Aerial view of Monolithic Dome fertilizer blend plant

The Monolithic Dome fertilizer blend plant at Jackson Farmers, Inc. is embedded into the hillside. Fertilizer delivery trucks drive up the gentle hill to the unloading area behind the dome. (Dave South)


A tour of the nearly completed Jackson Farmers fertilizer blend plant

The tent is up, chairs placed underneath, tables set up nearby, grills are hot, steaks are ready, and pickups are parking on the grassy field. Time again for the annual Jackson Farmers, Inc. open house where farmers see demonstration crops, listen to sales presentations, eat steak, drink beer, and — this time — inspect their new Monolithic Dome fertilizer blend plant.

Jackson Farmers, Inc. is an agricultural cooperative with hundreds of members representing thousands of acres throughout eastern Kansas. They are a full-service co-op providing services in agronomy — seed, fertilizer, insecticide, herbicide — as well as animal feed, farm fuel supplies, grain storage, cooperative marketing, and more.

It’s Tuesday, September 10. The hot and humid day is cooling into a pleasant evening. The co-op farmers and associates are sitting under the tent listening to vendors presenting upcoming changes in seeds and fertilizer/weed killer combinations. The presentations are over quickly, far faster than most years, and everyone heads out. A few people stay near the tent, looking over vendor samples on display. Some go west, to inspect rows of demonstration crops — each neatly labeled with tall signs. Most people head south, to the large, white dome.

Inspecting the dome

At 100-feet diameter by 35-feet tall, the white Monolithic Dome appears too small in the eyes of a few visitors. They reach the main ramp where skid loaders drive into the dome. To the right is a tall, conical-shaped metal mixer where fertilizer from the dome will be loaded and mixed. Each mix is custom designed based on soil, crop, season, and weather. Today, the mixer is unfinished. The space on the left where the second mixer will go is empty. There is still more work to do before the plant is in production.

As visitors walk up the ramp, into the structure, it appears to open up. It seems taller, wider. From outside, the edges of the dome fade away as you get closer. It’s impossible to see the entire building. Inside, although the central core is relatively small, the full height is visible.

Space opens up even more when walking into the storage bins. Two bins “wrap” around the back of other bins, giving the effect of an ever-growing structure. The bins will usually be full of bulk fertilizer components, so today is a rare opportunity to inspect the whole dome.

The bin walls are thick, steel-reinforced concrete. In fact, the entire structure is solid concrete with no wood to rot or burn. The walls radiate from the center of the dome to create seven storage bins ranging in size from 3,900 cubic feet to 22,500 cubic feet. Total storage volume is 94,000 cubic feet across seven containers. There is an eighth, small, 270 cubic foot storage area near the entrance for bagged components.

One door is in place on the first opening to the right of the entrance. The next door is being installed. When finished, skid loaders will “spin” around in the central core from one bin to the next, gathering bulk product such as ammonium nitrate, diammonium phosphate, potash, pelletized lime, boron, and zinc. The material is placed in the mixers, mixed, and loaded onto trucks for the fields.

Overhead are catwalks and a single conveyor attached to a center pivot point in the middle of the dome then extending to an outer steel ring around the dome. Trucks load material via an exterior conveyor on top of the dome through a drop chute at the apex into the internal conveyor which rotates from bin to bin — loading material into each storage area.

It’s a compact system with few moving parts. It rotates along a steel ring attached directly to the dome. A telescoping chute helps load the material evenly in each bin. When the conveyor needs maintenance, it is rotated to a long catwalk on the wall next to the entrance. It lines up perfectly with the catwalk giving easy access to the full conveyor.

When the blend plant is operational, workers can visually inspect all fertilizer stored by walking around the catwalks and looking down into each storage areas.

Going outside the visitors can see how the dome is embedded into the hillside. Trucks delivering fertilizer drive up the gentle hill behind the dome to a simple conveyor — no elevator required — to load material inside.

It’s a simple system. When it’s online, it will serve the co-op member for many years.

But getting it built wasn’t easy.

Rain

When Monolithic Constructors, Inc. started construction on the dome last September, it was expected to be a quick project with the dome operational by spring. Mother Nature had other ideas.

It was already a wet year in 2018 with heavy rains into December. But 2019 — by all accounts — was one of the wettest years on record. Kansas City received almost a year’s worth of rain in six months. And much more fell. One farmer at the open house said they received 16 inches of rain in August!

It is a well-advertised fact that building a Monolithic Dome can be done in bad weather, but it will absolutely slow down the process when you can’t even pour the footing. Many days the footing would fill with ice — solid ice.

Fortunately, the constant rain exposed weaknesses in the drainage plan, prompting several upgrades. While snow, ice, and rain did slow down the construction process, these improvements will be a blessing. The facility will better handle wet weather in the future. So yes, the rain did make for some miserably muddy days in construction. It is better building for it.

Last steps

Humidity is the enemy of dry fertilizer. Two air conditioning units — similar to residential window AC units — will be installed above the entrance. They will dry out the air inside the dome, keeping the fertilizer dry and reducing corrosion of the metal equipment.

Work continues on the bin doors, the second mixer, and other equipment. Soon the blend plant will be online, serving Jackson Farmers customers.

Today, the visitors walk all around the dome, look over new equipment, and ask lots of questions. Eventually, everyone heads back to the tent where tables are set up. Country size steaks are ready with potatoes, corn, and rolls plus ice-cold beer, water, and soft drinks. It’s time to eat, visit, tell stories.

Tomorrow, it’s back to work.

Angled loading conveyor

Fertilizer is unloaded from trucks onto a simple, angled, belt conveyor. By embedding the dome into the hillside, the unloading station is high enough that a vertical elevator isn’t necessary. (Dave South)

Head-house at dome apex

The head-house sits atop the dome without any internal supporting columns. Fertilizer loading into the dome drops through a tube at the apex. (Dave South)

Polar conveyor

Inside is a steel ring, attached to the concrete shell. A center-pivot conveyor — also known as a polar conveyor — hangs from the dome and is attached to the steel ring using a small motor and wheels. Fertilizer drops down the vertical tube from the head-house into the screw conveyor. (Dave South)

View from above storage bins

The polar conveyor rotates around on the steel ring, filling each bin. A telescoping opening on the conveyor ensures exact placement for maximum storage capacity. (Dave South)

Largest storage bin

The largest of the seven storage bins can hold 22,500 cubic feet of material. The smallest storage holds 3,900 cubic feet. The facility contains a total of 94,000 cubic feet across all seven storage bins. (Dave South)

Installed bin door

The first installed bin door. See how it slopes into the bin. Loaded fertilizer rests against the door and flows out underneath. When the product in the container is low enough, a skid loader lifts the door open, and it is locked in place. Then the skid loader drives inside to clear out the remaining fertilizer. (Dave South)

Central core

The catwalk appears curved in this panoramic photo of the central core. A skid loader can easily move from bin to bin in this core, scooping up the fertilizer, and driving it to the mixer at the delivery entrance (behind the camera). (Dave South)

Snow covered construction site

Kansas weather kept the site wet and muddy. Of course, there were beautiful, snowy days, too. (Mike South)

Delivery entrance

Work continues to finish the plant with one of two mixers installed at the delivery entrance. When complete, custom fertilizer mixes — depending on weather, crop, season, and other factors — are delivered to farmers to apply to their fields. (Dave South)