Minn-Dak's Roche to retire after 36-year sugar career

WAHPETON, N.D. -- They're cleaning out the last of the 2012 crop beets at Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative, and David Roche will soon be cleaning out his desk.

David Roche
David Roche retires Aug. 31, 2013, as the president and chief executive officer Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative of Wahpeton, N.D., after 12 years. Photo taken May 22, 2013, in Wahpeton, N.D. (Agweek/Mikkel Pates)

WAHPETON, N.D. -- They're cleaning out the last of the 2012 crop beets at Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative, and David Roche will soon be cleaning out his desk.

"Yes, it's going to feel strange," says Roche, whose career has been in the industry for 36 years and whose family has been in the industry for a total of 70 years. Minn-Dak recently announced that Roche will retire Aug. 31 from a post he's held since 2001, and that he'll be replaced by Kurt Wickstrom of Chaska, Minn.

Minn-Dak is owned by nearly 500 shareholders and has about $300 million in annual revenue. About 90 to 95 percent of that is from sugar, pulp and molasses, sold through United Sugars Corp. and Midwest Agri-Commodities Co.

Roche, 66, grew up in Saginaw, Mich., where his father was vice president of sales for Michigan Sugar Co., then a publicly traded company on the American Stock Exchange. He studied accounting at Saginaw Valley State University and got a master's degree in business administration at Michigan State University.

"My father had been in the industry forever," Roche says. When his father died in 1975, the president of the company asked him if he'd apply for a position as controller of the company. So Roche joined Michigan Sugar in 1976 and stepped up through the ranks to become president in 1994.


Roche started working for Minn-Dak in Wahpeton, N.D., on March 1, 2001.

Back home in beets

"I felt like I'd gotten home and back into the sugar beet business," Roche recalls. Minn-Dak then was processing beets from about 100,000 acres and has grown to about 120,000.

"I view the Minn-Dak shareholders as a family that has a singular focus on producing high-quality sugar beets," he says. "They've been anxious and the board has been anxious to reinvest in their operation. And it's more important to invest in difficult times to be prepared for the better times."

He says a recent period of solid markets -- record highs -- was important, but the ability to capitalize came from the prior investments. Among other things, the company has invested about $1 million a year in ventilation of beet piles to prolong storage capacity. In about 2003, it spent $15 million on a pulp steam dryer that reuses steam from the process to dry the pulp.

The co-op itself is in the midst of a $70 million project to install molasses desugarization capability, which will be in place in 2014.

"It's not new (technology)," Roche acknowledges. "That technology came about 12 to 15 years ago, but Minn-Dak was busy improving their core assets." In round numbers, it'll allow Minn-Dak to make an extra 100 million pounds of sugar per year. If the price of sugar is about 30 cents a pound, that's about $30 million.

"Farmers today can plant faster, harvest faster and be more precise at what they do," he says. Roche says a crop can be harvested in about 10 to 12 days in good conditions now, which can be vital when faced with a challenging weather year. Looking back on his time at Minn-Dak, Roche says the biggest item of development has been the advent of biotechnology in sugar beet seeds and the use of Roundup-ready seed.


Shareholder resilience

He says he's been impressed with the resilience of farmers when bad conditions come. "You feel just crushed as a manager when you have rains from August to September and a third of the crop is left in the field," he says. "And then a farmer will tell you, 'We've had some good years. This is a tough year, but averages are made with highs and lows. Let's move on to a brighter day.' I continue to be amazed at the resilience of shareholders."

Roche and his wife, Rae Ann, who have a home at Fergus Falls, Minn., soon will relocate to Harbor Springs, Mich., to be near three grown children and five grandchildren. In retirement, Roche says he plans to spend more time with his family and perhaps do a bit more sailing on Lake Michigan. He wants to see his alma mater play football, and perhaps get to see the Detrioit Lions.

"They've got to win one of these years -- one of the few teams that have never been to a Super Bowl and they've barely won a playoff game," Roche says.

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