LONG PRAIRIE, Minn. — A Minnesota food company with one foot in North Dakota is winning with their efforts to serve consumers with “fresh — never frozen,” vegetable kits.
The COVID-19 pandemic has more people cooking food at home, and that is keeping Monte Benz driving hard to keep up with demand. Benz is president of Kidco Farms Processing Inc., as well as president of Minnesota Fresh Inc. and a sales arm called MNFresh LLC.
Benz and the company’s 50 employees at Long Prairie produce 6.5 million vegetable kits per year, or about 13 million pounds.
The kits go nationwide through one the nation’s largest retail chains and grocers.
The effect of the pandemic was evident in August, when demand increased by 27%.
“It was astronomical, the product they were looking for,” Benz said. “Everybody hit the panic mode, so they were buying off the shelves,” he said. And it has kept on going. “Normally we’re cut back at Thanksgiving, but the loads are the same through Thanksgiving.”
Dirt to hair net
Benz has had a career of major change. He started out as a North Dakota “dirt guy” (farmer) and has become a “hair net guy” (food processor)
His started out farming at Steele, N.D. He was among a small cadre of irrigation pioneers in the Kidder County area. In 1996, he raised potatoes on irrigated ground around Dawson, N.D. He initially grew spuds for the Aviko LLC (later Cavendish Farms) plant, east of Jamestown, N.D. and for Simplot in Grand Forks, N.D.
Benz was part of Dakota Fresh, an effort to produce fresh-cut salads in the Medina, N.D., community, with cabbage from other parts of the country.
In 2001, Benz was part of Kidco Produce, a group a farmers that grew a first crop of yellow Spanish onions for the “whole peeled” market. The onions went on trucks on Sept. 11, 2001, destined for Maryland. It was the morning the Twin Towers went down. The terrorist attack spelled financial disaster for the effort.
In 2002, they tried again. This time, their customer, a whole-peel plant in Maryland, burned down. So they started Kidco Farms Processing Inc. at Dawson to process the whole-peel onions themselves. The company included Benz and five partners. One partner was Van Amundson of Jamestown. They persisted until 2006, but their freight advantage to the Pacific Northwest was not enough to compete with the volumes of competitors. Mary Iszler, who had been with Dakota Fresh at Medina, came on with Kidco Farms and remains with the company today.
In 2006, a large company approached Kidco Farms to make vacuum-sealed, slow-cooker meal kits, and they produced their first kits in July 2007.
Things progressed until the Bakken oil boom hit. Faced with a shortage of employees, Benz in 2013 hired a labor contractor who hired undocumented workers. Benz, who managed the operation, was convicted on federal charges of harboring illegal immigrants. He was fined and held in detention for 90 days, spent five years on supervised probation and another five years unsupervised.
Was it a humiliation?
“To say the least,” Benz recalled. He said the infraction was his mistake, but he didn’t want it to define his career. “It would have been easy to fold up and go home,” he said, and then paused a bit to collect himself.
“But I wasn’t going to curl up and go away.”
Lakes and spuds
In 2013, Benz shifted Kidco Farms’ production to custom packing companies at Minneapolis and Des Moines, Iowa. In 2014, he moved to Covington, Ky., just south of Cincinnati, Ohio, to achieve higher volumes.
In 2015, Benz established a small “retail pack” processing facility at Long Prairie, in central Minnesota. He dubbed this “Minnesota Fresh.”
Long Prairie is known for a strong, diversified workforce with a variety of large agricultural and food-related businesses. In May 2016, the facility shipped out its first product under the facility.
The company worked as partners with two local agribusinessmen with food processing experience to manage the plant.
They’ve invested in a sophisticated stainless steel wash and grading system, made by Harriston-Mayo Manufacturing in East Grand Forks, Minn. The system uses scales and a sizer from Kerian Machines at Grafton, N.D.
“This way it’s graded, and within 30 minutes it’s in a vacuum-packed package,” Benz said.
Similarly, they acquired one specialty peeler and are about to a second. Initially, onions from the Benz farm back in North Dakota were stored in the Long Prairie area at a facility that also pre-graded potatoes for the kits.
A semi of B’s
For the first three months in the harvest year, they rely on spuds from the Big Lake to Long Prairie area of Minnesota. Then they move to “storage” potatoes, from Saskatchewan to northeast North Dakota through June. The rest come from Florida, Arizona and Texas, and come up to Kansas and Nebraska.
And then finally back to Big Lake.
Initially, Benz tried sourcing onions out of the Long Prairie area, but the crop likes semi-arid conditions. “Minnesota is (Land of) 10,000 lakes for a reason, because it rains all of the time,” he said, half-joking.
In 2019, Benz decided to shift the storage of onions in North Dakota, handled by Porter Farms, a company now run by his daughter, Michelle, and her husband, Phillip Porter.
The Porters, in Dawson, N.D., took over onion growing and storing enterprise in 2020. Their “Porter Farms” built a large storage warehouse that will supply onions to Kidco Farms for about 10 months of the year. The rest come from the Washington state region.
RELATED STORY: Porter Farms knows its onions
“We want to get the best quality potatoes available anywhere in the United States,” Benz said. Even acquiring the best potatoes they can find, the company culls out 10% to 20% of them for aesthetic defects. During the pandemic, the company bagged and delivered eight semi-trailer loads of cull potatoes to food banks.
Benz declines to say the names of his customers, but it’s possible to read between the lines.
“Our main customer is the largest protein seller in the country,” he said. This past year, his employees earned the honor of being the customer’s “No. 1 ingredient supplier.”
Benz adds that the large protein seller’s best customer is “the largest retailer in the world” who coincidentally sells popular brands of new pressure cookers that cut preparation time for meals made at home.
“I see nothing but good things” ahead, Benz said.
Blue skies ahead
On the weekends, Benz commutes almost 300 miles to Steele, N.D., where his parents, wife, and the families of three grown daughters still live. He has six grandchildren.
Minnesota Fresh keeps their office staff small. In management, Iszler is still with him, as is John Ramsey, both of whom moved to Long Prairie from North Dakota. Van Amundson of Jamestown, who once had substantial potato acres in the Pingree-Buchanan area of North Dakota, remains his sole partner.
Benz said it feels good to have quality employees: “I’d rather have one $20 an hour worker than two $12 dollar an hour workers,” he said. “The higher-paid employee shows up because they want to.”
After the earlier labor troubles in North Dakota, Benz stives to be a "family-oriented” opportunity for employees. “We have employees that tell us they don’t get treated as well anyplace (else) as they do here,” he said. “That compliment heals a lot of wounds.”