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Published April 29, 2013, 10:50 AM

Faith and business

“At AEFS we are a family of believers. We believe in God, we believe in America, we believe in the family farm and we believe in the Jerusalem artichoke.” — American Energy Farming Systems corporate philosophy.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — “At AEFS we are a family of believers. We believe in God, we believe in America, we believe in the family farm and we believe in the Jerusalem artichoke.” — American Energy Farming Systems corporate philosophy.

Like many people who grew up in the Dakotas in the1960s, religion figured into my heritage. Church membership reached its peak in a Golden Age of religion in America. The Reverends Martin Marty, Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, and Monsignor Fulton Sheen were national figures.

I was born into a Lutheran family in eastern South Dakota, and my parents had strong roots in the church. My mother had been a church organist since her teens in the 1940s. My father was a lay leader. I considered a career in church music before I followed my father’s career of agricultural journalism.

My first job in journalism was at the Worthington (Minn.) Daily Globe (now a Forum Communications Co. sister publication) where my managing editor, the late Paul Gruchow, brightened when I told him I would sing in a Lutheran church choir. Today, I sing in a church choir and a gospel quartet. My friends say I’m a sort of faithful skeptic.

Early in my career, I reported on a spectacular case of Christian authority getting warped into selfishness and greed.

On May 7, 1982, my Daily Globe article titled, “Jerusalem Artichoke: Boon or Boondoggle?,” described American Energy Farming Systems, a company that pushed a crop some described as snake oil, a scam in which its promoters created a pyramid scheme of a crop with no real processing market. Jerusalem artichokes had been a weed, but now would be a source of ethanol and cattle feed. It would help farmers out of their troubles.

One of the company’s strategists was lawyer and fundamentalist Fred Hendrickson, a Lutheran-turned evangelical, who hailed from my dad’s hometown of Philip, S.D. Another key figure was James Dwire, a Marshall, Minn.-area contractor. AEFS had used Bible thumping meetings to entice hundreds of farmers to buy the seed at $1,000 an acre.

The AEFS’ demands for retractions were two pages long, 25 items. The Daily Globe retracted only one item, a technicality.

I had interviewed the Reverend Jerry Knapper, the company’s head of sales, a self-educated clergyman who repaired motorcycles and tried to sell musical instruments, computers, pots and pans. Behind his office desk was a large painting of Jesus, trudging up Golgotha. Knapper told me Christians believed in something they couldn’t see, and so were more “susceptible” to the Jerusalem artichoke concept.

In the bankruptcy, it was estimated the company took in $26 million — Dwire received $1.8 million and insiders pocketed nearly $5 million. There were 509 growers in Minnesota, 288 in South Dakota and 81 in North Dakota, and major concentrations in seven other states. The Minnesota Attorney General investigated the case, but the McLeod County attorney eventually got prison convictions on three of the leaders.

Joseph A. Amato, a professor at Southwest State University in Marshall, in 1993 wrote a book, “The Great Jerusalem Artichoke Circus.” It described how “the habit of boosterism, and the fundamentalist faith that the pursuit of material wealth, by whatever means necessary, is part of God’s plan for us.”

The story eventually led to my job in Fargo, N.D., where The Forum was threatened by AEFS.

I think there are lessons to be learned from this today — ironically, now because of an excess of money in oil and agriculture. Last week, one farmer told me it was the religious commitment of the seller that convinced him to invest more than $20,000 in an ag-related business. The farmer wasn’t overly troubled there was no return, or follow-through.

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