Crash victim, Pat Benedict, had lasting impact on area agriculture
FARGO -- Patrick Benedict spent his final hours in his comfort zone, cruising around Wilkin County, Minn., checking on fields being planted with sugar beet seed.
His son Blaine says that was typical of his 76-year-old father. He was a retired farmer, but he never really retired from farming.
"His heart truly was in his family and the farm, but I think he shared quite a bit of it," he said.
Indeed, those who knew Benedict remembered the Sabin, Minn., man on Thursday as a pioneering farmer and savvy businessman whose vision and passion paid huge dividends for area corn and sugar beet growers.
"You'd have to have a calculator with a lot of zeroes on it to figure out how much money he helped our farmers, our shareholders, make," said David Berg, president and CEO of Moorhead-based American Crystal Sugar.
"But, more than that, he touched people's lives by being just a good person," said Mark Dillon, executive vice president of Fargo-based Golden Growers Cooperative, of which Benedict was a founding member. "He didn't do this to make money for himself. He did it because it was a good thing to do."
Benedict landed in the national spotlight in November 1978 when he appeared on the cover of Time magazine as the central figure in the story, "The New American Farmer."
The article described how Benedict, whose grandfather came from Wisconsin and built the turn-of-the-century farm, had embraced high-tech, capital-intensive, mass-production farming trends.
"Pat Benedict is archetypal of the farmers who make U.S. agriculture the nation's most efficient and productive industry and by far the biggest force holding down the trade deficit," the article stated.
Berg said Benedict's vision and that of his fellow sugar beet growers gave them the courage in 1973 to buy American Crystal for $86 million, turning it from a Denver-based, publicly-traded firm into a locally owned grower cooperative -- a move Berg said "took just an incredible amount of guts."
"And I would imagine that those who were there with him would say that if it wasn't for Pat, it probably wouldn't have happened," Berg said.
Benedict was one of American Crystal's 12 original board members, serving from 1973 to 1986, the last four years as chairman.
But sugar beets weren't his only interest.
In fact, when Dillon went to work for American Crystal during the peak of sugar beet harvest in 1985, he first met Benedict in the field -- combining corn.
"I thought that was a little odd, and I ask him why, and he said, well, first off, he just really loves corn - he always did," Dillon said. "And then he said, 'It's my dream that someday every crop on my farm will be processed through a value-added co-op like American Crystal.' "
That dream led Benedict and other corn growers to form Golden Growers Co-op in 1993. They partnered with American Crystal and Minn-Dak Farmers Co-op of Wahpeton to build the ProGold LLC corn sweetener plant in Wahpeton, N.D.
The $260 million plant got off to a bumpy start in 1996 as the high-fructose corn syrup market nose-dived. Benedict, as Golden Growers' chairman, took the plant's financial troubles personally, Dillon said.
"It wasn't just money lost out of his pocket or his neighbor's pocket, but it would have been a question of integrity and his character, and that really, really concerned him," he said.
Cargill Inc. agreed to lease the plant in 1997, essentially taking the three co-ops off the hook.
Jim Horvath, who was ProGold's chief operating officer at the time, said Benedict always kept an even keel during such difficult times.
Horvath witnessed - and learned from - Benedict's leadership style when he joined American Crystal as a vice president in 1985, during one of the co-op's more tumultuous times. Then-president Charles Shamel was under fire from growers upset with what they thought was an unfairly low payment for that fall's sugar beet crop.
Benedict, being a shareholder himself, understood the anguish such a low price could cause to profitability, Horvath said. Shamel stepped down in January 1986.
"(Benedict) handled that extremely professionally, as he did everything," said Horvath, who later served as American Crystal's president from 1998 to 2007.
Benedict retired from the Golden Growers board in March, having hit his term limit. But Dillon said the benefits from his leadership continue to be felt by the co-op's 1,600 members and American Crystal's 3,000 shareholders.
"It certainly has had a positive impact on a lot of lives," he said.
A Navy veteran, Benedict also was widely involved in the community, serving on the boards of the Moorhead State University Foundation, the Neuropsychiatric Research Institute in Fargo and the Northern Grain Co. elevator east of Dilworth, of which he was a founder.
Benedict was proud of the large family that sprouted from his marriage to his wife, Fran, said Blaine, the second of five sons and one of three who now run the family farm. The couple also had three daughters, one of whom died at a young age.
Benedict also treasured his 24 grandchildren, treating them to an Easter egg hunt at the farm every year, Blaine said.
The death has been a shock to the family, Blaine said. His father exercised regularly, walking and riding stationary bicycle, and worked hard to stay fit. He continued to scout fields and run errands for the farm operation, and "he was always there to bounce things off of," he said.
"He was a man of principle and integrity and will be dearly missed," he said.
The funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. Monday at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Moorhead.
The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and the Herald are owned by Forum Communications Co.