Minn-Dak Growers' legacy goes forward after loss of founder
GRAND FORKS — A North Dakota company that has been at the center of the market for Upper Great Plains specialty crops such as buckwheat, mustard and safflower is stepping forward with new management after the death of its founder.
Harris Peterson, a legend in the region's specialty crop industry, died Jan. 27 at the age of 92. He had farmed and started processing at Drayton in the 1950s and established a cooperative called Minn-Dak Growers Association in 1966 before making it a privately-held company in 1978 as Minn-Dak Growers Ltd. He served as chief executive officer for more than 50 years, operating it until just days before he died.
For the past three years, Harris had tried to sell the company but in the end sold his shares to his son, Harold, 69, and his grandson Jeremy, 40. The two hired General Manager Jim Blair, 55, who oversees 25 people in Grand Forks, and Dickinson.
Minn-Dak Growers is perhaps best known for its buckwheat. Buckwheat is not a wheat but is in a group known as a pseudocereals, meaning the seeds are consumed in the same way as cereal grains but do not grow on grasses. Buckwheat is related to the rhubarb family.
Minn-Dak Growers ships whole buckwheat internationally from its Dickinson plant. It also brings buckwheat into its Grand Forks plant to clean and dehull it to make buckwheat groats and other other products. Buckwheat is gluten-free. Minn-Dak Growers makes buckwheat grits, buckwheat flour (light and dark) and farinetta, a buckwheat bran flour, which is said to be helpful in diabetic diets.
The company also brings in yellow, brown and oriental mustard seed. They grind whole mustard seeds to make any iteration of mustard flour, marketed domestically and internationally. Much of the mustard goes into table mustard or into processed meats.
Blair says the company is blessed with historical marketing relationships — many from Harris Peterson's contacts — but is in the process of revitalizing its certifications under the Global Food Safety Initiative, a private organization that benchmarks safety processes worldwide. "We envision within the next crop year we'll have those certificates in place, which should open up some better market opportunities," Blair says. They're also developing an "e-store," to allow customers to order through a website, and in various package sizes.
One key market is Japan, where customers often turn buckwheat into soba noodles. "They'll also roast the groats and make them into 'kasha,'" a snack food, Blair says.
Minn-Dak Growers still has "multi-millions" in sales annually, Harold says, but is looking to regain some momentum. Today it handles 4,000 to 7,000 acres of mustard, and then 7,000 to 10,000 acres of buckwheat. In the past, Harris handled up to 24,000 acres of each crop — plus confection sunflowers.
"We're hoping to build it back to that, which looks promising," Jeremy Peterson says.
Harris Peterson started farming at Drayton.
Initially, he built a yellow field pea business, bagging 100-pound bags of peas for the human and birdfeed markets. He expanded into canary seed, pinto beans and sunflowers, before he got into buckwheat.
In the 1960s, he was a pilot and at one time the family had an aerial spraying business. Chiefly, he wanted to develop a crop processing business, a market for his farmer-neighbors, Blair says. Minn-Dak Growers started as a farmer-owned cooperative of 1,100 growers, but eventually Harris bought it out because it was handling several crops that not all members were growing.
In the 1970s, Minn-Dak Growers was the No. 4 confection sunflower company in the United States, taking in seeds at Donaldson, Minn., and removing the hulls at Drayton. Sunflower meats were shipped to Germany for the baked goods business.
In those days, Harold ran the farm and oversaw the sunflower dehulling operation that ran for up to 47 weeks a year.
In 1978, Harris built the plant in Grand Forks to mill mustard and expand into buckwheat. The plant expanded in the 1980s and the mid-1990s. In the late 1980s, Harris and Minn-Dak Growers accounted for 20 percent of the U.S. mustard crop. In the 1990s, Minn-Dak was the only buckwheat processor in the country. The Dickinson plant was added and marketed safflower, primarily for birdfeed.
End of an era
In the past three years, Harris Peterson had attempted to sell Minn-Dak Growers to competitors, but in the end decided to keep it in the family.
"Because of all of the sweat equity that he and his family had put into the business, I don't think he could really come to terms with letting that go," Blair says. "I think he believed his vision that this was a multi-generational opportunity" for his children, grandchildren and beyond.
Harold Peterson often describes Minn-Dak Growers as his father's "tool," a far-flung invention to add value.
He acknowledges his father doled out "plenty of heck" if things we weren't done on time or correctly, but that was "the way he taught you how to do it" and that that was OK. "He was a good teacher," Harold says.
Harold, eventually aided by Jeremy, managed a 1,550-acre farm at Drayton, growing mostly wheat and canola. They are counting on Blair, a southeast Minnesota native who holds undergraduate degrees in business and accounting at Macalester College and a master's in business administration at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Blair worked in aluminum, plastics and ethanol businesses before joining a canola processing business at Hallock, Minn. After a change in ownership, he took the job with Minn-Dak Growers in March 2017.
"I spent some time with Harris, didn't get enough time with him, to try and learn what his vision was so I could emulate his vision and carry it on," Blair says.
For the time being, Harris Peterson's office — surrounded by framed snapshots of his family and business triumphs — will remain. The table where Jeremy sat and listened to his grandfather make deals is still there, as it was, and is used for business meetings.
Harold Peterson acknowledges there were projects his father didn't complete, but only because he ran out of time. Harris Peterson had tried to develop buckwheat into a nutraceutical — a food that does the work of medicines, but fell short of corralling a corporate partner for the venture. "Harris only wanted to supply the buckwheat and farinetta," Harold says.
Harold says Harris never sensed that he was running out of time. "He was ready to go to work every day. He said I'm going to be here 10 years longer than you are," Harold says. "Actually, it's still his company. He made it and it's his legacy. We're going to — hopefully — keep it up."