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Ag pioneer, Minn-Dak founder Harris Peterson dies

DRAYTON, N.D.—Harris A. Peterson was a specialty crops pioneer who built a buckwheat empire, but friends and family of the founder of Minn-Dak Growers Ltd. say he also was a determined man who always had more work to do.

Full of ideas and stuffed with trusted advice, Peterson still was meeting international clients this fall at age 92. He died Saturday, Jan. 27, in Grand Forks.

"It was still his company, and he felt he was in charge and in command right up until the time he passed," said his son, Harold Peterson, who lives on the home farm 4 miles east of Drayton.

Peterson and his son, Jeremy, had bought the elder Peterson's stock about a year ago, but Peterson said his father was never the kind to quit.

"He had a lot of projects and things he wanted to finish," he said. "He wasn't able to get them all done, but we are going to keep the legacy going."

And it's a legacy that has left a big mark on all of North Dakota.

State Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring on Tuesday, Jan. 30, said the pioneer in buckwheat, mustard and safflower "might have been the precursor to specialty crops in North Dakota."

"He made a big difference for the state, and his contribution to agriculture is memorable," Goehring said. "He offered farmers new opportunities. He was very committed to value-added agriculture and doing more to really diversify agriculture in North Dakota and the Upper Midwest."

Minn-Dak Growers opened the door for farmers by offering them new growing opportunities, Goehring said. Peterson created a market for commodities that once were never considered or even thought possible in the state.

"We saw acres expand. We saw trade associations pop up and other companies willing to market it," he said. "Once you create more marketing opportunities, then you see that sector in the economy grow, and we did."

World friend

And those who did business with Peterson said he was well-respected in the industry in North Dakota and worldwide.

Akira Shibata, assistant manager of the Food and Consumer Division of Toyota Tsusho America Inc., worked closely with Peterson for years.

"He was a tough negotiator but a fair and honest business person," Shibata said. "He was a pioneer selling buckwheat into Japan."

Japanese companies milled the buckwheat into flour to make soba noodles, a traditional staple in Japanese food.

Shibata said his company—and Kasho Co. before the companies merged—had worked with Peterson for decades. They bought and sold buckwheat to their counterpart in Japan. He said Peterson had personal connections with many members of the Japanese Buckwheat Millers Association.

In fact, he said, two of them sent their sons to Grand Forks to learn about the business from Peterson.

"He will be well-missed," he said. "He has a lot of friends in Japan. The Millers Association has a little over 50 members, and most of them know him."

Generous mentor

Kristin Sharp, a customer service representative and Peterson's longtime personal assistant, said he was known for his "Norwegian determination."

"He was very ambitious," she said. "He was very generous and family-oriented. I'm grateful for everything he taught me."

Many others also benefited from his kindness and generosity. He established a scholarship at the University of Minnesota-Crookston and funded buckwheat research and development at several universities. He also gave money to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and Altru Cancer Center.

"He was a great father and would give his last dime to help anybody if they were down," Peterson said. "He was the person who would help a neighbor, family member, employee or church."

Services will be at 11 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 3, in Drayton Lutheran Church.