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Published June 29, 2010, 02:16 PM

Flax, family and value added

PARK RIVER, N.D. — As a girl, Esther Hylden insisted she’d never marry a farmer. She was wrong.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

PARK RIVER, N.D. — As a girl, Esther Hylden insisted she’d never marry a farmer.

She was wrong.

Today, Hylden — a farm wife for 30-plus years — runs a growing decade-old business in Park River, N.D., that sells flax raised on her family farm to customers around the country and internationally.

Years ago, when she was new to farming, “it didn’t make sense to me that we do all of the work of raising the crop and then just sell it at the price that the elevator sets,” she says.

“I remember telling Mark, ‘What kind of craziness is that? That’s not a good idea. We should be able to set the price’” that reflects labor and production costs, she says.

And that’s what the Hyldens’ company, Golden Valley Flax, does today, allowing Esther and her husband, Mark, to add value to their flax. They clean, bag and sell it to individual customers and supermarkets for much more than a grain elevator pays. Sales are split about evenly between individuals and supermarkets.

“So my notions as a young farm wife have come to fruition,” she says.

The company’s name reflects that the Hyldens live in an area sometimes referred to as “Golden Valley.” The site is in Golden Township of North Dakota’s Walsh County and in a valley formed by the nearby Park River.

The name also reflects the golden Omega flax variety raised by the Hyldens.

Golden Valley Flax promotes flax as a healthy choice because its seeds are high in Omega-3 fatty acids, dietary fiber and lignans.

Flax’s health benefits are widely accepted among consumers, says Rick Hogan, produce manager at Hugo’s No. 8 supermarket in Grand Forks, N.D., which sells Golden Valley Flax.

Preliminary studies suggest that flax has a number of health and nutritional benefits, according to the WebMD website.

Esther, a registered nurse, says she wouldn’t promote flax if she didn’t believe in it. She says she sticks with sound medical evidence and rejects what she calls the “wild claims” that some flax advocates make about its health benefits.

Ice cream,

changed plans

Esther, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, grew up in rural communities, including Plummer, Minn., and Rolla, N.D.

Some of her childhood friends came from farm families that lacked indoor toilets and running water, souring Esther on the idea of someday marrying a farmer.

“When I was a teenager, I made the statement to my mother, ‘I will never marry a farmer.’ I was quite emphatic,” she says.

But her attitude began to change when she first saw Mark at an ice cream social at the church where Esther’s father was pastor. Mark was a speaker at the event.

“Who meets at a church ice cream social? But that’s really what happened with us,” she says.

Esther wanted to meet Mark after his talk, so she carefully arranged to “accidentally” bump into him while he was waiting in line for pie and ice cream. Her father later introduced Mark to her.

One thing led to another, and the two married in 1975.

Mark had planned to be a minister, but the lure of the farm — he’s a fourth-generation family farmer — proved too strong.

“So he decided to become a farmer, and I became a farm wife,” she says.

‘Creative, willing to change’

As is the case with many farm families, farming didn’t provide enough income for Esther and Mark and their three sons. Esther’s income from working as a nurse helped, but not enough.

“We loved our family farm, but we needed additional money,” she says. to be creative and willing to change.”

They found a way of getting it.

In 1999, the couple learned that Mark’s cholesterol was too high. When they researched ways to bring it down, they kept coming across flax.

So Mark began using flax, and it did bring down his cholesterol, Esther says.

That brought thoughts of packaging and selling flax from their farm.

“We had all these ideas and just went with it,” she says. “You can’t keep making money the way your grandparents did. You have to be creative and willing to change.”

To establish their business, they applied for and received state and federal grants. The grant money helped, but family finances were tight. Esther remembers buying flax bags and paying for them with money from her nurse’s paycheck.

“Then we were wondering what we were going to live on. We survived though,” she says.

They also had to learn more about marketing and the nitty-gritty details of operating a business.

Mark’s college degree was in sociology, Esther’s in nursing. Neither had any training in marketing or business.

“It was a challenge, but we kept at it,” Esther says of establishing the flax business.

Big things, little things

The Internet has become crucial to the business. The domain name of its website is www.flaxhealth.com.

Esther, who continues to work as a nurse, handles the paperwork for online and telephone orders when she’s home

The personal touch is important, whether it’s chatting on the phone with customers or writing thank-you notes on their orders.

Mark and Esther have an electronic newsletter that they send regularly to customers. Esther writes about health, and Mark provides an update on farm conditions.

“You wouldn’t believe how interested people can be in what’s happening on our farm,” she says.

The Hyldens bag their flax in a small building on their farmstead. They make a priority of keeping the building clean and sanitary.

“Customers don’t want us to have any problems with that,” Esther says.

Golden Valley Flax also focuses on cleaning its product as thoroughly as possible after it’s harvested.

“We can’t take any credit for our location. This is just a great place to grow high-quality flax,” Mark says. “But we are proud of how much we concentrate on cleaning our flax.”

Organic, natural

Flax isn’t the only crop the Hyldens grow — wheat, corn, barley and soybeans are the others — and it accounts for only a small percentage of the total acres they plant each year. But that percentage has been growing as Golden Valley Flax sales increase.

Flax can be stored safely, so the Hyldens hold back some of each year’s harvest to make sure they’ll have enough to meet demand if the next year’s harvest comes up short on quality.

Golden Valley Flax sells primarily “natural” flax, as well as a small amount of organic flax. The natural flax — produced with limited chemicals — is raised on the Hyldens’ farm, the organic on the farm of a friend in western North Dakota.

“I’m not a big proponent of organic, but I have it,” Esther says.

One goal down

Golden Valley Flax, just like every family business, always faces challenges.

There are more markets to enter, new changes to win and changes in consumer demand and technology to adjust to.

Two examples:

n The Hyldens are searching for a new type of “stand-up” bag that consumers can see better on store shelves.

n They’re also in the process of updating their website.

But Esther’s original, primary goal — increasing her family’s income by adding value to the flax it raises — is achieved.

A bushel, or 56 pounds, of flax currently fetches about $8 to $9 at area elevators. In contrast, a 50-pound bag of Golden Valley flax sells online for $98.50.

“We’ve added value by our name, by cleaning and packaging,” she says.

The company sells its flax in much smaller bags, too, both crushed and whole. It also sells flax-related books and therapeutic flax pillows.

Her efforts with the business have resulted in several awards and honors, including being named 2004 Farm Woman of the Year by the Minnesota/North Dakota Agri-Women.

Esther, 53, is happy that the family business allowed her three sons — who are now out of high school — to work alongside her and Mark as they grew up.

She and Mark plan to keep active in farming and their flax business as long as they’re able.

“Farmers don’t retire. They just die in the field,” she says.

Besides, “Mark and I have a passion for flax. It’s good for people, and that’s important to us.”

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