Phyllis Coulter

Illinois Farmer Today

Thursday, July 23, 2015

ATLANTA, Ill. — A little more than two years ago, on a quiet Sunday morning, the Schmidt family and their employees got terrible news — their Atlanta farm equipment business building was on fire.

On Aug. 1, they will be ready to invite the public to see their comeback, a newly constructed, 60,000-square-foot building with modern conveniences.

It stands on the same site as the building lost by fire, but has new features for employees and customers, says Michael Schmidt, president of Central Illinois Ag.

His great-great-grandfather, Richard Schmidt, started the business as a small blacksmith shop in 1898. In 1926, the second-generation Schmidt signed the first contract with J.I. Case, transforming the business from a blacksmith shop into a full-blown farm machinery dealership.

Other mergers followed over the years until in 2001, Central Illinois Ag Inc. was created. Along with Michael, other active family owners today are Steve Schmidt, Tim Evans, and Brian Reeser.

They have about 95 employees at their Case IH dealerships in Atlanta, Clinton, Farmer City and Mason City, with about 33 employees at the Atlanta location.

Schmidt said the family felt the community support after the fire that shocked them out of bed on June 30, 2013. “It was a surprise. No one expects to wake up to a phone call that your work building is on fire,” says Matt Barling, Central Illinois Ag precision farming specialist at the Atlanta location. By 7:30 a.m. that Monday, staff and friends were there to help, getting filthy and sweaty but more than willing to pitch in.

“We got everything out that we could save and reuse,” Schmidt says. “Our people never quit working.” Soon, an employee’s mobile home appeared on site for staff to have a place to work.

“We had customers in and out. Guys brought us lunch. We appreciate that,” Barling says. “The fire didn’t destroy us, it made us stronger.” The new energy-efficient building has a workspace designed for the office staff, and the shop has air conditioning and heated floors. It has a big showroom where equipment can be brought inside for a customer to see in any weather, and featured equipment is on display.

One of the additions Schmidt is most pleased about is the new training room, equipped with technology and screens for small group training. “It’s a crazy, state-of-the-art training room,” Barling says. “It will be a huge benefit.” Staff will offer refresher training for farmers before planting and harvesting seasons. It cuts down on the number of calls from the fields and helps things run smoothly on farms, he says.

Schmidt has been part of the family business since he was a boy, at first helping with the mowing, later with parts and sales and coming back full-time after college. “I always wanted to be part of the family business,” he says. The biggest change since he started is the technology. “We are as much a technology company today as a machinery company,” he says.

The public is invited to tour the new facilities from 2-7 p.m., Aug. 1. Dinner will be served to the first 1,000 attendees beginning at 5 p.m. The country rock band, Brushville, will take the stage for a concert at 7 p.m. “The reason we are doing this is for our neighbors and friends,” Schmidt says. All through the process, he says, community members, people at basketball games, the cashier at Casey’s and others kept asking how the new building was coming along. They’ve all been part of the journey, and he wants to welcome them to see how the new building turned out and thank them for the care and concern. Among the special guests is his grandfather, who will be coming in from Florida. “I think I’ll be most happy to see some of our customers who are far away that I haven’t seen for a while,” Barling says.

When the project began, Schmidt never expected the price of corn to fall by half during construction. “I image if we knew that, we might have done things differently,” he says. But then, maybe not. Central Illinois Ag is in the business for the long haul and the next generation. This is just the next stage in a long history. “I have four boys. I hope we’re here for another 50 years,” Schmidt says.