5 questions for: Leah Brakke, Black Gold Farms director of business development
Q. Black Gold is a fourth-generation family business. How did it start and where are you now? A. Black Gold Farms was started by my great-grandfather, Hallie Halverson, in Forest River, N.D. He was the banker in town -- and, every now and then, m...
Q. Black Gold is a fourth-generation family business. How did it start and where are you now?
A. Black Gold Farms was started by my great-grandfather, Hallie Halverson, in Forest River, N.D. He was the banker in town - and, every now and then, made a few side deals. One of the deals fell through, so he ended up with 10 acres of farmland. He knew from his work that there was opportunity in potatoes, so he planted those 10 acres, and it blossomed from there. We still farm those acres today. Now we have about 35,000 acres in 11 states. Our focus is still potatoes - potatoes for chips, red potatoes for the fresh market and sweet potatoes.
Q. What’s your role within the organization?
A. I spend most of my time in a business development capacity - looking for companies to buy and promote our potatoes. But, with that also comes new product development, developing and executing buyer and retail marketing programs, and, as a family member-owner, any and all duties, as needed.
Q. How does your company support sustainability programs?
A. Most people think of sustainability as simply “use fewer chemicals.” While we agree 100 percent with that part of sustainability, we actually see it in three different ways - environmental, social and financial.
From an environmental standpoint, we have decreased our chemical usage per acre in the past 10 years, and increased our yields - and we work on this on a daily basis. Land management is fundamental, and careful applications of water, crop nutrients and pesticides are critical components of our agronomy practices. We use a systems-based approach that applies to almost every decision we make. We are Global GAP certified on all of our farming locations.
From a social perspective, we put giving back to the local community into the hands of each of our farms. This part of sustainability doesn’t even have to be a specific program. We’re farmers, and farmers help their communities.
From a financial basis, we talk about being profitable. We’re not afraid to say “we need to make a profit,” and because that’s front and center, we are a fourth-generation family farm that has grown extensively throughout the years.
Q. At times, potatoes come under fire for everything from carbohydrate content to chemical use during growing. What effect have these issues had on your business?
A. Research says potato consumption is at or above the Atkins craze. This is good. But, there is so much more we can do. We can’t hide the fact that potatoes have carbs. But, we can talk about the other health benefits, such as they’re high in fiber and potassium, they’re naturally non-fat and they’re an excellent source of other vitamins.
We have to, not only promote that, but show consumers how to prepare potatoes in a more healthy way.
So the effect has been that we have to talk about our product differently.
Potato chips are always going to be a snack food - and we’re not ashamed of that. Snack foods bring friends and families together. The three main potato chip eating occasions are the Super Bowl, Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. We are honored to be a part of those celebrations.
In terms of the way potatoes are grown, we do everything in our power to be sustainable. We also encourage people to come out to the farm and see how we grow potatoes. The chemical usage is going to be there; we just need to educate on the what, where and why. And, we make sure we only do what’s needed to be sustainable.
Q. What’s one thing you’d change about the U.S. food industry?
A. Misinformation, and the ability for that to spread. It seems consumers are wanting and needing to be educated about their food. And that is fantastic. But, anyone with a keyboard can now make claims, and pick and choose the data they want to present.
The food grown and sold in the U.S. is the safest in the world. Technology has improved food production. Biotechnology has improved environmental sustainability. But, those who choose to not go to the source, or to not understand the scope of the entire food system, are missing many important factors. Being scared about food seems to be more en vogue than accepting what is in our stores is safe, and sourced from good farm families.
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