LONG PRAIRIE, Minn. — A Minnesota food company with one foot in North Dakota is winning with their efforts to serve consumers with “fresh — never frozen,” vegetable kits.

The COVID-19 pandemic has more people cooking food at home, and that is keeping Monte Benz driving hard to keep up with demand. Benz is president of Kidco Farms Processing Inc., as well as president of Minnesota Fresh Inc. and a sales arm called MNFresh LLC.

Benz and the company’s 50 employees at Long Prairie produce 6.5 million vegetable kits per year, or about 13 million pounds.

The kits go nationwide through one the nation’s largest retail chains and grocers.

The effect of the pandemic was evident in August, when demand increased by 27%.

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“It was astronomical, the product they were looking for,” Benz said. “Everybody hit the panic mode, so they were buying off the shelves,” he said. And it has kept on going. “Normally we’re cut back at Thanksgiving, but the loads are the same through Thanksgiving.”

Dirt to hair net

Benz has had a career of major change. He started out as a North Dakota “dirt guy” (farmer) and has become a “hair net guy” (food processor)

His started out farming at Steele, N.D. He was among a small cadre of irrigation pioneers in the Kidder County area. In 1996, he raised potatoes on irrigated ground around Dawson, N.D. He initially grew spuds for the Aviko LLC (later Cavendish Farms) plant, east of Jamestown, N.D. and for Simplot in Grand Forks, N.D.

Benz was part of Dakota Fresh, an effort to produce fresh-cut salads in the Medina, N.D., community, with cabbage from other parts of the country.

In 2001, Benz was part of Kidco Produce, a group a farmers that grew a first crop of yellow Spanish onions for the “whole peeled” market. The onions went on trucks on Sept. 11, 2001, destined for Maryland. It was the morning the Twin Towers went down. The terrorist attack spelled financial disaster for the effort.

In 2002, they tried again. This time, their customer, a whole-peel plant in Maryland, burned down. So they started Kidco Farms Processing Inc. at Dawson to process the whole-peel onions themselves. The company included Benz and five partners. One partner was Van Amundson of Jamestown. They persisted until 2006, but their freight advantage to the Pacific Northwest was not enough to compete with the volumes of competitors. Mary Iszler, who had been with Dakota Fresh at Medina, came on with Kidco Farms and remains with the company today.

In 2006, a large company approached Kidco Farms to make vacuum-sealed, slow-cooker meal kits, and they produced their first kits in July 2007.

Things progressed until the Bakken oil boom hit. Faced with a shortage of employees, Benz in 2013 hired a labor contractor who hired undocumented workers. Benz, who managed the operation, was convicted on federal charges of harboring illegal immigrants. He was fined and held in detention for 90 days, spent five years on supervised probation and another five years unsupervised.

Was it a humiliation?

“To say the least,” Benz recalled. He said the infraction was his mistake, but he didn’t want it to define his career. “It would have been easy to fold up and go home,” he said, and then paused a bit to collect himself.

“But I wasn’t going to curl up and go away.”

Lakes and spuds

In 2013, Benz shifted Kidco Farms’ production to custom packing companies at Minneapolis and Des Moines, Iowa. In 2014, he moved to Covington, Ky., just south of Cincinnati, Ohio, to achieve higher volumes.

In 2015, Benz established a small “retail pack” processing facility at Long Prairie, in central Minnesota. He dubbed this “Minnesota Fresh.”

Long Prairie is known for a strong, diversified workforce with a variety of large agricultural and food-related businesses. In May 2016, the facility shipped out its first product under the facility.

The company worked as partners with two local agribusinessmen with food processing experience to manage the plant.

The Minnesota Fresh facility at Long Prairie, Minn., started at 10,800-square foot building, and since have added another 20,000 square feet, while production levels, while production levels have quadrupled. Photo taken Oct. 19, 2020, at Long Prairie, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
The Minnesota Fresh facility at Long Prairie, Minn., started at 10,800-square foot building, and since have added another 20,000 square feet, while production levels, while production levels have quadrupled. Photo taken Oct. 19, 2020, at Long Prairie, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
In 2017, Benz bought out the local partners and took over day-to-day operations The plant has grown from its initial 10 employees to 50 employees. They started out with a 10,800-square foot building and since have added another 20,000 square feet. Production has quadrupled.

They’ve invested in a sophisticated stainless steel wash and grading system, made by Harriston-Mayo Manufacturing in East Grand Forks, Minn. The system uses scales and a sizer from Kerian Machines at Grafton, N.D.

“This way it’s graded, and within 30 minutes it’s in a vacuum-packed package,” Benz said.

Similarly, they acquired one specialty peeler and are about to a second. Initially, onions from the Benz farm back in North Dakota were stored in the Long Prairie area at a facility that also pre-graded potatoes for the kits.

A semi of B’s

Onions grown at Porter Farms, at Dawson, N.D., are the main source of the supply for Kidco Farms, a fresh vegetable company that supplies Minnesota Fresh at Long Prairie, Minn. Photo taken Oct. 10, 2020, at Dawson, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Onions grown at Porter Farms, at Dawson, N.D., are the main source of the supply for Kidco Farms, a fresh vegetable company that supplies Minnesota Fresh at Long Prairie, Minn. Photo taken Oct. 10, 2020, at Dawson, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Responding to demand, Minnesota Fresh ran five or six days a week through the summer. On a Saturday in late October, the employees made 30,000 packages in a single day. The company goes through a semi-trailer load of B-size potatoes every day. The facility can hold up to 10 semi-loads on-site.

For the first three months in the harvest year, they rely on spuds from the Big Lake to Long Prairie area of Minnesota. Then they move to “storage” potatoes, from Saskatchewan to northeast North Dakota through June. The rest come from Florida, Arizona and Texas, and come up to Kansas and Nebraska.

And then finally back to Big Lake.

Initially, Benz tried sourcing onions out of the Long Prairie area, but the crop likes semi-arid conditions. “Minnesota is (Land of) 10,000 lakes for a reason, because it rains all of the time,” he said, half-joking.

In 2019, Benz decided to shift the storage of onions in North Dakota, handled by Porter Farms, a company now run by his daughter, Michelle, and her husband, Phillip Porter.

The Porters, in Dawson, N.D., took over onion growing and storing enterprise in 2020. Their “Porter Farms” built a large storage warehouse that will supply onions to Kidco Farms for about 10 months of the year. The rest come from the Washington state region.

“We want to get the best quality potatoes available anywhere in the United States,” Benz said. Even acquiring the best potatoes they can find, the company culls out 10% to 20% of them for aesthetic defects. During the pandemic, the company bagged and delivered eight semi-trailer loads of cull potatoes to food banks.

The new Porter Farms warehouse at Dawson, N.D., is 216 feet long and  holds up to 3.7 million pounds of onions. It is the main source of onions for Kidco Farms and Minnesota Fresh, at Long Prairie, Minn. Photo taken Oct. 10, 2020, at Dawson, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
The new Porter Farms warehouse at Dawson, N.D., is 216 feet long and holds up to 3.7 million pounds of onions. It is the main source of onions for Kidco Farms and Minnesota Fresh, at Long Prairie, Minn. Photo taken Oct. 10, 2020, at Dawson, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Almost all of the four packages have four standard elements: several red, B-size potatoes; several baby carrots, whole-peeled onions, and celery. “It’s something you can throw in a slow-cooker in the morning, put it on ‘high’ and it’ll be done at noon. You can put it on ‘low’ and it’ll be done in eight hours.” he said. The fast cookers are even faster.

Benz declines to say the names of his customers, but it’s possible to read between the lines.

“Our main customer is the largest protein seller in the country,” he said. This past year, his employees earned the honor of being the customer’s “No. 1 ingredient supplier.”

Benz adds that the large protein seller’s best customer is “the largest retailer in the world” who coincidentally sells popular brands of new pressure cookers that cut preparation time for meals made at home.

“I see nothing but good things” ahead, Benz said.

Blue skies ahead

The Minnesota Fresh facility at Long Prairie, Minn., started at 10,800-square foot building, and since have added another 20,000 square feet, while production levels, while production levels have quadrupled. Photo taken Oct. 19, 2020, at Long Prairie, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
The Minnesota Fresh facility at Long Prairie, Minn., started at 10,800-square foot building, and since have added another 20,000 square feet, while production levels, while production levels have quadrupled. Photo taken Oct. 19, 2020, at Long Prairie, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
At 66, Benz acknowledges it’s not too early to start planning for succession in the company. “Right now, things are going very well down here, so the last thing I think about is quitting.”

On the weekends, Benz commutes almost 300 miles to Steele, N.D., where his parents, wife, and the families of three grown daughters still live. He has six grandchildren.

Minnesota Fresh keeps their office staff small. In management, Iszler is still with him, as is John Ramsey, both of whom moved to Long Prairie from North Dakota. Van Amundson of Jamestown, who once had substantial potato acres in the Pingree-Buchanan area of North Dakota, remains his sole partner.

Benz said it feels good to have quality employees: “I’d rather have one $20 an hour worker than two $12 dollar an hour workers,” he said. “The higher-paid employee shows up because they want to.”

After the earlier labor troubles in North Dakota, Benz strives to be a "family-oriented” opportunity for employees. “We have employees that tell us they don’t get treated as well anyplace (else) as they do here,” he said. “That compliment heals a lot of wounds.”