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Published October 28, 2013, 09:51 AM

The Ambrose effect

It’s difficult to say where Richardton would be if it weren't for Ambrose Hoff.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

RICHARDTON, N.D. — It’s difficult to say where this town of 700 would be if it weren’t for Ambrose Hoff.

Hoff, 62, slowly but surely has made his mark on Richardton, helping to launch sophisticated businesses, ranging from ethanol production (50 jobs) to commodities processing (15 jobs), manufacturing (35 jobs), and now grocery retailing (23 jobs). That’s 123 jobs.

He grew up in Richardton in the 1970s, before the famed Russian grain deal heated up the ag economy. The middle child in a family of eight, he spent a year of trade school in Alabama where an uncle lived, learning to make castings for the steel industry. When he wasn’t drafted for the Army during the Vietnam War, he came back home to the farm and married Charlotte. In 1979, he and Charlotte quit farming and started Hoff Machine and Welding, during the first oil boom.

“When that oil boom busted, it took us out of it,” Hoff says. “We were back to zero and had to start from scratch.” The Hoffs resumed farming and started an industrial and ag equipment business they discontinued in 1991 to concentrate on grain processing.

Today, the Hoffs are in farming — and so much more. Three of their four adult children are back in the community, running several businesses that would not be there if not for their parents. And it all started with farming.

‘“It’s been kind of my dedication to Richardton to keep helping to develop it, to do things that are good for the town,” Hoff says. “If you think it can be done, don’t make excuses about why it can’t be done. Just do your homework and do it.”

24-inch rain year

Sitting in a combine with Hoff during the spring wheat harvest, it would seem that farming is his only focus. The conversation starts with the year 2013 — a wild weather year. First, it was dry and hard to seed. Then it rained and wouldn’t quit.

The Hoffs got all the crops in before the rain started. The spring wheat crop turned out nice and thick and excellent quality — one of the best crops Hoff has seen in his farming history. He only planted Jenna and Chateau wheat varieties this year, and both did well.

“We had almost 24 inches of rain since May 15,” Hoff says. “It’s almost like the Red River Valley (precipitation levels). In fact, we’ve experienced some of the diseases they’d normally have in the valley because of the high humidity in the mornings and the extra rainfall.”

Corn has become a major crop for Hoff. “We’re finding it’s quite an easy crop to raise out here,” he says. He had 130-bushel-plus yields on nonirrigated acres, on land valued at $2,000 to $3,000 per acre. It’s all marketed through the Red Trail Energy LLC ethanol plant in Richardton.

The next biggest crop is chickpeas, or garbanzo beans. “They don’t like the extra rain,” Hoff says. Garbanzos are susceptible to diseases with the extra rainfall, and they like it a little hotter than this summer turned out to be. Surprisingly to Hoff, the garbanzos yielded about 2,500 pounds per acre, with the help of some extra disease control.

Soybean of the West

Hoff has been raising garbanzos since 1980. The Hoffs bought their first garbanzo seed from California. The U.S. raises less than 2 percent of world garbanzo usage. North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana are roughly equal in production, and the crop also is grown in Canada.

“They call them the soybean of the West,” Hoff says. “We’ve tried to raise soybeans in this part of the country but the garbanzos do so much better, and have way better pricing.” Some farmers are hesitant to grow them. “To me, they’re easier to raise than a field pea and we do have a lot of field peas in this part of the country.”

Garbanzos are a staple in the Middle East. Initially, Hoff raised the crop for export markets but now, with the influx of consumers from those countries, most are used domestically.

Years ago, there were more disease problems in garbanzos, but the production has shifted to smaller beans, which are less susceptible. The federal farm program allows “small Kabulis” to go under commodity loan programs and there are disaster programs for them. They’re easier to seed and easier to harvest than the so-called large Kabulis.

“As time went on, American consumers didn’t want that ‘big bite’ of bean, so the smaller beans became more popular,” Hoff says. “They yielded twice as well, and they’re more disease resistant.” When the beans are used as food ingredients, they’re usually ground up.

Garbanzo bean pricing historically was 14 cents per pound years back, but recently they’ve been bringing 32 to 34 cents per pound in the past year, Hoff says. That depends on quality — whether the bean is clean with uniform color, he says. “The beans that are a little bit larger bring a little better price,” he says.

Garbanzo beans readily take on flavors and is becoming increasingly popular as an ingredient for chips because of their nutrient value. Research and product development work all came to the shelf this year, Hoff says, citing work by snack food companies.

Stone Mill, et. al

The Hoffs started Stone Mill Inc. in 1987 and it has always processed garbanzos. Visible as a forest of hopper-bottomed bins on the south side of Interstate Highway 94, the company is one of three major buyers in the U.S., and one of the largest. The company has blossomed in the past decade processing flax, garbanzo beans and other niche products — things such as radish seeds and quinoa — for the identity-preserved and human food markets.

Stone Mill has installed specialized equipment that uses color sorting, sieves and sizing to separate out the beans into ingredient markets when they don’t make No. 1 quality parameters. Off-quality beans make excellent cattle feed, but food markets are worth more.

Stone Mill has had several major expansions and is always changing. The company’s major crop is flax processing. The company also buys edible beans, oats, rye, spring wheat, and handles ag chemicals, seed and custom cleaning. Charlotte is the chief financial officer and daughter Daneen Dressler is manager of a team of about 15. Ambrose is listed as president.

“The garbanzo beans are pretty exciting this year,” Hoff says. “Demand is good for them. They’re using garbanzo beans in ‘health foods.” Stone Mill markets to about 10 major companies and acquires garbanzos from 40 to 50 farmers in North Dakota, Montana and South Dakota. The company is always looking for new growers and for existing growers to add acres. “Our grower area is about 150 miles,” Hoff says.

Manufacturing, ethanol

In 2002, the Hoffs developed Amber Waves — a company that makes hopper-bottom bins for grain and fertilizer, builds hopper tanks for frac-sand for the oil fields, cow-cake bins for cattle ranchers and electronic circuit boards. Hoff’s oldest son, Jody Hoff, and a nephew, Doug Hauck, run that business.

In 2005, Hoff and corn seed salesman Mark Erickson stood at the edge of a cornfield and decided they should build an ethanol plant in Richardton. “We decided we’d pursue it until we ran into problems and we never did, so we never quit,” Hoff says.

That resulted in Red Trail Energy, a plant that produces about 60 million gallons of ethanol per year and created about 50 jobs. The plant uses about 50,000 bushels of corn a day. The $100 million plant is owned by about 800 people. The company has yet to pay dividends but — if all goes as planned — will be paid off in about 3 ½ years, Hoff says.

Hoff served on the Richardton Development Co. board, which put together seed capital that helped raise money to build the plant. Later, Hoff served as president of the ethanol company until it was built, and remains on the board. Red Trail Energy has run without interruption and has “always been a win-win” for the community.

“It brought corn to this part of the country that we never had before,” Hoff says. “At the beginning, we shipped in a lot of our corn in and the byproduct (wet distillers grain) was used for cattle feed. Our idea was that it was cheaper to ship dry material (corn) than wet. It turns out that we hardly bring any corn in on trains anymore, because most of it is raised locally.”

Hoff says there are critics that believe ethanol is trading “energy for energy” but the critics don’t fully credit the cattle feed. The ethanol increased the local price for corn, Hoff says, noting that genetics have continued to increase productivity in the area.

And now — groceries

In 2013, the Hoffs were at the start of a grocery store development, which is feasible because of the oil field traffic. The town has no lots left for building houses, Hoff says, but is looking at expansions.

Because of the traffic, the Hoffs and another daughter, Tanja Goellner, built a new grocery store together. The, 10,000-square-foot Springfield Market is more than the typical small-town store. The “niche” for Springfield Market is that it is full-service, with a bakery and deli. “We stock just about everything a larger store would stock,” Ambrose says.

Goellner lives in Fargo and commutes to Richardton a day or two a week. A wife and mother of two sons, she is a Dickinson (N.D.) State University business administration graduate. She gave up her career as a support technician with Microsoft Corp. in Fargo, to pursue the opportunity back home.

“I can dial in, access my computers from anywhere,” says Goellner, who is assisted by Chris Beckler, a store manager since January 2013. A Richardton native, Beckler left town in 1971 and came back to help manage the Springfield Market.

“I can see the store from anywhere,” Goellner says. “Our refrigeration texts me if it’s too warm. We put state-of-the-art equipment in to keep it running for the longest we can. We have a big town selection but we’re located in a small town, is what we always say.” Hoff says the family hopes to make a profit in perhaps a couple of years.

Beyond building businesses with their families, the Hoffs want to capitalize on the region’s history.

Springfield Market is named for the rifle that the Army’s Seventh Cavalry used in the 1870s. The cavalry camped twice at an old stagecoach stop, just below a hill where the Hoffs live, northeast of Richardton.

“We have a motel coming to town called Custer’s Crossing,” Hoff says. “We’re hoping to possibly add a steakhouse later on — call that ‘Crossfire.’”

Hoff expects to succeed. “I think in North Dakota, we have so many people with ingenuity and creativity,” Hoff says. “I think that’s why we do so well for ourselves.”

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