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Published July 16, 2012, 10:09 AM

Small-town survivor

When Jeff Beyer began working years ago at what’s now Pride Dairy, his duties included carrying a 10-gallon cream container up a steep flight of stairs.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

BOTTINEAU, N.D. — When Jeff Beyer began working years ago at what’s now Pride Dairy, his duties included carrying a 10-gallon cream container up a steep flight of stairs.

“After that, nothing in my (work) day seemed too hard,” he says.

Beyer, 52, who bought Pride Dairy in Bottineau, N.D., two years ago, has faced and surmounted many challenges through the years.

His company, one of two remaining small-town creameries in North Dakota, continues to sell milk, cheese and butter both in Bottineau and at nearly 50 grocery stores and cafes in North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota. Its products, which include toppings and syrups, are sold online, too.

Pride Dairy also operates a malt shop that it opened 2½ years ago.

The Bottineau dairy is attracting attention both regionally and nationally. The plaudits include:

•USA Today named Pride Dairy as North Dakota’s best malt shop in the newspaper’s ranking of the nation’s top 50 malt parlors.

•Pride Dairy was selected as North Dakota’s best “off-the-beaten-path summer destination” by CountryLiving magazine.

•Pride Dairy is part of a competition celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Nut Goodie candy bar, which is made in St. Paul, Minn., by Pearson Candy Co. and sold in the Upper Midwest.

Pride Dairy, along with dairies in Minnesota, South Dakota and Wisconsin, created and are selling ice cream treats that taste like the Nut Goodie candy bar. The public is invited to vote on which of the four treats is best.

‘Co-pack’ arrangement

Bottineau Co-op Creamery began in 1930 and was a farmer-owned cooperative until Beyer purchased it.

“Just like the rest of North Dakota, we lost a lot of dairy farmers in our area,” he says. “It got to the point where we technically weren’t a true cooperative because we didn’t have any producers.

“The last few producers we had didn’t have any intention of keeping it going,” he adds. “The intention was to close it down.”

Beyer, who joined the dairy in 1976 and was its general manager for 20 years, didn’t want the business to close, so he and his wife bought it.

Today, Pride Dairy no longer works directly with milk producers, relying instead on what’s known as a “co-pack” agreement with the Dean Foods location in Bismarck, N.D. Dean Foods is one of the nation’s largest dairy companies.

Pride Dairy packages butter and ice cream for both itself and Dean Foods. Dean Foods, in turn, bottles milk for Pride Dairy sold under the latter’s label. Dean Foods also supplies the cream that Pride Dairy processes.

Under the co-pack agreement, Dean Foods distributes Pride Dairy products, primarily ice cream, to roughly 50 stores and cafes in North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota.

“The equipment has gotten so expensive that unless you have a really huge distribution area, you can’t afford to buy the equipment for each different line, such as the fluid milk, butter and ice cream,” Beyer says.

The arrangement also works well for Dean Foods, says Arlan Franchuk, Dean Food’s Thief River Falls, Minn.-based sales manager, who works with Beyer.

“He has an excellent product, and he’s very good to work with,” Franchuk says. “I’m doing everything I can to help his product grow.”

Pride Dairy’s ice cream is particularly popular, Franchuk says.

Dairy decline

Today, North Dakota has small dairies in Bottineau and Sterling, as well as larger ones in Bismarck and Fargo.

Beyer says he’s been told that as many as 160 creameries once operated in the state.

Wayne Carlson, the North Dakota Department of Agriculture’s livestock development division director, says he’s uncertain of how many creameries the state once had.

“But just about every small town had a creamery,” he says.

The drastic decline reflects changes in dairy production in the Upper Midwest. At one time, family farmers in the area typically milked 20 to 60 cows, raised an equal number of beef cows and planted a few hundred acres of crops, such as wheat and barley.

But over time, as farming operations became bigger and fewer, the number of dairy operations and dairy cows in the state fell sharply. North Dakota has about 18,000 dairy cows today, only one-quarter as many as 25 years ago, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Employees, customers

Pride Dairy has 10 employees, most of whom drive truck or work in production. Due to a routine sanitary inspection, Pride Dairy’s production area wasn’t available for public tours on the day Agweek visited.

Beyer and Shelly Spang, manager of Pride Dairy, praise loyal customers in the Bottineau area.

“We have so many people who are such loyal customers,” Spang says, adding that she’s heard herself described as “the ice cream lady.”

One of the faithful customers is Bruce Knudson, a Bottineau farmer, who says the dairy has been part of his life “forever.”

As a child, he delivered cream to the dairy. Now, he buys milk and ice cream there.

“I have to have my Pride Dairy ice cream,” he says with a smile, as he buys a container of vanilla.

Beyer says he’s often asked why Pride Dairy is still in business.

“I always say it’s because of our customers. They’re so supportive of us,” he says.

Bottineau’s location also helps Pride Dairy, he adds.

The town of about 2,200 in northwest North Dakota is near the International Peace Garden, Lake Metigoshe and the scenic Turtle Mountains.

“We (Pride Dairy) aren’t necessarily a destination for people. But we’re a stop on the way to those destinations,” Beyer says.

Expanding the business

Pride Dairy can’t rely strictly on dairy products, Beyer says.

“There are too many things that can happen.”

That point was driven home to him when Walmart opened a Bottineau store in 2008.

“They’re a good member of the community, but we can’t compete with them on price,” he says. “I knew that for us to survive we had to make some changes.”

One of those changes was expanding into toppings and syrups, many of them using berries and fruit grown in the Bottineau area.

The toppings and syrups are popular, particularly with out-of-state customers or customers who want to send a North Dakota product to out-of-state relatives or friends.

This is the third summer for the ice cream shop, which occupies an area once devoted to office space.

When Beyer began removing the office furnishings to make room for the ice cream shop, he wondered, “What have I got myself in to?”

But the ice cream shop has done well, he says.

Beyer is considering another expansion into ice production. Pride Dairy is adding new reverse osmosis equipment for its dairy production, and that equipment also could be used to make ice for area stores and businesses. But Beyer has put no timeline on his decision.

“If you know me, you know I don’t do anything fast,” he says with a smile. “In a business like this, you can’t afford to make many big mistakes. So far, we’ve been doing pretty well. And like I said before, it’s because of our customers.”

Information: www.pridedairy.

com.

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