A history of nourishing the world
Cargill was founded in 1865 as a single grain warehouse in Iowa, U.S.
Since then, we’ve grown to become a global partner connecting people around the planet and across the agricultural supply chain. But one thing has remained constant: our purpose of nourishing the world in a safe, responsible and sustainable way.
Explore our Cargill history below or in this downloadable timeline — and see how we live the values that have guided us from the start to make a real difference in the world.
1860s and 70s
- Our story starts in 1865, when William Wallace (W. W.) Cargill leaves his family home in Janesville, Wisconsin and buys his first grain flat house in the railroad town of Conover, Iowa. W. W. will be joined by two of his younger brothers, Sam and Sylvester, and together they expand the business that will one day revolutionize the way commodities are moved.
- W. W. Cargill follows the expansion of the railroads west, erecting his first elevator and setting up headquarters in Albert Lea, Minnesota. With new features like conveyor systems and multiple floors, elevators offer farmers new flexibility in storing and selling their crops. In 1875, W. W. moves the Cargill family and headquarters to regional commerce hub of La Crosse, Wisconsin.
- As the railroads continue to expand, the brothers, now including James, experiment with vertical integration, founding a farm and buying more grain elevators. By pairing novel storage capabilities with emerging transportation possibilities, they plant the seeds for what Cargill will become: a connector across the global supply chain helping our customers achieve sustainable growth.
1880s and 90s
- W. W. Cargill’s reputation for honesty and commitment to his word helps him secure support from investors and financiers. With brothers Sam and James, he founds the company’s first terminal elevator at the head of the railroad line in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and continues to buy properties throughout Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and the Dakotas. By 1885, they have 102 structures.
- Sam leads the Minneapolis operation to incorporate under Cargill Elevator Company. W. W. and his brothers open an office in Duluth, Minnesota, and establish the Superior Terminal Elevator Company in Wisconsin. By establishing offices and business sites in larger cities and transportation hubs, Cargill can connect the food supply chain more efficiently and effectively.
- In 1895, W. W.’s daughter, Edna Cargill, marries neighbor John H. MacMillan (John Sr.) — forever joining the Cargill-MacMillan families. John begins working for W. W. Cargill and the couple welcome a son, John, Jr.
- W. W. buys Elevator T in Minneapolis, Minnesota, from the Spencer Grain Co. It’s an insignificant storage facility, but he’ll turn it into a major Midwest terminal elevator — an elevator sitting at the head of a railroad line.
- In 1903, Sam Cargill dies, creating a void in leadership and an increased role for John MacMillan, Sr. When W. W. dies in 1909 at the age of 64, John, Sr., takes over his company.
- The financial fallout of W. W.’s death — and years of not-always-profitable expansion into timberlands, bauxite mining, ranching, railroad and land development — put the business in jeopardy. John works to reassure creditors about the company’s future, dissolving much of its non-grain trading business. Cargill’s resiliency is tested — and affirmed.
- John MacMillan, Sr., consolidates operations under the Cargill Elevator Company, clarifying the company’s focus on trading and processing grain. A steady businessman with a background in accounting, he repays debts and returns Cargill to prosperity.
- High and fluctuating wheat and grain prices during World War I aid Cargill’s financial recovery. As his son, John MacMillan, Jr., and brother-in-law, Austen Cargill — who joined Cargill in 1913 — serve in the armed forces, John, Sr., delivers record profits and refocuses the company as a leader in grain trading across the U.S.
- Reaffirming Cargill’s foundation as a values-based company, John, Sr., articulates the ethical tenet under which Cargill does business, “There is one thing we have always been proud of and that is our word is as good as our bond.”
- The financial crash in late 1920 results in Cargill Elevator’s first annual loss in its history.
- In 1922, the company establishes a cutting-edge grain laboratory in Minneapolis, Minnesota. There, scientists use precise analysis and advanced measurements to grade grain, allowing them to offer a wider range of types and price points.
- One year later, Cargill Elevator acquires a competitor with more to offer than grain merchandising. Taylor & Bournique’s private wire system allows employees to send messages almost instantaneously — a major competitive advantage. This spirit of innovation is a recurring theme in Cargill’s history as it works to anticipate needs for people and partners.
- Pursuing eastward expansion, the company leases elevators in Buffalo, New York, and Port McNicoll, Ontario. Cargill Grain Company’s headquarters in Montreal is Cargill’s first office location outside the United States — quickly followed by a small office in Genoa, Italy, and the creation of Cargill’s first export department.
- Cargill Elevator Company enters the 1930s with an appetite for change. It merges various businesses and incorporates under its present name. Cargill, Incorporated, expands globally, opening new offices in Canada, the Netherlands and Argentina. John H. MacMillan, Sr., steps down due to health issues, and his son John H. MacMillan, Jr., assumes the presidency.
- No longer content just to trade grain, Cargill wants to move it too. John, Jr., develops a new style of vessel — part tugboat, part barge. It’s nimble enough to pilot waterways and big enough to move crops on a mass scale. Now Cargill can get more food to more people who need it. And not just people. Encouraged by W. W.’s youngest son, Austen, the company begins to manufacture Blue Square Feed in Lennox, South Dakota.
- Responding to broad economic challenges during the Great Depression, Cargill makes the tough decision to cut salaries 20% and close some offices. It also establishes one of the industry’s best retirement programs and creates a plan to avoid foreclosing on independent elevator owners and partners — highlighting the company’s ongoing commitment to putting people first.
- In 1940, Cargill closes its European and Argentinian offices as Germany invades Europe. Soon after, the U.S. navy selects Cargill to build ocean-going tankers and towboats to support the Allied war effort in Europe.
- After World War II, new industries are emerging and market needs changing, inspiring Cargill to diversify in new ways. It buys Nutrena Mills, a company specializing in scientifically blended animal feeds. Nutrena also has a knack for marketing using catchy jingles and fun packaging that inspires Cargill.
- Cargill leaders reopen their South American offices, beginning a hybrid seed business in Argentina and opening elevators in Brazil. They also enter the soybean and oilseed processing industries. This continued focus on growth and value-adding services sets Cargill up for major global expansion in the following decade.
- Cargill deepens its scientific grounding with a new research center in Elk River, Minnesota. This is a place for research in animal nutrition, feed performance and animal husbandry. Nutrena will revolutionize feed development and pricing using Cargill’s first electronic computer, an IBM 650. Improvements from research and development in agricultural technolgy guide the company’s thought leadership across several industries.
- Cargill establishes trading offices in Europe. It also buys Kerr Gifford, a grain dealer based on the U.S. Pacific coast, to explore expansion into Asian markets. Around the same time, Cargill enters the salt business by barging salt up the Mississippi River for sale in the Upper Midwest.
- In lieu of sending Christmas cards to employees in 1958, Cargill donates to CARE’s Food Crusade, starting a decades-long partnership that continues to this day.
- The 1960s are an era of rapid expansion into new markets like Spain, Germany, Turkey, China, Indonesia, Korea, and Peru, and into new businesses like corn wet milling, fish meal, salt mining, and broiler-chicken production.
- Cargill celebrates its 100th anniversary and asserts what it stands for. The company establishes its first global brand identity with a new “C” logo. It articulates core values, and creates the office of Equal Opportunity Programs to oversee affirmative action efforts.
- Following the death of John MacMillan, Jr., family owners look outside the family for company leadership, committing to promoting the “best management to the top.” Erwin Kelm becomes the first non-family-member president in the company’s history. By bringing in fresh perspectives, Cargill couples deep experience with leading expertise.
- In 1977, Whitney MacMillan, W. W. Cargill’s great-grandson, becomes president upon Erwin Kelm’s retirement. He is the last family member to serve as CEO.
- Whitney expands Cargill’s global impact while maintaining its core values with the creation of its formal statement of conduct. The company imports the first bulk shipment of Brazilian frozen concentrated orange juice into the U.S. and begins corn wet milling in Europe. It also enters the beef-processing, evaporated salt, modern flour milling, steelmaking, cattle feedlot, cotton merchandising and malting businesses — as well as expanding its poultry division, including adding the Honeysuckle White brand.
- This growth is possible due to Cargill’s ability to apply existing experience in trading, processing, and supply chain logistics to new businesses and ventures.
- Deepening its commitment as a sustainable partner, Cargill begins a long relationship with Dr. Temple Grandin, leading to the more humane treatment of animals in beef supply chains and creating a new industry standard. Cargill also joins The Nature Conservancy to improve environmental stewardship and advance economic opportunities, issues its first Environmental Policy and creates a Corporate Environmental Affairs Office.
- With an ever-strengthening commitment to culture, employee advancement and recognition, Cargill forms its first business resource groups to identity the needs of female and Black employees.
- Over this decade, Cargill’s portfolio of products and services will expand significantly, including coffee, cocoa, cotton, eggs, meat and poultry, fertilizer, financial services, fiber trading, flour, juices, malt, molasses, peanuts, petroleum, rubber, salt, steel and wool. Ever more global, Cargill extends operations in Asia, Latin and South America, and opens facilities in Africa.
- The 1990s will be a decade of major milestones in diverse industries. Cargill installs steam pasteurization in its beef plants, greatly reducing the risk of E. Coli. It revolutionizes freight with a new type of barge for carrying liquid sweeteners. Cargill also becomes one of the largest salt production and marketing companies in the world when it acquires Akzo Salt in 1997.
- Increasing its sustainability efforts, Cargill initiates a water quality program, including joining a partnership that encourages farmers to plant pollution-filtering buffer strips between their fields and water resources. And it commits to contributing 2% of pretax earnings to advance social and environmental impact priorities and strengthen local communities.
- As it prepares to lead into the 21st century, Cargill is changing internally too — all with the goal of better serving our customers. It reorganizes to focus on customers, innovation and performance. It creates seven Guiding Principles and unveils an official Strategic Intent around growing with our partners. At the same time, there are changes in leadership. When Whitney MacMillan retires after 18 years as chairman and chief executive officer, Ernest Micek is elected CEO. By 1999, Warren Staley has taken over as both CEO and president.
- After the turn of the century, Cargill continues to make important strategic acquisitions, including feed producer, Agribrands International in 2001, starch and sweetener company, Cerestar in 2002, and Peter’s Chocolate in 2003. The company also grows its meat and poultry, feed, cocoa, flavoring, palm oil, food ingredients, and cotton ginning investments. Gregory Page will become Cargill’s new leader when Warren Staley retires in 2007.
- As consumer preferences evolve, Cargill launches new systems and products. TRUVIA™ offers a natural, zero-calorie sweetener made from stevia. The Rumba brand supplies fresh variety meats based on traditional Latin American recipes. A new facility in Nebraska, U.S., uses corn-derived dextrose to make polymers for plastic packaging and other products.
- In 2003, Cargill’s earnings surpass $US 1 billion for the first time, and its global giving exceeds $US 22 million. The company establishes major partnerships in addressing global hunger and creates broader support systems for colleagues with disabilities, and Latino and LGBTQIA+ Cargill employees. It strengthens sustainability too, joining the Chicago Climate Exchange and setting its first energy efficiency goal as it works to live its value of doing the right thing — always.
- As it celebrates its 150th anniversary, Cargill is still growing. It expands its animal nutrition portfolio with the acquisition of Provimi, EWOS, Diamond V and Pro-Pet. It enters the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia through a joint venture with Arasco, and launches the flour joint venture, Ardent Mills, with ConAgra and CHS. It also acquires tomatoes, biodiesel, vegetable-based waxes, and cultured meat businesses.
- At the same time, Cargill commits to investing in sustainable supply chains. It hands over the first UTZ Certified premiums to cocoa farmers and receives the first certification from the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil. The company launches industry-leading programs like Hatching Hope, BeefUp Sustainability, and the Cocoa Promise. It signs the United Nations Global Compact and becomes a founding member of Paradigm for Parity.
- As consumers increasingly shop their values, Cargill helps them make informed choices. U.S. shoppers can trace Honeysuckle White® turkeys from a family farm to their table — and the brand is one of the first of its size to discontinue the use of growth-promoting antibiotics. Cargill erythritol, cane sugar and high oleic sunflower oil are Non-GMO Project Verified.
- New CEO David MacLennan streamlines the company, going from nearly 100 business units to five global enterprises to increase accountability and speed up decision-making. ‘DMac,’ as he chooses to be known, also deepens Cargill’s culture of safety. His ‘ZERO Harm,’ goal to proactively protect Cargill employees, communities and the environment, will become foundational.
- As the COVID-19 pandemic takes hold, Cargill creates the Employee Disaster Relief Fund, providing employees with financial support during times of personal, catastrophic or natural disasters. It supports communities, donates supplies to governments, and aids customers and farmers with mobile apps, information sharing and direct-to-consumer sales channels.
- Digital capabilities are growing. Cargill partners with ZeroNorth to reduce CO2 emissions in its shipping fleet using specialized software. Its new SalmoNIR technology uses near-infrared spectroscopy to provide salmon farmers real-time data on things like omega-3 fatty acids to help them make better, quicker farm management and nutrition decisions.
- Ever striving to innovate with purpose, Cargill is the first global edible oils supplier to comply with the WHO’s recommended standard on industrially produced trans-fatty acids. It founds the Black Farmer Equity Initiative to address racial inequity in U.S. agriculture, Cargill RegenConnect™ to advance regenerative agriculture practices and SeaFurther™ Sustainability to help aqua farmers raise more sustainable seafood with less environmental impact. Under the leadership of 10th CEO Brian Sikes, Cargill achieves gender parity on its Executive Team.
- Cargill caters to customer needs through acquisitions, too. With the agreement to purchase Croda’s bio-based industrial businesses, the company can offer nature-derived ingredients that help our customers to create more sustainable products for use in every area of our lives. A joint venture with Continental Grain Company to acquire U.S. poultry producer Sanderson Farms and combine it with Wayne Farms aims to serve consumers’ growing interest in the health, sustainability and versatility of chicken.
- It’s all part of Cargill’s unfailing commitment to finding new and improved ways to meet people’s — and the planet’s — ever evolving needs.