On Wednesday, May 3rd, history was made in Kiowa County and a new economic era may have just opened up for the County as well as far beyond its borders. According to Stefan Soloviev, CEO of Soloviev Group, a multi-billion dollar privately owned conglomerate, “It was my biggest achievement—the goal of my life.”
That statement about a business transaction in Kiowa County, Colorado seems a bit overstated when one considers the type of industries associated with the 8 Regions located across the United States within Soloviev Group’s extensive holdings. The industries are lucrative and quite varied including real estate, art collections, casinos, hospitality, mining, landscaping, vineyards, renewable energy, transportation and railroads, and agricultural businesses.
On that historically significant day last week in Kiowa County crews from Soloviev’s Colorado Pacific Railroad loaded a unit train with 110 full grain cars in 36 hours at the newly built Weskan Grain Elevator, located at Stockton Siding just east of Plainview School on Highway 96 in eastern Kiowa County, and delivered the unit train to the Union Pacific interchange at NA Junction (near Pueblo) to be taken on to a market in the Houston, TX area. The train cars were filled with milo grown by not only Crossroads Ag, owned by the Soloviev Group, but by other local producers, as well.
To understand the enormous significance of what exactly happened on Wednesday, May 3, 2023, we have to go back to another time in Kiowa County. The railroad line that runs the entire length of the county was first constructed in the late 1880s by the Missouri Pacific Railroad and was the catalyst for the town-building that followed. Each of the towns in the county including Arlington, Haswell, Eads, Chivington, Brandon, Sheridan Lake, and Towner were established next to the railroad. That railroad was the lifeline of the county and a significant connector to the outside world—until one day it wasn’t.
It seems powerful men can determine the economic demise of an entire area when they just stopped the train in 1996. One normal day the communities along the line saw 21 trains running through the county, as was usual, and, literally, the next day the tracks had gone silent—and stayed silent for a very long, devastating period of time.
The 122-mile stretch of track known as the Towner line was acquired by the Union Pacific in 1996 as part of its merger with Southern Pacific Railroad. However, the Union Pacific already had one line running across Eastern Colorado, they did not need two. The state of Colorado stepped in and bought the Towner line railroad. The purpose? To keep it intact. The state then, unfortunately, turned around and sold the railroad, a line they had bought to protect from being scrapped, to V&S Railroad, who promised to keep the railroad in service. The thing was—V&S was a railroad scrap and salvage company.
While Kiowa County was languishing economically looking for a reasonable way to get their grain out of the county without a significant cost in transportation where it is well-known that time means money, Stefan Soloviev was working his way toward Kiowa County, a place that lacked agribusiness infrastructure but had plenty of producers who were being shut out of the markets.
Soloviev grew up in New York City and got into commodities trading, particularly in the grain markets, after leaving New York University without graduating. According to an April 2, 2023 article in Leaders Magazine, Soloviev related the story, “Back around 2000, I realized that some commodities, especially grain prices, were not keeping up with inflation. Even though inflation was historically low at the time, I knew grain was going to become more expensive. You could go back 30 or 40 years on the price of wheat, for example, and there was no real change in price other than select times during specific world events. I quickly shifted from not only wanting to trade grains, but also to own farmland – which at the time was totally out of favor – and produce grains.”
Soloviev then made a major decision uprooting his family to Wichita, Kansas to learn how to be a farmer. He met the local producers, studied the markets more, figured out milo was a crop that held significant importance as it was none-gmo so China would buy it—and buy it at a better price than other markets. Milo was easier to grow and more drought resistant. Then corn seed was also developed into a more drought-resistant crop which opened even more opportunity for an enterprising young farmer.
That’s when Soloviev made his move. He formed Crossroads Agriculture and came to an area that most people avoided at all costs. “I finally settled on the Kansas/Colorado border which was a place I felt would be perfect for expansion. It was an area where no one was looking for land. You would barely see anyone from Denver or Iowa looking to take a shot there, much less any investors from the big cities. Less rainfall meant more risk, but also meant much larger fields at cheaper prices than the fields around Wichita. In my mind, it was also a prime area not only for the westward expansion of the drought-resistant corn, but for newer technologies for tomorrow. The plan was simple – leverage as much land as possible through the farm credit banking system. Then, as the grain price started to go the way I thought it would, the price of the acreage – as low as $200 an acre back then – would follow and allow more equity for more land.”
Since that decision to establish Crossroads Ag in 2007, the Soloviev Group is currently listed by The Land Report as the 26th largest landowner in the United States owning approximately 500,000 acres in its holdings in Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico.
The formation of Crossroads Ag put Soloviev in the area soon after the train stopped running on the Towner line. Soloviev told the Independent in a February 2018 interview, “Whenever I was out there, which was pretty often, I’d drive over those tracks. That line runs straight west, and that always interested me. So, I looked into the situation. I began watching the headlines, talking to some of the locals, just trying to learn what I could.”
By that time, V&S began to make its move to scrap the railroad. They presented their case to the Surface Transportation Board (STB) that the railroad should be abandoned, and the track pulled up and scrapped.
Fortunately, a STB ruling required V&S to wait for 2 years before tearing up the track. Meanwhile, Soloviev says his interest kept growing. “I don’t get into anything unless I plan to win, and I knew, if I got into it, it was going to be a fight. If I hadn’t stepped in when I did, the railroad would have been gone.”
Then began an excruciating legal battle between Soloviev and V&S. In response to Soloviev’s application to the STB the scrappers at V&S, in 2014, changed their tactics and brought equipment in pulling up tie spikes and anchors from four out of every five ties, starting at the Western end of the line. Soloviev then forced the sale stopping V&S Railway’s destruction of the line.
Soloviev told the Independent, “It was the first forced sale in the country since the early 1970s.”
Finally, in 2018, the Towner line, 122 miles from Towner to NA Junction just east of Pueblo, was purchased by the Soloviev Group for $10 million and the Colorado Pacific Railroad was born. Soloviev had saved the railroad, but it took many years and millions of dollars to do it. It was time to put his new railroad to work. First, there was much work to be done on the actual line and for that he brought in CWC Rail, Inc. owned and operated by Matt Prince, an experienced railroad contractor from Tennessee, and Harvey Crouch of Crouch Engineering. Despite fighting their way through a pandemic that Prince estimates put the project back a year, the old Towner line was finished in late 2020 costing an estimated $3.5 million to rehab.
The final project before the rail line could open was to complete the interchange at NA Junction. The interchange consisted of the construction of two new sidings in a railyard that will afford flexibility for the Towner line. The construction of the new sidings in the interchange at NA Junction will allow the Burlington Northern Sante Fe (BNSF) Railroad or Union Pacific Railroad, and the local Colorado Pacific Railroad to set off and pick up loaded and empty freight cars finally opening rail traffic to the west for farmers in eastern Colorado and western Kansas. The NA Junction project came in on time and was finished just as 2021 rolled in with a price tag of $3.4 million.
As his railroad was making significant progress and would soon represent a way to move the local grain to markets never before accessible for local producers toward the West, Soloviev was facing another issue—the lack of significant grain storage. With his business sense he knew he needed his own grain storage to help in lowering costs but had been unable to buy or lease the elevators along the Towner line as grain conglomerates Bartlett Grain—now Savage—and Scoular Grain owned or leased the major grain elevators along the rail line in Haswell, Eads, and Towner.
Soloviev said, “I’ve faced 18 years of hurdles in trying to get the best price I can for not only my products but also for local producers in Kiowa, Prowers, Cheyenne County and western Kansas. I keep trying to cut out the middleman. It was us against the world.”
The decision was made to build his own grain elevator that would not only serve his needs for Crossroads Ag but also improve the economics for the local producers. As of last week, the Soloviev Group owns and operates Weskan Farms, a massive grain elevator located strategically on Highway 96 and along the Colorado Pacific Railroad.
According to Weskan Grain CEO Will Bramblett the Stockton Railroad Siding consists of 7 concrete bin towers and 4 steel bins. “It can currently hold 3 million bushels of differing grains with the ability to expand for future needs.”
Bramblett, a Texas Tech graduate who has been in the grain industry for 20 years in a number of different states says the project cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million.
According to Randy Williams, owner of R&T Redi Mix, a local company out of Brandon and Lamar, “We poured the first three towers (of the seven) by shuttling cement back and forth from the Lamar plant to the Weskan Grain site. It took us 6 months and a lot of long days to complete the first three towers. Once they decided to build four more towers, we built a portable batch plant right on the site. That project began in September (2022), and we finished up in April.”
It is hard to estimate how much cement went into the project, but Williams says it was in the neighborhood of 13,000 to 14,000 yards of cement. They poured cement in all types of weather. The cement was carried up a belt on the large outside leg and then dumped down a spout. McPherson Concrete out of Kansas was the general contractor on the job.
“The facility is special as Weskan Grain is being dual served by two Class I railroads which should make them very competitive with other grain railroads in the region,” explains Bramblett. He further explained that these trains are heavy axle meaning there is no limit on the length of cars that can be loaded.
Bramblett indicated that Soloviev has plans to expand Weskan Grain to a new facility at Galatea located between Eads and Haswell. “The Galatea project is located on the Colorado Pacific Railroad right-away property with Highway 96 on the south side and the railroad on the north side for easy access not only for the producers who will unload grain at a high speed but also for the train who will utilize shuttle cars to pick it up.”
In addition, according to Matt Prince, general manager and operator of Colorado Pacific Railroad, “The purpose of the satellite elevator at Galatea is for the grain producers further west to save on time and fuel in getting their grain to a market. We’re buying used hopper cars—65 to 100—to shuttle the grain from Galatea to the Weskan Grain elevator at Stockton Siding.”
Which brings us full circle on the history-making day last week. Prince played a major role in the first unit train going out of Weskan Grain to NA Junction and then on to markets in the Houston area. “We met the inbound Union Pacific unit train with the 110 cars at interchange. They got off and we got on and headed east to Weskan Grain. It takes 6 hours one-way to arrive at Weskan Grain. We had a few bugs that we identified while going through the first experience of loading the cars that had to do with the elevator’s processes. It took us 36 hours total to get the unit train back to interchange and off to market.” Even with the learning curve the train crew met the 48-hour time limit with time to spare.
As for Bramblett, “The sole purpose at Weskan Grain is to offer our services and time to area producers. We are driven to provide a more competitive price, give producers more advantages, and outstanding service.” Will Bramblett says he wants producers to call him. “I don’t want to just say we’re open for business, I want to talk to producers and explain how we can give them a competitive edge. I will answer texts and phone calls so do contact me at 830-328-2028.
Soloviev says, “Weskan Grain at Stockton Siding is the epicenter of Soloviev Group.” He shares the story that he chose the name Weskan Grain because of its significance to him personally, “The first time I heard the word Weskan was when he watched the great Todd Okeson from the tiny town of Weskan, KS play in the 2004 NCAA Sweet 16 with Nevada. I thought at the time, what a neat name to describe a place in Western Kansas and on the border with Colorado. It struck me how impressive the people from Okeson’s hometown must be.”
Soloviev says he is doing something special with Weskan Grain and Colorado Pacific Railroad. “We’re developing a new way to do agribusiness. I want the local producers to call me so I can come visit with them. I don’t care if they have 40 acres or 40,000 acres of farmland, I’d love to talk to them.”