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Published August 13, 2012, 10:15 AM

The family business

Gregg and his late wife, Linda Halverson, had three children and today, all are at Gregg’s side at Black Gold Farms.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

Gregg and his late wife, Linda Halverson, had three children and today, all are at Gregg’s side at Black Gold Farms.

John Halverson: At age 36, John is vice president of operations and has a degree in agricultural economics from North Dakota State University. As young teenagers, he and his brother, Eric, would travel to Missouri during harvest.

“There was never a time in my life where I thought about doing anything but farming,” John says.

John relocated to Paragould, Ark., near the farm site at Arbyrd, Mo. He initiated the farm, which since has grown into a complex business. It produces 4,500 acres of crops, mostly potatoes, but also sweet potatoes, soybeans, corn and wheat.

Since then, he has become the supervisor of similar operations company-wide.

“My forte is on the farming side of things,” John says. “I think I bring my strengths to the harvest operation itself, the logistics and people side of it. From time to time, I go to farms where there are struggles, and try to help people with it.”

He and his wife Angie have three daughters.

Eric Halverson: At age 35, Eric is executive vice president. Among other things, he leads Black Gold’s service team of agronomists and engineers. Eric went to North Dakota State University for Ag and Biosystems Engineering and graduated in 1999. He is on the U.S. Potato Board, working for the administration of the international marketing committee.

Initially, Eric was supervised by people other than his father. He gravitated to the equipment side of things, working with vendors on the nuts-and-bolts, and logistics of moving equipment among the operations. One thing he learned was that high-value specialty crops such as potatoes don’t get as much development attention from large equipment manufacturers.

“We deal with some of the short-line folks and come up with our own things, our own ideas,” Eric says.

One challenge of Black Gold is working with numerous locations, all of which must produce potato products at the same high standards.

“It’s the same equation, but the values and variables are different for each farm,” Eric says.

One of his projects has been working with vendors to standardize wash lines and components from site to site.

In 2006, Eric started working on what Black Gold Farms initially called “Project X.” It’s a systematic approach to using field record-keeping systems, weather data and other data spun off the equipment in the fields, the fry labs and the quality control data to make decisions.

Eric thinks efficient watering in all of the farming regions is one of the most difficult problems. Finding ways to link with customers and consumers for that information is an ongoing challenge.

“I don’t think we ever want to get to the point where we hit the autopilot button and the farm runs itself,” he says. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think we can reduce inputs by making better decisions on timing and utilizing everything we grow from a quality standpoint.”

Leah (Halverson) Brakke: At age 33, Leah has been a full-timer at Black Gold Farms since early 2011. She got a business degree with a marketing emphasis from NDSU, as well as a master’s degree at the University of North Dakota.

She married Aaron Brakke, a former Agsco coworker, in December 2004.

She worked for Flint Communications in Fargo, N.D., but soon found herself working with the farming side of the agency. “Initially, I tried to stay away from ag, but it kind of leads you back,” she says. “In the last year or so, Black Gold Farms was our client.”

Leah uses social media — Facebook, Twitter and a blog called “The Dirt” — and other tools to tout Black Gold Farms’ reputation, most recently as a locally-grown provider.

“Dad’s famous question to me is, ‘Is it going to sell one more potato?’” That’s important, but Leah reminds him a website must do more than that.

“We tell our own story, in our own voice, on a regular basis,” she says. Black Gold Farms uses QR code tags so consumers can immediately look at a video online about the company, customized to the location. Black Gold gets about 200 views a month with these codes.

Leah says the company needs to tell its story and emphasize “who grows your food,” adding that Black Gold Farms is a fourth-generation family farm with control over quality.