Maxed on Flax: Heitkamp tours processing facility in Richardton
The events that transpired on Sept. 11, 2001, would go on to impact the lives of millions around the world; for the Ambrose Hoff family in Richardton, the date marked their entrance into flax processing.
For much of the decade or so before that, Hoff and his wife Charlotte relied on processing garbanzo beans at their Stone Mill food grade processing facility near Richardton. After 9/11, Hoff lost his primary export market in Afghanistan, where garbanzo bean products are popularly consumed, and quickly repositioned his work into the burgeoning domestic flax processing industry.
Though they still process some garbanzo beans, flax now makes up the vast majority of Stone Mill's business. Flax production is now a significant part of the state's economy and North Dakota leads the country in flax production.
On Friday morning, U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp D-N.D., visited Stone Mill and chatted with the Hoffs and their daughter, Daneen Dressler, who serve as CEO, CFO and vice president of Stone Mill, about their business.
Ambrose said that in the late 1980s they got started in processing specialty crops when he was dealing with a drought. He went to California in search of ways to diversify crop production and found garbanzos.
"We took them to the market and they laughed at us, North Dakota garbanzo bean, there's not such a thing," Ambrose said.
Eventually, Ambrose found a market in the Middle East but was forced to change gears and go into flax after they could no longer export to Afghanistan.
"The U.S. was just starting take on the food flax for health reasons," Dressler said, and "(flax) was just gearing up pretty hardcore, but nobody was able to process it to standards."
Dressler and her parents were able to repurpose their garbanzo processing machines into processing high-quality flax.
Dressler said Stone Mill has been able to max out production every year since then. Stone Mill has now almost completed production on an adjacent processing facility that will help them double or triple their processing capacity. Dressler and her parents gave Heitkamp a tour of the new facility.
Heitkamp was impressed with the family's industriousness.
"You see these family businesses that have weathered every challenge known to mankind, adapted, and they're stronger because of it. That's the story of North Dakota," she said.
The drought hasn't impacted Stone Mill to the same extent that producers of North Dakota's more traditional crops have been affected, but they are still facing some challenges.
The main issue for Stone Mill right now is in their ability to transport their products around the country, and eventually around the world.
According to Dressler, Stone Mill currently depends on trucks bringing containers from Minneapolis to transport their goods. Stone Mill fills the the containers with their products, seals them and sends them back to Minneapolis on the same trucks.
"We send it back to Minneapolis where they put it on the rail and send it out to the coasts," Dressler.
This is a costly process that Stone Mill employees would like to see reformed.
Dressler said that this issue with source loading, where containers are filled and sealed at the point of production, will only become more daunting.
"I feel like a lot more (buyers) are going to want them source loaded. Not just us, but everyone is going to need to source load containers
One solution Dressler discussed with Heitkamp was to open up the Minot railroad facility to ship their containers.
Heitkamp agreed. "There's the intermodal up in Minot that I think can be an incredible asset for specialty crops," Heitkamp said, "we just need to figure out this transportation piece, and if we don't we can't be successful in these specialty crops."
Dressler said that Stone Mill is still a few years away from pursuing expansion internationally again, but Heitkamp said she wanted to make sure that North Dakota's Export-Import Bank, which provides insurance guarantees for exports, would be ready for them when they did.
"We've got $30 billion of export financing waiting for a quorum and we can't get a quorum. It makes absolutely no sense, we want the Ex-Im Bank to be absolutely a great tool for all of you," Heikamp said.
Takeaways from Western Tour
Heitkamp's stop at Stone Mill marked one of her last stops on her two-day "Drought and Farm Bill Tour" across the western part of the state.
After seeing the impact of the drought up-close, Heitkamp had some pretty specific ideas in mind about what she wants to work on in Washington, D.C., to help North Dakota farmers and ranchers.
"We're going to need to find some resources for hauling hay and hauling cattle" she said, "the water hauling program is capped at 20 mill nationally, we want to lift that cap. We want to look at federal regulations that has stopped people from taking emergency measures to retain their herds."
But Heitkamp also insisted that she wants to look beyond this year in finding workable solutions. The federal government needed to formulate a "long term strategy (about) what farmers need," she said, "it's not just (the Trump administration's) budget, I'm fairly critical of what's happening in trade."
Heitkamp understood that some of this work might be politically unpopular, but she was willing to commit to it "no matter what political challenge is coming at me because of it, those are the things we were sent there to do."