal grants and loans offered through USDA, and an affordable supply of power that beat out a handful of states and communities vying for the opportunity to relocate the ice cream manufacturer. These efforts saved hundreds of corporate jobs that would have left Le Mars. A 178,000-square-foot, three-level corporate office was constructed on a 40-acre site, just southwest of Le Mars on cooperative lines, and, coincidentally, next door to neighboring NIPCO. The corporate office is home to over 300 employees and includes a state-of-the-art pilot plant for research and development initiatives. The two Wells’ production facilities employ over 2,500 individuals who live in, or within roughly a 50-mile radius, of Le Mars.
Scooping up opportunities
With the new corporate center secured, it was time to “mooove” (sorry, we couldn’t help ourselves!) the focus to dairy recruitment.
“North West REC, working closely with NIPCO and IADG, was diligent in our efforts to recruit dairy producers from across the country to our area,” says North West REC CEO Lyle Korver. “Our low-cost power, energy efficiency and load management services, and economic development programs were great incentives for dairy producers to consider this area.”
Since 2000, North West REC has worked with producers to add over 20 new or expanded dairy services in its service territory and increased the number of dairy cows by over 35,000, with many of them providing milk to Wells, Enterprises, Inc. Blue Bunny ice cream is proud to be able to say that it starts with fresh milk from dairies within 75 miles of its production facilities.
Perry Creek Dairy, located in Plymouth County.
Scooping the retention of Wells, its corporate center and a secure supply of milk was just the beginning. The sprinkles on the top included several “cluster” businesses, providing raw goods and services to Wells, to locate or expand operations in Le Mars with many of them choosing to build or expand in the Le Mars Industrial Park that is powered by North West REC. Such cluster businesses include Schuster Company, an over-the-road freight company; IML Containers, which manufactures molded, in-labeled plastic containers that hold ice cream and ice cream-related products; BoDeans Baking Company, manufacturer of cones and wafers used in Wells products; and Le Mars Public Storage, which provides additional freezer and dry goods storage capacity for Wells.
Members of rural electric cooperatives know the history and purpose behind its impetus. When no one would do it for them, rural Americans came together to power rural communities and empower those who live there. That story is no different in The Ice Cream Capital of the World where the “farm to spoon” concept doesn’t always begin with the cow. It begins with the rural electric cooperative. And that’s the cherry on the top!
Celebrate National Ice Cream Month by learning a little more about Iowa’s largest ice cream manufacturer!
Above photos (inside the visitor's center and company headquarters) and lower right ice cream photo. Photo credit: Wells Enterprises, Inc.
In 1913, Le Mars resident Fred H. Wells Jr. purchased one grey horse, a delivery wagon, some cans and jars and the goodwill of the business from a local dairy farmer by the name of Ray Bowers for $250. This contract secured a milk distribution route in Le Mars and a guaranteed source of raw milk from Mr. Bowers’ herd of 15 cows. In the 1920s, a partnership with brother Harry C. Wells brought a high-quality ice cream to the Sioux City market. The product was so good that competitor Fairmont Creamery bought the rights to the distribution and the Wells brand name. The sale got the family through the Great Depression. But when the brothers wanted to get back into the ice cream business in 1935, they needed a new name. A “Name That Ice Cream” Contest resulted in the company being rebranded to “Blue Bunny” and the company has enjoyed steady growth ever since.
- When Fred H. Wells Jr. began the company in 1913 as the sole employee, he probably would not have imagined Wells Enterprises, Inc. employing over 3,000 across the United States today.
- Wells Enterprises makes more than 150 million gallons of ice cream each year.
- Vanilla is the most popular flavor Wells makes, although, locally, in the parlor the last few years, Blue Bunny Salted Caramel Craze has topped the charts. What is your favorite?
- Each year, Wells Enterprises use enough chocolate coating to fill more than three Olympic-size swimming pools.
- Wells can make more than 1 million ice cream sandwiches in one day at its manufacturing plants in Le Mars!
- All that ice cream takes a lot of milk! On average, one tanker truck full of fresh milk arrives at Wells, every hour of every day, 365 days a year!
- Wells Enterprises’ 12-story, free-standing high-rise freezer is one of tallest in the world! This amazing structure can store more than 70,000 pallets of ice cream and frozen treats at -40 degrees F!
Experience the re-imagined Visitor Center & Ice Cream Parlor, now open in Le Mars, Iowa! For more information visit www.ilovewells.com/the-experience
Angela Catton is the manager of member relations and development for Northwest Iowa Power Cooperative based in Le Mars.