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Top Potato

October 6, 2012
By: Jeanne Bernick, Top Producer Editor
Top Potato
Under the direction of Gregg Halverson, Black Gold Farms has grown into a world-class agricultural production business that grows potatoes on 20,000 acres in 11 states.  

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One afternoon this past summer, Gregg Halverson, who under routine circumstances is too busy to contemplate meals, sat in his office at Black Gold Farms world headquarters in North Dakota and pondered the question: Can you eat potatoes every day? A person could have hash browns for
breakfast, chips at noon and mashed potatoes for supper, he decided.

"I bet I eat potatoes, in some form, every day," Halverson muses. "Why wouldn’t you? They’re so good."

Ever the potato spokesperson (he signs his e-mail with the signature line "Have you enjoyed a potato today?"), Halverson is pushy about potatoes while remaining incredibly humble and lighthearted about life. He is known for a perpetual smile under his white mustache and a
jolly handshake. Employees light up when he enters a room. He can talk farming or football with anyone, from his top managers to the secretary minding local trucking logistics.

TPOY

Gregg Halverson,
Black Gold Farms


But his affable personality belies a keen business sense. Halverson’s farming career has spanned fivedecades, in which he’s gone from just getting by to becoming the nation’s largest fresh crop producer of chip potatoes. It’s one of the reasons Gregg Halverson was named our 2012 Top Producer of the Year. Black Gold now farms more than 20,000 acres of potatoes from Texas to Florida and up into Indiana and Missouri. The company grows potatoes for chips but also produces table-stock potatoes, sweet potatoes and peanuts. Black Gold is one of Frito-Lay’s largest suppliers.

Seeds of Growth. Halverson’s grandfather planted his first potatoes in 1928 on what is now the home farm near Forest River, N.D. His idea was to sell seed to other growers in the emerging potato business in the Red River Valley. Twenty years later, the family converted the business to a table-stock operation and subsequently started producing potatoes for the potato chip trade.

By the time Halverson was in high school, the family farm had incorporated into Black Gold Farms. Black represented the color of the Angus cattle they raised and the ebony soil of the Red River Valley; gold represented the color of the potato skins and the hoped-for relative value of the  cattle. In 1985, the family dispersed its cattle herd and got aggressive with plans for the chip potato business. That year, they formed Black Gold Potato Sales, which is the marketing, transportation, quality control and service team. "This was a strategic move to align ourselves more closely with our customers," Halverson says.

The family started its first longdistanc potato venture in southeast Missouri. Today, with 11 individual farms in 11 states, Halverson uses regional differences to hedge his production bets. For example, as his Maryland farm finishes up potato harvest, his Michigan operation is just getting started. With substantial growth spanning 25 years in geographically diverse operations,
Black Gold Farms put into place extensive standard operating procedures (SOPs). These SOPs enable each location to replicate systems that are performed at the other locations, producing consistent, reliable results for customers.

Leadership with Customer Focus. An eye for opportunity has kept Halverson a step ahead of the
competition. One opportunity to enhance Black Gold’s leadership position was to add table-stock
potatoes for the food service and retail markets. This expansion goes in hand with Black Gold’s vision statement: to be the premier potato production, sales, service and quality organization in the world.

"Everything that Black Gold does is in answer to customer needs," Halverson says. For example, the formation of Black Gold Potato Sales as a business unit specializing in marketing,   transportation, quality control and service allowed the production teams to focus on growing the best crop, while the sales division focuses on selling the crop and maintains, develops and nurtures relationships with customers and other stakeholders.

Through working with highly sensitized food customers in the chip business, sustainability has become a core component of Black Gold’s sales and marketing. Halverson talks about maintaining a three-legged stool of environmental, social and economic sustainability in order for Black Gold Farms to be successful.

"Customers are demanding that their suppliers be sustainable. While we always believed internally that this is the way to farm, we made it a goal that we continue that leadership position in the potato industry," Halverson says. Black Gold Farms has invested heavily in research and technology. Many of the SOPs in place are dedicated to energy usage, water management and  lessening the company’s carbon footprint while producing more potatoes per acre.

Still, Halverson isn’t afraid to talk about profitability: "Black Gold Farms needs to be economically successful in order to hire and retain the best people. Our customers and our suppliers must be profitable to stay in business as well."

"If you can manage
through tough times, it makes you better during years of prosperity."


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