North Dakota Mill and Elevator celebrates a century of milling in Grand Forks
The Mill grinds 140,000 bushels of grain per day, and operates 24 hours a day, from 330 to 350 days a year
GRAND FORKS – Jeff Bertsch, longtime employee of the North Dakota Mill and Elevator, recalls starting work at the facility when he was 18.
He rose through the ranks, taking on different roles and responsibilities. By the time he retired in June 2020 as vice president of purchasing, he had worked his entire career there, nearly 43 years – almost half of the mill’s 100-year history.
Over the years, Bertsch has seen remarkable changes in the Mill’s operations. Among the most memorable developments was the building of four 250,000-bushel bins, he said.
Chris Lemoine, who retired as vice president of production in December 2021, also has seen extraordinary advances at the Mill. He retired after a 31-year career there.
The modernization of the plant, as it affected production and packaging, as well as the introduction of state-of-the-art technology, stands out as the most important changes, he said.
Celebrating 100-year history
The North Dakota Mill and Elevator, the only state-owned mill in the United States, will mark its 100th anniversary with a celebration Thursday, Oct. 20. The event will be held for invited guests only; about 350 are expected to attend.
The biggest mill in the western hemisphere, the North Dakota Mill has a net economic impact of $800 million annually, using an NDSU multiplier formula, said Vance Taylor, president and CEO.
“We have about $400 million in sales per year,” said Taylor, who has headed the Mill since 2000.
The Mill’s success has been spurred by increased capacity, capital improvements and efficiency, Taylor said. “Our efficiency – that we measure by product shipped per man-hour – has doubled since 2000, which would not be possible without the capital improvements that we’ve done.”
The Mill grinds 140,000 bushels of grain per day, and operates 24 hours a day, from 330 to 350 days a year. It provides a benefit to the farmers, “providing additional demand for producers – we’re grinding about 40 million bushels a year now – which puts upward pressure on grain prices,” Taylor said.
Not only does the facility infuse millions into the local economy, it contributes half of its profits annually to the state’s general fund. That amount has averaged about $7 million per year over the past five years, Taylor said.
The remainder of the profits is plowed back into the facility for capital projects, to modernize and automate its operations and to expand, he said. The Mill receives no state funds.
Success due to employees
The key to the Mill’s success is primarily due to its employees, Taylor said. The retired vice presidents Bertsch and Lemoine “are very important to the place – and obviously others who’ve come through the place.”
Bertsch, who was born and raised in Grand Forks, began working at the Mill in November 1977, at age 18.
“My dad said, ‘You can either go to UND or go work at the Mill – I heard they’re hiring,’” he recalled. “I took a left at the driveway instead of a right, and it all turned out real well for me,” he said with a laugh.
Bertsch remembered starting out in Local 2, a separate wooden elevator that stood a bit farther north on Mill Road; Local 1 was on the Highway 81 side. “That was barley. And, in Local 2, we had corn, wheat, sunflowers, durum, oats, soybeans — pretty much every other crop.”
Throughout his employment, Bertsch held several positions. His career “made for a great life for a family,” he said. And it provided “decent money, great benefits and retirement.”
Before moving to Grand Forks, Lemoine worked in the milling industry in Kansas. In 1989, he moved here with his family to accept a job with another entity, and joined the Mill in January 1991.
“This is a great place to come to. Certainly, Grand Forks offered more opportunities than Atchison, Kansas, where I was at,” he said. “All three of my kids went to UND.”
Lemoine first worked as production supply manager and was promoted to production manager a year or two later.
“If you’re in the milling business at all, coming to the North Dakota Mill is quite a revelation, because it’s such a nice facility, well run, financially sound,” Lemoine said.
“We make the best product, the best flour out there.
“And the way we approach customer service and the way we deal with people and customers, clear down to the farmers and suppliers, is something you can be proud to be associated with,” he said.
That wasn’t always the case at other places he worked, he said. At the Mill, “everything is above board. To be involved here is different than elsewhere; it’s a different situation being state-owned.”
Lemoine stayed on staff for more than three decades because “it’s a quality job; the benefits and everything are excellent,” he said.
A career in grain
Bertsch’s employment has included work in grain inspection and as a supervisor for 10 years before his promotion to grain buyer in 2005. Promotions – and being “a hard-headed German” – kept him on staff for more than four decades, he said.
As a grain buyer, Bertsch dealt with more than 800 farmers toward the end of his career, he said. “It seemed like my phone never quit ringing, so it was pretty busy.”
That figure has grown to more than 1,000 now, Taylor said.
Bertsch usually purchased grain in 5,000-bushel increments, and some purchases could rise to 100,000 bushels, he said.
The Mill also purchases grain from elevators across North Dakota; those purchases could run from 200,000 to 300,000 bushels at a time, but that depends on the weather in any given year, which affects the quality of the grain, Bertsch said.
North Dakota is the primary supplier of grain to the Mill, Taylor said. “Depending on the year, we buy some from Minnesota, a little bit from South Dakota and, on a rare occasion, we’ll stretch out to Montana.”
All the grain milled here is domestic; none comes from Canada, Taylor said.
The Mill does not ship out grain, Lemoine said. “All the grain we buy is milled into flour. There’s a big emphasis on quality – from the raw material to the finished product.”
The Mill’s success is built on a commitment to quality, a concept that was oft-repeated by the three milling leaders as they described the mission of the unique facility – whether in terms of product, personnel or customer service.
“Vance has put a lot of money back into the plant,” Lemoine said. “We have a very modern facility; we have state-of-the-art equipment here. It’s as modern as any plant there is out here. And that’s saying a lot for a business that’s 100 years old.”
The company has built a reputation for providing a quality product that is extensively tested in its labs, probably more so than any other flour mill in the industry, “from when the grain comes in to when the flour goes out, it’s a lot of testing programs,” Lemoine said. Such testing protocols lead to certification that assures customers of the products’ quality.
“The focus on advanced certification has helped us a lot,” Taylor said.
Also, the workforce in the Upper Midwest “is excellent,” Lemoine said. “People work hard and do what’s needed to get the job done. That’s a lot of why the company is such a success as well.”
“Vance has always had a policy of promoting from within,” Lemoine added, “so there’s been quite a number of people that have been promoted when Jeff and I were here, from all areas of the plant. There are opportunities for people here beyond the management level.”
Major grain producer
North Dakota is the largest producer of spring wheat and durum – as well as 19 other grains – in the country, Taylor said.
Delivering the product to customers is an important element in building the Mill’s reputation for excellence.
The Mill depends on rail and truck transportation to move its flour products to customers, most of which are on the eastern seaboard from New York to points south, Taylor said. “Only 10 percent stays in the local area.”
“We’re close to the raw material and a long way from the customer,” Lemoine said.
Although supply chain issues have troubled other industries in recent years, the Mill has overcome those challenges, Taylor said.
“We’ve been able to work through those issues, and keep up with demand, throughout the pandemic. We’re pretty proud of that.”
The Mill is overseen by the North Dakota Industrial Commission, consisting of the governor, agriculture commissioner and attorney general, which meets once a year at the Mill. The three serve as the Mill’s board of directors.
Taylor said he and his co-workers are excited to welcome the Commission members – who will hold their regular annual meeting here – as well as customers, suppliers and producers, for a 100th anniversary event Thursday.
Looking back on the Mill’s history, the first 20 years were “pretty tumultuous,” Taylor said, “but for a long, long time, we’ve been pretty steady in providing consistent profits for the state, consistent demand for the farmers, consistent high-quality flour and customer service for our customers. You have to have all three to continue to be successful.
“And the great employees here at the Mill are our number one strength. The work ethic is strong in this area.”
“We are unique,” Taylor said. “The Mill was built for the benefit of North Dakota producers. It served the mission back in 1922 and still continues to serve that mission today.”