EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second part of a two-part Agweek series, looking at the friendship among three agricultural standouts in the Red River Valley. Last week we introduced them and profiled Gregg Halverson and Black Gold Farms. This week we turn to the marks made by companies with leadership from Mike Delisle of Harriston-Mayo Manufacturing, and John Botsford, Red River Land Co.
Customers helped Harriston-Mayo Manufacturing innovate
The company has two divisions. Mayo Manufacturing division is in East Grand Forks, Minn., specializing in conveyors and piling equipment for potatoes going into storage warehouses. Much of the Mayo equipment goes to North America, but some as far as Japan and Australia. A second Harriston division at Minto, N.D., makes and markets planting, cultivation and dirt elimination equipment for farms.
Delisle, 65, and his brothers, Mark, 62, and Dave, 53, are all in a business their family created. Dexter Sittzer is vice president of the combined company and a longtime Harriston division employee.
The Delisle name is synonymous with potato handling.
The Delisle brothers’ grandfather, Mayo Delisle, grew up in the Bathgate, N.D., area. During World War II, Mayo welded on ships at Oakland, Calif. After the war, Mayo came home and got involved in the potato equipment business. In 1952, Mayo started a small “repair and light manufacturing shop,” across from the post office in East Grand Forks.
Mike’s father, Duane, graduated from high school in 1952, graduated from North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, N.D., and returned to join the business.
Mike credits the company’s success to visionary farmers.
One titanic figure was Harry Kay, a native of Winnipeg who built a small potato processing plant in the Twin Cities, and became vertically integrated into the Red River Valley. He had warehouses in Minto, N.D., and in Minnesota at East Grand Forks and Brooten.
Kay created his Processed Potatoes Inc. in the Twin Cities and his Northern Potato Co., a farming and storage entity. Among others, they developed state-of-the-art above-ground storage facilities.
“They were our biggest customer at the time,” Delisle said.
According to his biography, Kay owned the farm fields in the Red River Valley, where the potatoes were grown, he owned the trucks that transported them to the Twin Cities and he owned the plant where the potatoes were processed.
In 1974, Duane Delisle bought out Mayo and built its first building at its current site at 2108 Business Highway 2 in East Grand Forks, Minn.
But Duane then asked them to come to work in the business — Mike, in sales, and Mark in production. In 1979, Duane was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and the sons, then in their 20s, stepped up to run the company. They bought their parents out in 1993.
Mike credited customers for making the company a success. “A lot of great people — growers that had a lot of great ideas,” he said. “We had an ability to customize and build what they wanted to make their operations better.”
During these years, farms and their planters, harvesters and trucks were getting larger. That meant farmers built bigger, above-ground storage warehouses with climate control.
At the same time, varieties improved for better storage. Potatoes could be stored into the spring toward summer.
“It had to get bigger on the receiving/warehouse side, as well,” Mike said. “The pilers for piling the potatoes into storage got taller.”
Mayo developed conveyors that allowed multiple trucks to unload outside a warehouse. At the same time they worked to reduce the “drops,” gently handling potatoes to prevent bruising damage.
By 1998 they’d merged into a conglomerate — TerraMarc Industries Inc. of West Fargo, a manufacturer of agricultural equipment and outdoor power equipment. TerraMarc would acquire Crary Industries (of West Fargo, N.D.), Lockwood Manufacturing (of Gering, Neb.) and Harriston Industries (of Minto, N.D.)
In 2005, TerraMarc companies went their separate ways. Harriston-Mayo came out as a merged unit — Harriston for its planting equipment, Mayo with its handling equipment. Harriston had a substantial national dealer network with a range of products in planter and a dirt elimination machine.
“If we have conveyor that’s feeding into a bin and the sensors will measure the distance to where the potatoes are landing and the PLC will keep the drop as minimal as possible, but still enough to make a nice discharge,” he said. Other sensors alert operators to potential problems.
“I would say that business has been very good. The company has expanded both physically and in the numbers,” Mike said. Looking ahead, several young members are taking on responsibilities and may have a role in the company’s future.
Botsford's family innovated ag real estate, co-op stock
The Botsford family pioneered the business.
John’s father, Vern Botsford, grew up near Edinburg, N.D., in Walsh County. He graduated in agricultural engineering from what is now North Dakota State University. When Vern moved to the Johnstown/Gilby area, his “eyes were opened” to progressive farm managers.
In the late 1940s, Alvin Holmquist, then president of Valley Bank in Grand Forks, knew Vern through the bank’s branch at Gilby. Holmquist asked young Vern to manage vast farmland holdings in the Myra Foundation — the first private charitable foundation in the state of North Dakota. (John Myra, based at Emerado, N.D., had started building assets in the 1800s, with interests in farm machinery and farmland. Myra’s holdings included an eye-popping 15,360 acres, but eventually settled back to 5,500 crop acres.)
In 1954, Ed Rice, a farm mortgage originator for the E.J. Lander Co. of Grand Forks, asked Vern to join him in forming Botsford and Rice, a land management, appraisal, mortgage and farm real estate sales company.
John was planning a different path. He graduated high school in December 1970 and went on to the University of North Dakota. In 1974, while still in college, he started farming 160 acres his father and Rice owned near Thompson, N.D. John got help and advice from neighbors and a local elevator.
“That turned my life around,” John said. “I got used to working for myself.”
John farmed until the winter of 1977 when he graduated in physics and mathematics. He interviewed for a nuclear job in Idaho but his father and Rice enticed him into their company.
The farm credit crisis of the 1980s was at its height.
“There was a lot of turmoil and it generated an awful lot of appraisal work,” John said. “A lot of it was court work, either district or federal court testimony. With the accreditation I had, we were in demand.”
In 1994, a sugar beet farmer who was retiring hired John to appraise his land but also manage his beet stock sale. This led Botsford into creating the first public trading platform for American Crystal Sugar Co. stock shares. Prior to that, stock sellers or buyers had found each other mostly through local publication advertisements.
“It’s a quasi-security, an ag co-op security,” John said. John went through all of the securities licensing, which back then was required to broker shares.
John would handle shares of a number of farmer-owned, value-added cooperatives.
“We had everything from durum to eggs to ethanol. We ended up with 20 or more co-ops,” he said.
In 1998, Botsford sold the company to First National Bank, which in 2000 was renamed Alerus Financial. John worked for Alerus under a five-year contract and five-year noncompete clause. The combined companies had about 100,000 acres under farm management in North Dakota, Minnesota and Montana. Under the Alerus umbrella, John’s company acquired two competitors.
In 2008, John resigned from Alerus. In 2009, free of noncompete restraints, he again went on his own, forming Red River Land Co., working in real estate, farm management and co-op sales.
Bremer Bank hired him as a consultant, running his own company inside their trust department, and he helped create and grow Bremer’s farm management division. In 2018, Bremer “outsourced” its farm management services business to Red River Land Co.
In 2019, he sold the business to Chris Griffin, a Larimore, N.D., native and lawyer, who has farming interests at McCanna, N.D.
Through it all, John has remained the president and one of the three trustees of the Myra Foundation that his father, Vern, started with. In 2019, John donated work to help the foundation sell its land so the foundation could shift to other investments to meet their annual distribution requirements. John still keeps the map of the land holdings on his wall.