What’s New In The Red River Valley?
ASSOCIATED POTATO GROWERS INC., Grand Forks, ND — Mike Torgerson began his second season in September in the role of chief executive officer for the Red River Valley’s largest fresh potato packer. Torgerson was appointed at the beginning of last season after a transitional year following the retirement of longtime manager Paul Dolan. Torgerson had been with the company for 13 years and was a plant manager for APGI before assuming the chief executive officer role.
Another major change in the profile of APGI will occur at the sales desk when Greg Holtman retires January 1. Holtman has been with Associated since 1994. Prior to his sales career, he farmed with his family until 1986 and worked for Oslo Potato Packers.
H&S FRESHPAK, Hoople, ND — Building on a successful third year, H&S FreshPak begins its fourth season with an expanded and more modernized potato storage system. Partner and co-manager Andy Moquist reports a computerized airflow system was added to the facility that features “‘humidacell’ controls.” He explains, “Potatoes are 90 percent water, so the air can’t be too dry and needs to be maintained at a proper humidity for optimal storage. This will help enhance product quality and reduce shrink.”
Moquist, along with co-manager T J Hall, handle all sales for H&S FreshPak in addition to their management duties. H&S opened three years ago when two well-established potato-growing and shipping operations, Hoople, ND-based J.G. Hall & Sons and Crystal, ND-based O.C. Schulz & Sons, partnered and formed the new business.
The addition of a new packinghouse manager, Bernie Mullins, will also help increase efficiency at the wash plant, Moquist predicts. “Our demand has sometimes exceeded our supply,” reports Hall. “We have knowledgeable management in place that helps meet the needs of our increasing customer base.” Coleen Vincent is the office manager and adds to the efficiency with order preparation and bookkeeping.
NOKOTA PACKERS INC., Buxton, ND — The company commemorated a major milestone as well as completing a significant transition during the 2019-20 season. In addition to celebrating its 40th anniversary in business, NoKota Packers’ president retired.
Steve Tweten, a widely known industry veteran in the Red River Valley and through his involvement in industry activities nationwide, had been with NoKota since it opened its doors in 1979. Carissa Olsen now holds the title of chief executive officer and assumed that role when Tweten stepped down at the end of 2019. The transition began when Olsen was promoted to chief operating officer in 2017, and her duties began expanding as Tweten worked toward retirement.
The history of the company began 40 years ago when potato growers Malcom Tweten and brother-in-law Maurice Gjelsness decided they wanted to market their own crop. Together with their sons, Steve Tweten and Ron Gjelsness, NoKota Packers began to take shape. During its first season in the fall of 1979, the company represented 4 local farming operations, and shipped 220,000 hundredweight (cwt.) of potatoes, with 18 employees.
Today, the company has the ability to ship more than 600,000 cwt. of potatoes annually, with a staff of around 35 employed throughout the year.
NORTHERN PLAINS POTATO GROWERS ASSOCIATION (NPPGA), East Grand Forks, MN — The organization, which represents more than 200 growers in the Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota, has made many alterations to its marketing plan in light of all the cancelled events caused by the pandemic. According to Ted Kreis, NPPGA marketing and communications director, “Six trade shows or other events that were budgeted have already been cancelled, and two more upcoming events are seriously threatened.”
“Dollars used to fund those events will now go to additional trade publication advertising, a rebuild of the NPPGA website and the production of a promotional video,” Kreis reports. The video “will show Red River Valley potatoes from planting, to harvest, through the distribution process.”
RETAIL DEMAND INCREASES WHILE COVID-19 CONCERNS KEEP SHIPPERS CAUTIOUS
Wash plants and other shipping operations are strictly following protocol suggestions resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, with added sanitation measures above the ongoing food safety regulations already in place. Additional wash stations, protective masks, and disinfecting measures that exceed requirements have been implemented for assured worker safety.
“We have a lot of added costs because of COVID,” reports Mike Torgerson, chief executive at Associated Potato Growers. The company operates packing facilities in three locations in the Red River Valley. “We take the employees’ temperatures daily, and we provide protective masks and gloves.”
In addition to owning O.C. Schulz & Sons, Dave Moquist is also a partner in H&S FreshPak, based near Hoople, ND. “We started implementing additional measures at both wash plants when COVID started peaking last spring and we were still finishing last year’s crop,” he reports. “We can’t complain too much. North Dakota has been relatively free of COVID in the rural areas,” he adds, speaking from his office situated in a northeast rural region of the state. “No one who works for us has come down with it yet—even on the farms.”
Another bright spot for the Red River Valley was an increase in retail business in the spring, which helped move more volume during strong market prices. “We couldn’t get potatoes to the retail buyers fast enough,” remembers Moquist. “People were eating at home a lot more, and they were realizing more the great value and versatility of potatoes.” O.C. Schulz and H&S FreshPak were fortunate to still have potatoes in storage through May when market prices were strong.