MINOT, N.D. — They’re ramping up the intermodal “ramp” at Minot, N.D., a key piece of what could become very important as an international launching pad for specialty crop growers and exporters.

Greg Oberting is chief owner and executive officer of Rail Modal Group, which operates throughout the U.S. It has an "independent affiliate," RMG Minot LLC.

Intermodal service refers to moving goods by two or more means of transportation. For instance, an intermodal container could be carried by truck across North Dakota to pick up a load of specialty crops, then taken back to Minot to be loaded on rail and taken to a port where the entire container will be moved off the rail and shipped to international destinations.

RMG launched the service in late October and shipped out its first train on Oct. 30. The concept had been worked on at Minot for many years, but no one previously has successfully done it.

Rail Modal Group LLC workers secure a container of specialty wheat to be shipped on Oct. 30, 2020 --  the first train to be loaded from the Rail Modal Group LLC facility at Minot, N.D.  
Photo taken Oct. 29, 2020, at Minot, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Rail Modal Group LLC workers secure a container of specialty wheat to be shipped on Oct. 30, 2020 -- the first train to be loaded from the Rail Modal Group LLC facility at Minot, N.D. Photo taken Oct. 29, 2020, at Minot, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
RMG had loaded their third train as of Nov. 16. The intermodal site offers employment to about 30 people directly, but also all of the ancillary services.

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John MacMartin for the past year has been interim president of the Minot Area Development Corp. He’s also been president of the Minot Chamber of Commerce for 31 years.

MacMartin said BNSF Railway recommended RMG, based on their track record elsewhere.

“This is phenomenal. It’s something the community and the state have been working on for a couple of decades,” he said.

How it works

Greg Oberting, president and owner of Rail Modal Group, LLC, is setting up an intermodal shipping “ramp,” at Minot, N.D. The facility had shipped three trains to Pacific ports as of Nov. 16, in cooperation with BNSF Railway. Photo taken Oct. 29, 2020, at Minot, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Greg Oberting, president and owner of Rail Modal Group, LLC, is setting up an intermodal shipping “ramp,” at Minot, N.D. The facility had shipped three trains to Pacific ports as of Nov. 16, in cooperation with BNSF Railway. Photo taken Oct. 29, 2020, at Minot, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
An intermodal depot gets empty containers from places like Chicago, Dallas, and Memphis, Tenn. Companies ship containers filled with imports into those cities.

Instead of sending them back to Asia empty, RMG organizes trains of containers and brings them to Minot. RMG removes the containers from the unit train and either loads them with products and commodities or takes them to facilities that will fill them and bring them back.

Dave Corum, Minot Grain Inspection Service, a private company that does private grain inspecting, places a seal on a container of specialty wheat being shipped on the first train to be loaded from the Rail Modal Group LLC facility at Minot, N.D. Photo taken Oct. 29, 2020, at Minot, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Dave Corum, Minot Grain Inspection Service, a private company that does private grain inspecting, places a seal on a container of specialty wheat being shipped on the first train to be loaded from the Rail Modal Group LLC facility at Minot, N.D. Photo taken Oct. 29, 2020, at Minot, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Potential customers will typically be within 150 miles of the facility in north-central North Dakota, perhaps as far away as eastern Montana.

Farther than that, the customer will have choices at competing ramps. Those are located at Regina, Saskatchewan, 250 miles; Minneapolis, Minn., 500 miles; or Omaha, Neb., 650 miles.

The “vast majority” of the exports from Minot are likely to be agricultural, Oberting said. Products include distillers grains from Blue Flint Ethanol at Underwood, N.D., or pea flour from AGT Foods of Minot. They’ll load specialty grains — like peas or pulses — from large and small merchandisers. They’ve talked with Bobcat and others about moving some of their products.

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Containers inspected by Minot Grain Inspection Service, a private company contracting with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The container and contents are inspected and then sealed, not to be opened until it reaches a foreign customer. Photo taken Oct. 29, 2020, at Minot, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Containers inspected by Minot Grain Inspection Service, a private company contracting with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The container and contents are inspected and then sealed, not to be opened until it reaches a foreign customer. Photo taken Oct. 29, 2020, at Minot, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
“There’s lots of opportunity here to build a direct, virtual supply chain here from source to demand,” Oberting said. Some of the customers include sellers of non-GMO soybeans or other specialty grains. They’re interested in contract growing for specialty programs, which they do at other locations.

“We’ll work with a producer who wants to ship one container a week, or a company that wants to ship 25 containers a week — there’s no preference,” he said.

They can work as an intermediary on some specialty crops.

“We’ll work with anyone who wants to have an export solution — it’s wide open,” Oberting said.

Once loaded, the cars are sealed.

Proteins for the world

John MacMartin, interim president of the Minot Area Development Corp., says the intermodal facility is important for the shipments, for the 30 employees, and the ancillary employees for other service companies that will attend it. Photo taken Oct. 29, 2020, at Minot, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
John MacMartin, interim president of the Minot Area Development Corp., says the intermodal facility is important for the shipments, for the 30 employees, and the ancillary employees for other service companies that will attend it. Photo taken Oct. 29, 2020, at Minot, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
MacMartin said the development should be especially helpful as farmers have stepped up to grow new specialty crops like beans, peas and lentils — “the proteins that other cultures around the world demand.”

There is land in an industrial park across the highway with land site-certified by BNSF.

“Having this facility open and operating probably increases the ability to attract more businesses that need rail access and perhaps container services as well,” he said.

North Dakota State Rep. Jay Fisher, R-Minot, an agronomist and retired director of the North Central Research Extension Center, said the intermodal ramp will give farmers more direct access to world markets. Photo taken Oct. 29, 2020, at Minot, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
North Dakota State Rep. Jay Fisher, R-Minot, an agronomist and retired director of the North Central Research Extension Center, said the intermodal ramp will give farmers more direct access to world markets. Photo taken Oct. 29, 2020, at Minot, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
“This is a real gem,” added Rep. Jay Fisher, R-Minot, recently taking his first tour of the site under new management. He said the operation of the intermodal site is a dream he’s had since he was in his 20s, when he saw a similar site when he worked in New Zealand.

An agronomist by training, Fisher retired after more than 37 years at North Dakota State University’s North Central Research Station at Minot, including the last 22 years as director. He and colleagues worked to develop specialty crops for the region’s farmers.

Workers load distiller’s grain into a container at the new Rail Modal Group yard north of Minot, N.D. Photo taken Oct. 29, 2020, at Minot, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Workers load distiller’s grain into a container at the new Rail Modal Group yard north of Minot, N.D. Photo taken Oct. 29, 2020, at Minot, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
“Value-added agriculture and identity-preserved — put in containers and marketed to the world — is a concept we worked on,” he said.

Those products could include anything from high-quality wheat for bagels, or any number of specialty commodities like peas and lentils.

“It allows our farmers to be diversified and get higher prices for commodities they have grown that are specialty, and identity-preserved and sold direct to the marketplace. They grow them with quality. These containers are what’s necessary to keep it identity-preserved and make money,” he said.

Cost, environment win

Workers load distiller’s grain into a container at the new Rail Modal Group yard north of Minot, N.D. Photo taken Oct. 29, 2020, at Minot, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Workers load distiller’s grain into a container at the new Rail Modal Group yard north of Minot, N.D. Photo taken Oct. 29, 2020, at Minot, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Customers can save money on trucking or “drayage” — shipping goods a short distance via ground freight — to more distant intermodal facilities. It will also take trucks off the road, which makes it more environmentally friendly.

They put the facility at Minot because it’s directly between Chicago and Seattle on the Northern Transcon, a route operated by BNSF Railway.

Oberting has done this before in two other locations. He has relationships with partner-shippers and producers. And RMG is making “major capital investments” here, he said. The company added four new cranes in early November and is working on import potential.

“We’re moving in a positive direction,” he said.

The Rail Modal Group LLC intermodal “ramp” depot is equipped with three “lift machines” that can pick up up to 80,000 pounds. Loaded containers typically weigh 50,000 to 60,000 pounds. Photo taken Oct. 29, 2020, at Minot, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
The Rail Modal Group LLC intermodal “ramp” depot is equipped with three “lift machines” that can pick up up to 80,000 pounds. Loaded containers typically weigh 50,000 to 60,000 pounds. Photo taken Oct. 29, 2020, at Minot, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
The depot is equipped with three “lift machines” that can pick up as much as 80,000 pounds. Loaded containers typically weigh 50,000 to 60,000 pounds.

The facility is not “train acceptable,” yet, Oberting said.

“To become train approved we are investing a significant amount to build a mainline train with dual east-west turnouts that can accept and depart an entire train in one cut, in partnership with BNSF,” he said.

A unit train holds about 220 to 260 shipping containers — a length of 6,500 feet to 7,000 feet. A single “car” for containers has five “wells” for containers, and is 285 feet. There are also three-packs and single-well cars.

To become train-approved at Minot, N.D., Rail Modal Group LLC is investing a significant amount to build a mainline train with dual east-west turnouts that can accept and depart an entire train in one cut, in partnership with BNSF,” he said. Photo taken Oct. 29, 2020, at Minot, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
To become train-approved at Minot, N.D., Rail Modal Group LLC is investing a significant amount to build a mainline train with dual east-west turnouts that can accept and depart an entire train in one cut, in partnership with BNSF,” he said. Photo taken Oct. 29, 2020, at Minot, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
It takes about 72 hours to get to a dock at Seattle, and will load on a vessel that will sail within seven days. The docks are controlled by ports in Seattle, Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif.

An earlier effort at the site didn’t come to fruition. MacMartin said there are high hopes for this effort, especially with BNSF’s recommendation of RMG.

The 2019 North Dakota Legislature passed legislation appropriating $1.3 million for the biennium that could have been used to subsidize containers getting to the Minot facility as it was ramping up.

“We didn’t have to subsidize getting containers here, so those dollars have not been touched,” MacMartin said.