Tim Linden, The Produce News
On the Black Gold Farms website, there is a picture of founder A.E. (Hallie) Halverson standing in the middle of a seed potato field wearing a white shirt, tie and suit pants. He looks like a banker, not a farmer.
For good reason — he was a banker.
Halverson was a rarity when he graduated from business school in 1917 in North Dakota. He took a job as a bank teller in Forest River in the middle of the Red River Valley, which was not known as a potato- producing region at that time. Halverson married a local farm girl and began working his way up through the banking hierarchy. In those days, you secured a job and you kept it.
About a decade later, a bad loan resulted in Halverson owning a 10-acre plot of seed potatoes — the one in which he was standing in the aforementioned photo. Grandson Gregg Halverson, the current chairman of the board of Black Gold Farms, noted that in 1928 potatoes were a new pursuit for the farmers in the valley, where grain was the primary crop for the region. Hallie was a pioneer in the potato industry with that crop and remained so, even as he stayed in banking, keeping farming as a side business.
It was no doubt his business acumen and familiarity with numbers set him on a path of geographic diversity that, to this day, is Black Gold Farms’ point of differentiation and marketing advantage. In 1938, Halverson traveled to Miami and soon started a winter potato deal there. He hauled his potato-specific farm equipment from North Dakota to Florida, reasoning that he could create maximum equipment utilization by having a counter-seasonal operation in the warmer climes of the Southeast. He also started growing red potatoes in Florida, which was the beginning of what would become the firm’s crop diversity.
In those days, the company was called the Forest River Potato Co. and consisted of about 400 acres. Gregg Halverson said the next pivotal period in the company’s progression occurred when Hallie’s son and Gregg’s father, Jack, returned from military service in 1949 and took over the reins of the company. For Hallie, the potato company was a side business; for Jack, it was his career. Jack began increasing the company’s fresh potato acreage and moved more deeply into that sector of the potato industry throughout the 1950s.
By 1959, the company’s holdings had grown to 600 acres and further diversification led to the planting of the Kennebec variety for the chip trade. Gregg, who was just a kid at the time, recalled that labor concerns were one of the reasons that the company added a chip component. The harvesting of chip potatoes required fewer workers.
In the mid-1960s, Gregg was a teenager participating in 4-H club and Future Farmers of America events. He was always interested in livestock, which caused him to launch a 4-H project in the registered Angus cattle business. He went on to college at North Dakota State majoring in livestock production, with an eye toward making that his career. The initial project did put the Halverson family in the cattle business and also launched Black Gold Farms. The name was representative of the firm’s two main products and the area in which they were headquartered.
Going for Gold
The firm’s website explains it: “‘Black symbolizing the fertile, truly deep ebony black soil deposited by Ice Age glaciers in the Red River Valley of the North, as well as the color of the hide of the Registered Black Angus cattle raised on the farm. The ‘Gold’ in the name represents the golden skin color of the potatoes grown at that time, as well as the hope for potential value of the newly named company.”
The cattle business remained part of the firm for two decades, but in the 1980s rising interest rates and consolidation in the livestock industry caused Black Gold Farms to concentrate solely on the “gold” part of its name. By this point, because of Jack’s health issues, Gregg had taken over the management of the operation. In 1985, Black Gold Potato Sales Inc. was formed, which emphasized the more targeted approach the company was taking.
Soon after, geographic diversity again came to the forefront as Black Gold Farms started to grow potatoes in southeastern Missouri. The firm put in 220 acres, which made the company the largest potato grower in the Show Me State. Gregg Halverson said the concept was inspired by the company’s customers in the chip business, who wanted product grown closer to their facilities so that it would be fresher. About this time, Black Gold Farms signed a significant contract with Frito Lay.
This began a period of significate growth. In 1988, the sales office moved to Grand Forks, ND, and began operating on a year-round, 24/7 basis. In 1992, a growing operation was added in Pearsall, TX. In 1994, central Indiana joined the production rotation with supplies harvested in late summer and early fall. For most of these years, the company had been concentrating on chip potatoes but it also grew for the fresh market. In 1995, Black Gold went back to its roots and started growing seed potatoes again, both for its other farms and for outside growers.
This was a time of great growth for Black Gold Farms, but it also became a period of reflection and introspection. In 1999, Gregg Halverson’s wife died. He had a large company and three college-aged kids. “I had to make a conscious decision about which way to go,” he said.
It was a difficult time for Gregg and a period of mourning ensued. However, he did determine to continue to grow the company and focus his efforts on building a firm “on a trajectory where they (the three kids) could be successful,” he said. As such, Gregg continued his own education entering an MBA-type program for ag executives at Texas A&M.
A lasting legacy
When the two older sons got out of college, there was no doubt that they wanted to continue the work started by their great grandfather in Forest River about three-quarters of a century earlier. Gregg said daughter Leah wasn’t as certain about her future. She had a business degree with an emphasis in marketing and as Gregg put it, “she wanted to head to the bright lights of the big city” before working on the farm.
Leah doesn’t dispute her dad’s description but noted that the “bright lights” she went toward were only in Fargo and not that far from the family farm. She secured a job in an ad agency working on farm accounts. Eventually, one of the accounts she was working on was Black Gold Farms. In 2011, she came back to the company and has since taken over its marketing program from an in-house position. “Ag marketing is still in my wheel house,” she said.
At Black Gold Farms, she emphasizes the story the company has to tell. “We are the grower, packer and shipper,” she said.
Besides communicating the company’s value to its customers, she stressed that there is work to be done informing the general public of the value of agriculture. “There is so much miscommunication out there about agriculture. I want to tell the story of ag and its family farms,” she said.
Since 2000, Gregg said “explosive growth” has been at the core of the company’s business model. From those 10 acres in the Red River Valley in 1928, the firm now farms 25,000 acres in almost a dozen states, including the aforementioned North Dakota, Florida, Missouri, Indiana and Texas, as well as North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, Maryland and Michigan. Modern facilities exists in all the growing areas.
Today, Gregg’s three kids — all in their 40s — are the future of the company. While Gregg is chairman of the board, son Eric is the chief executive officer and son John is the chief operating officer. Gregg, Eric and John are on the firm’s board of directors. Leah isn’t there yet, but Gregg said that move isn’t too far off in the future. He is quick to add that while all members of the family and the executive team are involved in the decision-making, “We have an unquestioned chain of command. Eric is the boss. There needs to be a pecking order and we have one.”
Moving forward, for Black Gold Farms the next generation has already taken root and the fourth generation is doing its part to make sure the legacy lives on. Gregg Halverson’s three kids have thus far populated the fifth generation with eight members, seemingly assuring that this family farm will plow the ground well into its second century.