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Beach (N.D.) Grain Cooperative celebrates 100 years as independent co-op

BEACH, N.D.— Once, a half-dozen grain elevators clustered along the railroads tracks that run through Beach. Once, 20 to 25 grain elevators operated across the sprawling southwest North Dakota and southeast Montana area served by Beach Cooperative Grain Co.

Now, after major changes in agriculture and the grain industry, including many mergers and consolidations, the Beach co-op is still going strong. It's celebrating its 100th anniversary this fall and continues to position itself for the future, in part through what co-op officials describe as a state-of-the-art pulse plant.

"Through the years, we've always been fiscally conservative, while being progressive, too. And we're going to keep doing that," says Jim Dykins, a Beach farmer and a director of the Beach co-op.

Jim Dykins, a director for the Beach Co-Op Grain CompanyThe co-op is an economic cornerstone of Beach, population about 1,100 and the county seat of Golden Valley County, which has about 1,850 residents. It has 12 employees in Beach and two at another location in Baker, Mont., as well as seasonal employees. The 14 full-time employees have a combined 145 years of experience.

Beach Cooperative has about 1,200 patrons, most of them landowners who are retired from farming or with inherited land they don't farm themselves. It has 200 to 250 patrons actively involved in farming, says Levi Hall, the co-op's general manager.

The co-op's presence strengthens Beach economically, says Don Hardy, a Beach farmer and vice president of the cooperative's board of directors.

"A grain elevator is an economic driver in a community, and most people realize that," he says.

Beach Cooperative also is a rarity: it's still an independent co-op in an era in which the number of independents has dwindled. Co-ops are businesses owned and controlled by their members. Though the Beach co-op works with a number of larger grain companies, it's not affiliated with any of them.

Dykins, asked about that, smiles and says, "Well, let's just say that when we go to the North Dakota Grain Dealers (Association) convention, Beach is well-known there."

Others involved in the grain industry "have an appreciation for it (the Beach co-op's independence). We get comments quite often. We can react to changes faster," Hardy says.

"We don't have to go through corporate offices. Between the directors and the managers, we can decide if something is a good fit for us or if it isn't," Dykins says

Beach Co-Op Grain Company president Rick MiskeBut co-op officials also say they've investigated whether joining a larger ag organization would be a better long-term choice.

"We've looked at all options. I think we've visited with all the major players in the grain industry at some point in the past five years," Beach Co-Op Grain Company president Rick Miske says.

So far, at least, remaining independent is the best option, co-op officials say.

"I think this (being independent) has allowed us to do a better job of serving our customers. Having said that, things could change if we find the right fit," Miske says.

In many cases, "smaller independent cooperatives that have joined large grain cooperatives have done so out of necessity. Here, over the past 100 years, they've been in a financial position where they've been able to make the decisions that are right for the co-op, but because they were forced to do so," Hall says.

History, storage

History runs deep at Beach Cooperative Grain. The fathers, grandfathers and even great-fathers of many of its current patrons did business there, and the generational connection is strong.

One example: Rick Miske has served on the board of directors for 28 years. His father was a director for 40 years before him.

Farmers in the extended Beach area raise many crops, and so Beach Cooperative Grain handles more commodities that most elevators. As a result, segregating grain, or storing the different kinds separately, can be challenging, Hall says.

The co-op's grain storage capacity, currently a little more than 1 million bushels, has been expanded a number of times. So has its fertilizer plant.

One thing that's high on the co-op's to-do list: give itself the ability to handle 110-car trains. It's now equipped up to 52-car trains. BNSF, which services the Beach co-op, has stressed the greater efficiency that 110-car trains can bring.

Pulse plant

Assistant supervisor Ashley Tescher gathers a sample bag of green peas at the Beach (N.D.) Co-Op Grain CompanyBeach Cooperative Grain, in partnership with Fargo, N.D.-based Anchor Ingredients, is wrapping up construction of a pulse plant in Beach. The plant already has conducted test runs.

Pulse — the name comes from an ancient Greek word for porridge — is the collective name for a dozen types of crops that include lentils, dry beans, dry peas and lentils. Pulses, increasingly popular with U.S. consumers, are well-suited to southwest North Dakota's semi-arid climate and already are grown by many farmers in Beach Cooperative Grain's trade area.

Given that, Beach co-op officials were interested in building a pulse plant, on a smaller scale, on their own. But Anchor Ingredients' expertise, especially in marketing, made partnership attractive, co-op officials says.

The joint venture is known as Golden Valley Ingredients.

Anchor Ingredients sources, processes and supplies a wide range of food for pet and human consumption. It annually handles 12 to 15 specialty or so-called "minor" crops, such as field peas, lentils and flax, that are grown on a limited scale. It also has plants in Hillsboro, N.D. Buffalo, N.D., and Culbertson, Mont.

The Beach plant gives Anchor Ingredients more geographic diversity in obtaining pulses and greater flexibility in processing the many kinds it handles, the company says.

The Beach plant, of which Anchor Ingredients and Beach Cooperative Grain are joint owners, cost a little more than $8 million. Track expansion and other expenses, borne by the co-op, pushed the total cost to more than $11 million, co-op officials say.

They say the plant is state-of-the-art and unusually automated and sophisticated, which will encourage pulse growers from outside the co-op's normal trade area to bring their harvested crops to Beach.

Clouds dapple fall sunlight across buttes near Beach, N.D. on Monday, September 24, 2018.The plant's location — along BNSF track and near Interstate 94 — further its appeal to regional pulse growers, co-op officials says.

The plant will handle mainly green peas and green lentils, but also is set up to handle yellow peas and chickpeas. Green pulses are most popular with Beach co-op patrons, but a few raise yellow ones, too, Hall says.

Though pulses' long-term outlook is bright, they face short-term challenges. Pulse prices have plunged, in part because India, a major importer of pulses, has imposed tariffs on U.S. prices.

Beach co-op officials don't discount the immediate problem, but stress they're taking the long view.

"Things will work out eventually," Miske says. "We didn't do this for one year, we did it for the next 100 years."

The Beach co-op's emphasis on being both progressive and fiscally conservative has served it well for a century and will continue to, cooperative officials says.

"We've been here 100 years. It's my hope that we can here another 100 years," Dykins says.

Continued role seen for co-ops

Cooperatives have a long, prominent history in Upper Midwest agriculture. And they still have an important role to play, an agricultural economist says.

"Some people have made the assumption that the cooperative model is no longer valid. That assumption is incorrect," says Frayne Olson, director of the Quentin Burdick Center for Cooperatives at North Dakota State University.

Cooperatives come in different shapes and sizes, and no single definition fits them all perfectly. But in general, a cooperative, or co-op, is a business that's owned and controlled by the people who use its services, with its benefits distributed among its users-owners, or members.

Historically, grain cooperatives have been popular with many Upper Midwest farmers, who say co-ops give them more economic control over their own farming operations.

Today, large cooperatives with many locations, such as CHS, are common, while the number of independent co-ops — ones with just one or two locations — has declined because of mergers and consolidations. That reflects the economies of scale that larger organizations can provide, Olson says.

His organization doesn't have the current number of independent co-ops in the state.

Olson describes the Beach co-op's 100th anniversary as "quite an accomplishment."

Western North Dakota was homesteaded relatively late in U.S. history, so cooperatives there haven't been around as long as many of their counterparts in parts of the country that were homesteaded earlier.

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture compiled this list of century-old cooperatives: