GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Three agricultural businessmen in northern Red River Valley have forged an unusual bond of friendship, forged through more than a half-century of ties among generations of families, each blazing trails in their own lanes.

The three are based in Grand Forks, N.D., and East Grand Forks, Minn. — three separate stories of agribusiness success:

  • Gregg Halverson, 71, chairman of the board of Black Gold Farms, which has potato and sweet potato farming interests in about 11 states.

  • Mike Delisle, 65, is president for Harriston-Mayo Manufacturing, of East Grand Forks, Minn., and Minto, N.D., making specialized potato handling equipment, sold across the world.

  • John Botsford, 67, founder of Red River Land Co., a pioneer in land appraisal and real estate business in the region.

A trio of agribusinessmen and close friends in the northern Red River Valley are, from left,  John Botsford, Red River Land Co.; Gregg Halverson, Black Gold Farms; and Mike Delisle, Harriston-Mayo Manufacturing, often meet at Sky’s Restaurant in downtown Grand Forks, N.D. Their evolving, innovative ag companies and family ties span generations. Photo taken Oct. 6, 2020, at Grand Forks, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
A trio of agribusinessmen and close friends in the northern Red River Valley are, from left, John Botsford, Red River Land Co.; Gregg Halverson, Black Gold Farms; and Mike Delisle, Harriston-Mayo Manufacturing, often meet at Sky’s Restaurant in downtown Grand Forks, N.D. Their evolving, innovative ag companies and family ties span generations. Photo taken Oct. 6, 2020, at Grand Forks, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
In a common story in agriculture, their fathers or even grandfathers knew each other back to the 1950s. The difference comes in how they’ve been able to talk about their businesses, because they don’t compete and never have.

Halverson remembers dealing with Delisle’s father, Duane, a pioneer in potato handling equipment.

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“I got to know him very well. I spent time at Mayo Manufacturing, getting parts, at the behest of my dad,” he said.

They remember their 20s and 30s, and running into each other at the familiar agricultural gatherings — the Red River Valley Winter Shows at Crookston, Minn., or the North Dakota Winter Show in Valley City, N.D. They’d meet at the Red River Valley Potato Growers (now the Northern Plains Potato Growers) field days or annual winter conferences at the Holiday Inn in Fargo.

Things changed a bit in the 1980s. Halverson grew into national prominence in potato production, developing farming in other states. Delisle would travel with him to new areas of the country to scope out new potato lands, pondering the effects of soil type and the unique characteristics that could affect harvesting, grading and shipping potatoes.

Meanwhile, Bostford’s father, Vern, who was in the farmland business, and Halverson's father, Jack, would visit about how different types of land may suit different purposes.

Each says they have more to learn from the others than teach them.

“We can talk, openly,” Delisle said. “We can learn from each other. You have such an intense mutual interest that it grows into a friendship.”

“We don’t compete,” Botsford said, flatly adding, “I’ve learned a lot from both of them, just watching their operations.”

If they’ve mellowed a bit, each underlines they’re still putting in full-time hours — maybe more.

“There’s something to be said for working hard and feeling good about it,” Halverson said.

Each has many friends in business, but their personal friendships have grown by knowing and living with each other’s biographies. Some of their kids played hockey together. They and their wives often travel or tailgate together, or joke about hockey and football rivalries. Halverson loves his North Dakota State University, and the Delisle and Botsford families are strong backers for the University of North Dakota.

“There’s never any lack of conversation, talking about farming,” Halverson said.

They’ve celebrated countless visits at lake retreats, taken memorable (sometimes rain-soaked) pontoon rides, or weekend getaways to Florida.

They’ve shared countless birthdays, graduations, weddings and funerals.

They grieved when Halverson’s first wife, Linda, died 20 years ago. Delisle and his wife, MaryAnn, and Botsford and his wife, Dawn, celebrated eight years ago when Halverson remarried to Dr. Yvonne Gomez, a local physician whose husband also died.

“They were there when I needed them,” Halverson said. “Those are the important inflection points. Very important.”

This week and the next, we’ll review the intersecting circles made by three of the region’s most successful ag businesses. We start this week with Halverson. Next week, it’ll be Delisle and Botsford.

Halverson: Spuds, across the U.S.

Gregg Halverson, chairman of the board of Black Gold Farms at Grand Forks, N.D., in the company’s headquarters displays his collection of potato chip tins, which tell a story of early development of the chip potato industry.  Photo taken Oct. 6, 2020, at Grand Forks, N.D. Jaryn Homiston / Agweek
Gregg Halverson, chairman of the board of Black Gold Farms at Grand Forks, N.D., in the company’s headquarters displays his collection of potato chip tins, which tell a story of early development of the chip potato industry. Photo taken Oct. 6, 2020, at Grand Forks, N.D. Jaryn Homiston / Agweek
The Halverson family started farming in the Forest River, N.D., area in 1928, when they grew 10 acres of seed potatoes. They added Black Angus cattle in 1965.

Gregg’s grandfather Alfred “A.E.” Halverson came first, and then his father, Jack A. Halverson. Gregg came home and became the manager in 1971. He has expanded it to farm in 11 states. The company has 200 year-round employees, raising potatoes and other crops from Florida to North Dakota.

Gregg, 71, chairman of the board, stepped back from day-to-day management at age 65. Sons Eric and John are chief executive officer and chief operating office, respectively. Daughter Leah remains on the board of Black Gold, but also has her own marketing company, Ten Acre Marketing. Black Gold dropped its livestock business in 1985, but the Black Gold moniker lived on.

In 1986, Black Gold started its first “long-distance” farming venture, raising chipping potatoes in southeast Missouri. That allowed them to start harvesting about June 10, making spuds available for the Fourth of July demand period.

Potato grading table employees work during a quick harvest at a Black Gold Farms potato warehouse in the north side of East Grand Forks, Minn. Photo taken Oct. 6, 2020, at Grand Forks, N.D. Jaryn Homiston / Agweek
Potato grading table employees work during a quick harvest at a Black Gold Farms potato warehouse in the north side of East Grand Forks, Minn. Photo taken Oct. 6, 2020, at Grand Forks, N.D. Jaryn Homiston / Agweek
The family had to learn how to grow potatoes under irrigation and learn about customers and supply chains for “summer potatoes” instead of the “storage potatoes” they were used to growing.

Black Gold today grows more than 20,000 acres of potatoes, plus rotational crops.

Indiana is their No. 1 state by volume. They rent farmland in the Winamac, Ind., area, and own a potato storage warehouse complex. They own the machinery, hire the people and do the sales and marketing.

Many markets

Gregg Halverson, left, on Sept. 21, 2020, visits with long-time Black Gold Farms employees harvesting chipping potatoesnear Brooks, Minn. Most spuds off this field were immediately to a Barrel O’Fun chipping facility at Perham, Minn. Some went into into storage for use during the winter. The company nearby also raises russet Burbank potatoes for Simplot in Grand Forks. Photo taken Sept. 21, 2020, near Brooks, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Gregg Halverson, left, on Sept. 21, 2020, visits with long-time Black Gold Farms employees harvesting chipping potatoesnear Brooks, Minn. Most spuds off this field were immediately to a Barrel O’Fun chipping facility at Perham, Minn. Some went into into storage for use during the winter. The company nearby also raises russet Burbank potatoes for Simplot in Grand Forks. Photo taken Sept. 21, 2020, near Brooks, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
The Halversons grow a combination of white, round chipping potatoes (roughly 75% of their production), up to 15% sweet potatoes, 5% seed potatoes, and 5% process potatoes for products like french fries. Sweet potatoes can be used for french fries or table stock. The company has about 4,000 acres of sweet potatoes, mostly in Louisiana, Missouri and Arkansas.

“God only knows what’s going to happen down the road,” Halverson acknowledges, referring to market curveballs.

Black Gold had expanded into red potatoes several years ago but now is mostly out of them, as production has been strong and prices have declined. Red potato buyers have been successful at pitting one grower or supplier against another, making it nearly impossible to contract-price red potatoes.

“We’d rather take little profits every year — hopefully, anyway — rather than ‘feast-or-famine,’” he said. “Supply and demand really works. It’s a pretty thin difference between a surplus and a shortage.”

Today, Gregg describes himself as a “special projects guy” with the company.

“I am involved in things like strategy, forward-thinking and that sort of thing,” he said.

Technology is tricky to judge. The company has to evaluate such concepts as “big data.” He said farmers need to “design (for) their needs” rather than taking a scatter-gun approach.

“If the resulting answer does not have an economic impact, you can spend a lot of money, and time, and there’s a lot of rat holes you can go down,” he said. “It’s important to define where you’re going and follow that trail.”

Big data lessons

Black Gold Farms at Grand Forks, N.D., has grown from a one-family farm into a potato operation that spans about 11 states. The headquarters office is decorated with salvage wood from original farm at Forest River, N.D. Photo taken Oct. 6, 2020, at Grand Forks, N.D. Jaryn Homiston / Agweek
Black Gold Farms at Grand Forks, N.D., has grown from a one-family farm into a potato operation that spans about 11 states. The headquarters office is decorated with salvage wood from original farm at Forest River, N.D. Photo taken Oct. 6, 2020, at Grand Forks, N.D. Jaryn Homiston / Agweek
The “big data” buzzword requires understanding where the data will do the most good, where it is actionable, real-time, and monetized.

Halverson believes businesses are different enough that software often must be customized, or tweaked. It can be used to evaluate the efficiency of land, fertilizer and crop inputs.

“Unless you have the data to back up what you’re doing, you’re just guessing,” he said.

It’s hard to predict the future. Halvorson currently has eight granddaughters, from ages 4 to 18. He makes no predictions, but acknowledges, “I’d love for one or eight of them to get into the business.”

Gregg Halverson, 71, has grown his farming operation from a family operation at Forest River, N.D., into multi-state, evolving potato and sweet potato producer. Two sons and a daughter taking the reins, allowing the company navigate an always-changing  market. Photo taken Sept. 21, 2020, near Brooks, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Gregg Halverson, 71, has grown his farming operation from a family operation at Forest River, N.D., into multi-state, evolving potato and sweet potato producer. Two sons and a daughter taking the reins, allowing the company navigate an always-changing market. Photo taken Sept. 21, 2020, near Brooks, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Whatever the future brings, Halveson said Black Gold Farms will work to adapt — opportunists in the best sense of the word.

“Doing the same thing becomes repetitive and boring,” he said. “I’d rather be doing a few new things that are challenging, not always going to work but at least create some enthusiasm and having some fun doing it.”