Berthold Farmers Elevator LLC

A commitment to service breeds success in North Dakota
Written by: 
Matt Dodge
Produced by: 
Drew Taylor

For nearly 100 years, Berthold Farmers Elevator (BFE) has been serving producers throughout north-central North Dakota as one of the region’s most trusted wheat marketing companies.

With locations in both Berthold and Caprio, North Dakota, BFE works to ensure that producers get the best price for their harvest. The Berthold facility has a capacity of more than 2.4 million bushels while the smaller Caprio facility can house some 970,000 bushels. Both facilities are turned over four to five times a year.

Crops handled by BFE include canola, flax, durum, barley, peas, wheat and soybeans, with the latter two making up more than 60 percent of the company’s output.

Berthold Farmers Elevator LLC

Owned half by cooperative members and half by Columbia Grain, BFE strives to be the go-to marketing solution for the region’s producers. The company is aided in that pursuit by its partnership with United Agronomy, an agronomy services provider serving cooperatives throughout the area. United Agronomy specializes in fertilizer and pesticide wholesale, as well as the manufacture of agronomy-related chemicals.

This partnership between BFE and United Agronomy allows both companies to better serve their shared customer base, according to Dan DeRouchey, general manager of BFE.

“It allows United Agronomy to stay focused on the input side and not get sidetracked with grain marketing. We also felt it would help the growers because it was the best way to make sure there was a focus on service,” he says.

Leading the charge to track seed sales, service charges and account crediting for BFE is office manager Dee Dee Sauer. With around five and a half years of experience with the company, Sauer works to integrate sales and credit data to ensure customers are credited for every last bushel, or any fraction thereof.

Working on the front lines of bookkeeping for the company, Sauer is always eager to test out newer, more efficient systems and processes.

“One of my jobs has always been looking for ways I can improve the process, so I’m constantly looking at things such as automation. Some people cringe when they hear that word, but I say bring it on because it makes my job much easier,” she says.

Bringing the region’s bounty to the world

BFE primarily exports its wheat to the Pacific Northwest from where it is shipped to ports across Asia, including stops in Japan, Taiwan, China and the Philippines.

“China is by far the biggest market for wheat,” says Dan Mostad, grain merchandiser at BFE. While the company does ship its wheat to U.S. flour mills on occasion, the company is more focused on the lucrative export market.

“We have outlets here in the U.S., but the one we want to hit most is the export market,” says Mostad. “We have been able to support that market pretty well recently, even though exports have been down.”

Trailing close behind wheat as one of BFE’s top crops, soybeans have become an increasingly important commodity at the company as of late. Like wheat, the soybeans are typically destined for export to Asian markets, with China’s demand for vegetable oil and livestock feed drives the market.

The export market had been strong up until early 2015, when myriad factors combined to see an overall slowdown in U.S. wheat exports to Asian markets. “Global supplies of wheat have increased as the value of our dollar has remained high, so other wheat-producing countries have sold their way into channels we typically relied on to keep our products supported,” Mostad says.

“We strive to be efficient — to get these trucks into the facility, get them checked in and then give them a ticket so they can get back out to the field or farm and pick up more loads,” says Mostad.

Building vital relationships

Service is an important part of any operation, but often the decision to go with one elevator over another comes down to pricing. “We strive to be competitive with both local processors and elevators in our area. We like to be the best bid, which we can’t always be, but we always want to be,” he says.

This combination of top-tier service and competitive pricing has allowed BFE to establish a reputation for itself among area producers. “Our ability to service and then give them a competitive price breeds some loyalty, but we can’t rest on that,” says Mostad.

Relationships are an important part of any business and at BFE, a longstanding relationship with Monticello, Minnesota-based SMA LLC has been paying dividends for more than 25 years.

“We first contracted SMA to build a grain terminal elevator in 1990.  It consisted of replacing two older cribbed elevators.  After meeting with our board of directors, SMA drew up the plans for our needs.  Construction began the next summer and elevator was completed in 12 months – on time and on budget,” says DeRouchey.  

“Since 1990 we have had several additions and SMA has done every expansion, including a new terminal in Berthold and additional expansions in Berthold as well.  We have a lot of trust in their work and expertise in design.  The ownership, design builders and supervisors that staff SMA have earned our confidence for all our construction needs,” he says.

In an effort to stay competitive and modern, BFE has begun offering a number of digital service solutions for customers. These include a mobile app and 24/7 pricing portal on its website, where customers can access markets and get real-time data on the latest commodity prices.

“Customers love it because there are a lot of times in the evening when they’re thinking about their marketing plans, and this allows them to put in market orders 24/7,” says DeRouchey.

The app is just one aspect of BFE’s commitment to customer service, which Mostad ranks as one of the most important factors to the company’s success.

“We are trying to stay on top of it and get ourselves in front of the producer. I also get many comments about our accessibility through phone calls and face-to-face time, and we pride ourselves on trying to grow those,” he says.

Preparing for the future with new facilities

BFE undertook a major capital upgrade in 2014, adding a full truck pit with a 900-bushel capacity designed to help speed up the flow of inbound trucks. “We spent a fair amount of money and time making sure we did that right, which involved making sure we had the dumping capacity -as far as even into driveways, and handling it without contamination,” says DeRouchey.

For the board at BFE, this type of continual reinvestment in the business is a vital factor in ensuring future success. “The board has been pretty open to reinvesting in the facility and just the company in general,” he says.

“We want to provide added customer service abilities, not just big capital projects like we did in 2014, and the board recognizes that if we don’t reinvest in the facility, we’ll be fighting an uphill battle,” notes Mostad.

Looking toward the future, DeRouchey plans to keep upgrading the company’s facilities and capacity in response to customer demands. “Whether it’s increased dumping speed or storage space, we’re focused on trying to take care of the customer,” he says.

With a commitment to service and an eye on the future, Berthold Farmers Elevator LLC is preparing itself for another 100 years of success. 

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