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Published May 10, 2010, 03:39 PM

Ag construction projects loom large in Crystal, ND

CRYSTAL, N.D. — There’s a building boom in this small farm town.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

CRYSTAL, N.D. — There’s a building boom in this small farm town.

Two agricultural companies — Simplot Grower Solutions and Columbia Grain International — are building big new facilities on prime Red River Valley farmland on the edge of town. Both companies already have much smaller locations here.

Simplot and Columbia Grain also are cooperating to build, on a 50-50 basis, a shared loop track that will allow 110-car unit trains to serve the two facilities.

“This is exciting. It’s not every day there’s growth like this in a town our size,” says Larry McCollum, who manages the Columbia Grain station in Crystal and also serves as the town’s mayor.

Crystal had 147 residents in 2008, down from 167 in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau website.The population decline partially reflects the loss of several homes in town that were bought out after 2004 spring flooding, McCollum says. He hopes the building projects, when completed, will boost Crystal’s population by about 20 people.

“That may not seem like much. But on a percentage basis, it’s a lot,” he says.

Twenty new residents would bring back the town’s population roughly to what it was a decade ago.

There already are tangible signs of progress. Work is well under way on both the Simplot and Columbia Grain projects. Construction of the loop track, also known as a circle track, is just getting started.

The entire project is expected to be completed by late winter or early spring.

Grain company expands

Columbia Grain’s new facility in Crystal will store 1.3 million bushels of grain. Its existing facility stores 340,000 bushels.

Work is expected to be completed early next year.

The grain company, which now has four employees in Crystal, will add several more when the new terminal is finished.

The terminal is expected to attract grain from much of the northern Red River Valley, says Ron DeJongh, Columbia Grain’s regional vice president in Minneapolis.

“We see the northern valley as a productive area” and consequently want to expand capacity there, he says.

Columbia also operates shuttle loaders in the eastern North Dakota towns of Arvilla and Valley City.

This is the first time Columbia Grain has worked with another entity on shared rail tracks, DeJongh says.

The process has gone smoothly, he says.

Portland, Ore.-based Columbia Grain, a leading world grain exporter, serves both domestic and export markets. It has locations in North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

The privately held company operates one of the world’s most automated grain export terminals near the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers near Portland. It’s expected that most of the grain that leaves Crystal on the 110-car unit trains will be taken to this terminal.

Simplot growing

Simplot’s 25,000-ton fertilizer plant is expected to be completed between Christmas and Easter, says Al Wimpfheimer with Simplot in Grand Forks, N.D.

The plant will blend basic fertilizers to produce a wide range of fertilizers for Red River Valley producers, serving an area from the Canadian border to Moorhead, Minn.

Simplot’s operation in Crystal now employs three people full time and several more part time.

The new fertilizer plant will boost employment to 12 to 13 full time and 25 to 30 overall.

At least some of those employees likely will live in Crystal, Wimpfheimer says.

Working with Columbia Grain on the loop track has gone smoothly, he says.

“It hasn’t been a problem. We have the same interests,” he says.

Fertilizer will come in 85-car unit trains initially, and Simplot will have the capacity to go to 110 cars, he says.

Simplot Growers Solutions is part of Boise, Idaho-based J.R. Simplot Co., one of the world’s largest privately held international food processing and agricultural companies. Simplot has been doing business in the Red River Valley since 1974.

The new fertilizer plant will help Simplot better serve its customers in the valley, Wimpfheimer says.

Railroad plays key role

Dakota Northern Railroad, based in Crookston, Minn., will bring fertilizer from Grafton, N.D., to the Simplot plant in Crystal and then, in separate cars, take grain from the Columbia Grain terminal in Crystal back to Grafton.

Industry giant BNSF Railway will bring the fertilizer to Grafton, and then transport the grain out of Grafton.

Grafton is about 25 miles southeast of Crystal.

Dakota Northern, which operates about 70 miles of track in northeastern North Dakota, is what’s called a short line railroad. Short lines typically operate over short distances and work closely with the businesses they serve.

The impetus for the Crystal loop track, a little more than a mile in length, came from Simplot and Columbia Grain, says George LaPray, Dakota Northern’s general manager.

“They’re the ones that got this going,” he says.

It’s not unprecedented for two companies to cooperate on building shared track for separate facilities, but what’s happening in Crystal is the first such project in which Dakota Northern has been involved, LePray says.

“We’re excited,” he says.

Work on the circle track is expected to be finished by the end of this construction season, he says.

Small, but active town

Just about every communitywants to attract more residents. But the job is especially important in small, rural towns such as Crystal that are fighting for their futures.

Pembina County, in which Crystal is located, rates a 9 on a federal government scale, with 1 being the most urban and 9 being the most rural.

More than half of the counties in North Dakota receive a 9. And like most of the highly rural counties, Pembina has been losing residents steadily during the past two decades as farms get bigger and farm families become fewer and smaller.

But Crystal is surrounded by rich farmland and receives strong support from residents, which gives reason for optimism, McCollum says.

Crystal also offers a lot for a town its size, he says.

The list includes a bank office, fire department, grain elevator, convenience store with restaurant, post office, mechanic’s shop, school, two fertilizer plants, two bars, two churches and city park with two softball fields.

“We’re proud of what we have here,” he says.

Reasons for hope

Other positive developments in Crystal are a recently built private potato warehouse in town and a cleaning plant completed late last year by the T.E. O’Toole Farm Seed Co. three miles from town.

Residents of Crystal and the surrounding area are thrilled by what’s happing in their town, says Brian O’Toole of the family seed company and a Crystal farmer.

“It’s great to see construction cranes in the air,” he says.

Crystal has been on the decline for some time, but the new facilities can help reverse that, he says

“There will be more jobs, which means more families and more kids,” he says.

“This is bringing hope, and every town needs hope,” he says.

Besides potentially bringing more people to live in Crystal, the new grain terminal and fertilizer plant will attract more visitors to town, boosting existing businesses, McCollum says.

On a recent sunny afternoon, McCollum beams as he gives a visitor a tour of the sites where two separate construction crews are working on the Simplot and Columbia Grain facilities.

“Things aren’t very far along yet. But be sure to come back when everything’s finished. I think you’ll be impressed,” he says.

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