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Published May 13, 2013, 09:34 AM

The potato farmer

As with all American farmers, the Offutt story starts with the family history in the New World.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — “R.D. Offutt: Success & Significance,” may not be the only book that is ever to be written about Ronald D. Offutt Jr., but it is likely to be the most significant. Offutt is the most far-flung farmer and entrepreneur and philanthropist the Red River Valley is likely to ever produce.

Author Hiram Drache, 88, who has chronicled the region’s commercial agricultural history for decades has been a close friend of 70-year-old Offutt for the past half-century, enjoyed unprecedented access to the subject.

Some of Offutt’s story has been told, but Drache’s is the first comprehensive, behind-the-scenes effort to describe the world’s largest potato producer (hovering around 60,000 to 65,000 irrigated acres) and the founding head of the world’s biggest string of John Deere stores — 82 worldwide — and various ag processing and equipment retail ventures. Much of it is based on historical notes from Offutt’s financial controller, Al Knoll, to whom Offutt (not Drache) dedicates the book.

Drache, noted for his lack of sentimentality when it comes to Midwest agriculture, is open about his regard for “Ronnie,” as Offutt is known to his friends. The younger Offutt was 19 and a college student and potato farmer when he took economic and European history classes that Drache taught at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. In the book, Drache distinguishes Ronnie from his father “Ronald,” who plays a key role.

As with all American farmers, the Offutt story starts with the family history in the New World. That goes from 1694, starting from revolutionary times in Maryland and ending up in North Dakota.

Drache tells how Offutt’s great-grandfather, Fred Offutt, became “one of the first potato barons of Orrick and Ray counties in Missouri. Then there is Offutt’s grandfather, Bert, a farming kingpin who was killed in a car accident in 1931, but bought potato seed in the Red River Valley. Offutt’s widowed grandmother, Lora, takes over the potato buying and selling operation.

Drache tells how Offutt’s father, Ronald D. Offutt, Sr., and a brother operated a potato business until 1965, when Ronald moved to Inkster, N.D., and then Gilby, N.D., and finally to Moorhead in Clay County.

Eventually, Ronald and Ronnie’s mother, Lida, relocate to south of Moorhead, where “Ronnie” and his sister grow up. Ronnie’s personal story includes his high school nickname — “farmer” — and his fabled football and wrestling prowess.

Ronald and ‘Ronnie’

The pivotal, formative relationship in the book is between Ronnie and his father, Ronald D. Offutt Sr.

Drache goes out of his way to quote Ronnie, describing his father “Ronald” in a positive light — a master potato seller, never intimidated by crisis or risk, an expansive thinker, always optimistic, but somehow unable to implement ideas — more comfortable with debt than success.

Drache hints about what drives the younger Offutt to his ultimate success. Ronnie famously insisted on a 50-50 partnership in his parents’ farm, rather than working as an employee. There is the expansion to Big Lake, Minn., potato growing in Perham, Minn., as the Soil Bank land becomes available in the early 1970s. The younger Offutt parlays his potato growing passion into a business success.

Farming partnerships

Of particular interest to farmers will be Drache’s description of Offutt’s farming “partnerships.” Offutt often leases farmland for the potato acreage while partners handle the rotation crops, but there are numerous variations. He tells how the farming partner company culture evolved, going from internal top-yield competitions to goals based on an individual farm’s potential. There is an initial focus on leasing and sharing farm machinery among the farms, but then a shift toward ownership except for specialized equipment.

Besides farming itself, the entire history of the company could take up several books. Logically, Drache corrals into subject areas. It is a dizzying web of overlapping and varyingly entwined enterprises and diversifications. Here are a few of the highlights:

Processing: The book offers a history of the conception, evolution, financing and control of such projects as Lamb Weston/RDO Frozen in Park Rapids, Minn. There are the histories of ventures with Barrel-O-Fun, Frito-Lay and his adventures in the specialty food business in the 1990s.

Equipment: Offutt’s investments in equipment start with the story of how a cash-strapped young farmer leased John Deere tractors from Grant Mattson’s store in Casselton, N.D., and how Mattson promoted him to a dealer in 1968, when Offutt was only 26. The retail companies expanded into construction equipment in 1989, with sidebars about Arizona and a partnership in Minnesota Valley Irrigation Co. in 1992.

Going public, private: Drache gives ample space to describe a public offering of RDO Equipment Divison in 1997. The equipment businesses were growing an average of 33 percent per year, and they needed capital.

It was the “first agricultural dealership and only the third firm from North Dakota to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange.”Among other things, the public offering “intimidated” Deere’s agriculture division, and temporarily ended his partnership with Vermeer dealership, and the return when he took the company private again.

Significantly, Drache describes how the public ownership didn’t work because, among other things, it hampered Offutt’s ability to make decisions. “The stock fell and he was humbled and embarrassed,” writes Drache, who himself was an investor.

The flagship store, a $4 million facility, is in his hometown of Moorhead, on the same land as his home farm. RDO Equipment today manages 60 retail stores in the U.S., 11 John Deere stores in three Russian states, three more stores in Ukraine and eight more in Australia.

Family legacies: In the book, Offutt goes into the motivations and challenges for farming success — the role his children and spouses have played, and a hint about his succession goals. From the eldest: daughter Shelly Offutt Neal, former marketer for the company, daughter Rondi McGovern, who worked in human resources and now at home.

Then Christi, the lawyer and lobbyist turned RDO Equipment CEO and finally globetrotting Ryan, the international business developer who works with equipment deals in Russia and Australia.

Finally, there is a description of Offutt as moving beyond his entrepreneurial ambitions and business success. It is his philanthropic pursuits that the author sees as giving him lasting “significance.”

“A job well done, Ronnie,” Drache concludes, as though offering a benediction.

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