Late edible bean manager Tom Gilley helped grow northern Plains industry

Tom Gilley spent more than 25 years of his life developing and starting edible bean companies in southern North Dakota after he moved to the state in 1980.

Tom Gilley was a major promoter of the dry edible bean industry in the northern Plains. He died in January 2023.
Erin Ehnle Brown / Grand Vale Creative LLC

The late Tom Gilley, a Colorado native, made a mark on the edible bean industry in North Dakota.

Gilley spent more than 25 years of his life developing and starting edible bean companies in southern North Dakota after he moved to the state in 1980. When he returned to Colorado, he worked in the edible bean trade there until he retired in 2014 after a total of 38 years in the industry.

Gilley died Jan. 2, 2023, in Greeley, Colorado, at age 69. A memorial service was held Jan. 7, 2023, at Kersey (Colorado) Community Church.

Gilley launched his career in the bean business in 1976 when he started working for Jack’s Bean Co. in Fort Morgan, Colorado, his obituary said. In 1980 he moved with his wife, Jeanne, and children to Oakes, North Dakota, to start Garden State Bean Co. for Klein Bros. Ltd. Garden States Bean Co. grew to three plants before it was sold in 1993. That year, Gilley was named regional manager of Kelley Bean Co./ConAgra, which was made up of eight processing plants, the obituary said. The Gilleys moved to Fargo, North Dakota, in 1994, where Tom Gilley established KBC’s regional office for North Dakota- and Minnesota-grown beans. Gilley later managed Larson Grain Co. in Englevale, North Dakota.

“Tom Gilley was instrumental in getting me started in the edible bean business,” said Neil Shockman, Larson Grain Co. bean director. “I was hired by Larson Grain Company in 2005 where Tom was the bean manager and was key to my hiring.


“Tom was working on training me before he left for another position but stayed in the bean business and was always very helpful in introducing me to other players in the business as well as answering questions when I needed,” Shockman said. “I continued to stay in contact with Tom until his retirement and will always be thankful for the knowledge he shared with me.”

In 2005, Gilley helped form and manage a marketing company for dry bean growers and elevators in North Dakota, Colorado and Nebraska, and then he and Jeanne returned to Colorado where he worked until his retirement in 2014.

Tim Courneya, former Northarvest Bean Growers Association executive vice president, recalled that Gilley was a gregarious man with bountiful energy.

“I liked the spunk in him,” Courneya said.

During Gilley’s career in North Dakota he encouraged the development and expansion of light red kidney and dark red kidney beans, Cournyea said. He also attended seminars on quality control, where he talked to foreign buyers about the kind of beans they wanted to buy.

But Gilley viewed the buyers as people, not just as potential customers, Courneay said, recalling how after an overseas buyer became ill while visiting North Dakota and was hospitalized in Lisbon, Gilley visited him there several times.

“He cared about the industry,” Courneya said. "He cared about the people.”

Besides working in the edible bean industry when he was in North Dakota, Gilley was a founding member of the Alamo Flying Club in Oakes, North Dakota, and an active member of Friendship United Methodist Church in Fargo.


After his retirement Gilley remained active, enjoying the outdoors and watching his grandchildren’s sporting events and painting pictures, his obituary said.

Jeanne, his wife of 48 years, children, grandchildren, mother and siblings survive him.

Ann is a journalism veteran with nearly 40 years of reporting and editing experiences on a variety of topics including agriculture and business. Story ideas or questions can be sent to Ann by email at: or phone at: 218-779-8093.
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