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Published May 03, 2010, 02:52 PM

Giant in the sunflower business expands its operation

WAHPETON, N.D. — Giant Snacks Inc. is officially ready to play ball in its packaging plant in Wahpeton, N.D., it moved into nearly a year ago. The company hosted hundreds at its “Grand Opener” April 26, an event timed to emphasize the company’s ties with the Minnesota Twins.

By: Mikkel Pates, Special oto Agweek

WAHPETON, N.D. — Giant Snacks Inc. is officially ready to play ball in its packaging plant in Wahpeton, N.D., it moved into nearly a year ago. The company hosted hundreds at its “Grand Opener” April 26, an event timed to emphasize the company’s ties with the Minnesota Twins.

Giants Sunflower Seeds is one of the recent success stories in confection sunflower processing in the region, led by Jay Schuler, one of the more prolific agricultural entrepreneurs in the region. The company boasts 55 percent of the confection sunflower seed snack market share in Minnesota convenience stores and appears in 96 percent of them. Giant Snacks sells in 38 states and on the internet.

Schuler, company president and founder, is an unabashed booster of local entrepreneurship. Only 3 to 5 percent of people are “hard-wired” to be entrepreneurs and business supporters, he says.

‘All-star’ lineup

Also attending the event was Dave St. Peter, president of the Minnesota Twins since 2002. St. Peter is a native of Bismarck, N.D., and a graduate of the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. Giants Sunflower Seeds is in its seventh season appearing in the Twins’ stadium.

Schuler timed his event to be able to host Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who he credits with saving his company when the San Francisco Giants baseball team threatened to enforce a trademark a few years ago.

“They could have broken us with attorney fees,” Schuler says, but Dorgan used his influence to defuse the situation.

Schuler also trotted out friends such as Jim Anderson, a Wahpeton native who is president and sales director for MaxBats of Brooten, Minn., which makes baseball bats for some of the best hitters in the major leagues, and Mark Stutrud, founder of Summit Brewing Co.; and Kenny Nelson of Perham, Minn., president and chief executive officer of KLN Family Brands, a pet food and snack food combine with more than 1,000 employees.

Jack Dalrymple, North Dakota lieutenant governor since 2000 and founding chairman of Dakota Growers Pasta Co. of Carrington, N.D., talked about state resources for entrepreneurs, but also alluded to criticism of the recent announced sale of Dakota Growers to Canadians.

“Don’t worry: That company is going to be there, going to stay in North Dakota, and keep on employing people and doing what it does,” he says.

Giant success

Giant Snacks is emblematic of agricultural entrepreneurial striving, using local crop advantages. In the mid-1990s, Schuler tried in vain to get snack companies interested in his genetics for large, fat sunflower seeds, but then decided to try marketing them himself.

Giant Snacks contracts with about 13 seed growers in a 200-mile radius of Wahpeton. Most raise about 500 acres in an identity-preserved system.

Yield goals are in the 2,000-pounds-per-acre range, but some average 2,400 pounds, officials say. Forty to 50 percent of that yield goes into the final product in the 24/64th-inch size. The rest goes into other markets.

Seeds first go to a processing SunGold Foods Inc. in Horace, N.D., where they are brined in a water and salt solution and roasted. They then go to Wahpeton, where they are cleaned and packaged.

The new, 24,500-square-foot production and warehouse facility has three packaging lines. Some 24 employees currently run two 10-hour shifts in a 20-hour day, five days a week.

Plant manager Al Engstrom says about half of the seeds are “tumble-seasoned” into five flavors — dill pickle, salt-and-pepper, spicy garlic, barbecue and ranch.

One of the market trends the company is seeing is that some people are looking for lower-sodium sunflower seed products. Giant Snacks expects to roll out a lower-sodium product within a year.

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