ND family farm expands into export business

CARRINGTON, N.D. -- Roger Gussiaas took a trip around the world in December. The Carrington, N.D., farmer and businessman was visiting customers of his company, Healthy Oilseeds, which sells crops grown on the Northern Plains. "It's extremely imp...

Export business
Brock Gussiaas (left) and his father, Roger, farm near Carrington, N.D. They also export flax and other crops to customers worldwide through their company, Healthy Oilseeds. (Jonathan Knutson / Agweek)

CARRINGTON, N.D. -- Roger Gussiaas took a trip around the world in December.

The Carrington, N.D., farmer and businessman was visiting customers of his company, Healthy Oilseeds, which sells crops grown on the Northern Plains.

"It's extremely important for them (foreign customers) to get to know you, see your face and build a friendship and trust," he says.

Healthy Oilseeds, launched about eight years ago, exports crops including flax and borage, an herb to which medicinal properties are attributed, to customers in eight countries in Europe and Asia. Most of the exports are used as health food supplements.

The Carrington business is the 2010 North Dakota Exporter of the Year, the North Dakota Trade Office said in late March. The company, through growing, still is small, Gussiaas says.


"For a long time, we just had one or two customers. Then we started getting contacts (and growing). But we still have a long way to go yet," he says.

One sign of that growth is the new building, dedicated specifically to Healthy Oilseeds, going up on the Gussiaas farmstead. In the past, work associated with the business was done in other farm buildings.

Healthy Oilseeds now has four full- and four part-time employees.

Gussiaas and his son, Brock, once grew all the products they exported. About five years ago, as Gussiaas and his son, Brock, once grew all the products they exported. About five years ago, as Healthy Oilseeds started to grow, they began contracting with other growers across the state, as well as some outside it.

The company's exports grew about 450 percent from 2008 to 2009 and about 300 percent from 2009 to 2010. Healthy Oilseeds continues to expand this year, adding customers in Spain and Taiwan, Roger Gussiaas says.

He declines to say how many pounds of product his company exported last year.

There's strong incentive for U.S. ag producers and food companies to consider exporting, says the Food Export Association of the Midwest, a Chicago-based nonprofit that promotes the export of Midwestern food and ag products.

The biggest reasons to sell abroad:


n Exports of consumer food products are growing three times faster than sales in the United States.

n 95 percent of the world's population and two-thirds of global purchasing power are located outside the United States.

North Dakota farmers and companies interested in exporting food can draw on a number of excellent resources, including the North Dakota Trade Office and the North Dakota Department of Agriculture, Gussiaas says.

A 'marketing niche'

Gussiaas says he's long been interested in exporting, in part because he was associated with an oilseed crushing plant in Carrington that closed because of mechanical problems.

"I just thought there was an opportunity of supplying some products to people in other parts of the world. I've enjoyed traveling and international business," he says.

Flax seemed to be a logical "marketing niche" for exporting, he says.

North Dakota is the nation's leading producer of flax, and relatively little of the crop grown in the state is exported, he says.


Flax, one of the world's oldest crops, has many uses, ranging from linen to paint.

In recent years, a growing number of consumers worldwide are buying flax because they think it has important health benefits.

There's some evidence that flax can help fight a variety of ailments, including heart disease and diabetes, according to the WebMD website.

Shipping it out

Flax is loaded on to containers in Carrington and Munich, N.D., where Healthy Oilseeds contracts a number of flax acres, and taken by truck to facilities in Minneapolis and Minot, N.D. The product then goes to various ports -- Seattle, Tacoma, Wash., and Montreal, among others -- where it's shipped overseas.

"We're always working to decrease shipping costs," Roger Gussiaas says.

The oil boom in western North Dakota is helping Healthy Oilseeds do that. Containers brought into the state with products or materials for the oil industry later can be filled with flax and shipped out.

Roger began farming in 1979. Last year, the family farm raised soybeans, wheat, barley flax and borage.


Brock mostly runs the farm, but he's heavily involved in Healthy Oilseeds, too.

Roger says he and his son have complimentary abilities, which makes it easier to operate both the farm and the export company.

With Healthy Oilseeds, "every day is busy. It's not like in farming where, in the winter, some days are slack days. We're busy every day with it," he says.

Sometimes, the needs of farming and the export business conflict.

"There are times when we have containers to load, we might have to shut down the tractor for an hour," Brock says.

Currency and community

Canada is the world's largest producer and exporter of flax, and Healthy Oilseeds has a number of Canadian competitors.

The U.S. greenback is relatively weak compared with the Canadian dollar, which makes U.S. products more affordable to foreign customer than competing Canadian products.


That advantage has been helping Healthy Oilseeds, just as it's been helping other U.S. exporters, Roger Gussiaas says.

North Dakota, like surrounding states, continues to see bigger and fewer farms -- a trend that, by all accounts, hurts small, rural towns.

"We need to help bring more people into these communities," Roger Gussiaas says.

Family farm operations that expand into exports can create jobs in their local community, he says.

For instance, one of Healthy Oilseeds' employees is Jane Aljets, a Carrington native.

Aljets graduated from North Dakota State University in Fargo with a degree in fashion and was working in retail in Illinois.

Aljets, who returned to Carrington to get married, initially served primarily as a receptionist at Healthy Oilseeds. But her duties steadily have expanded, including work as an export assistant.

"It's very interesting work," she says.


Future opportunities

Some of Healthy Oilseeds' existing customers are interested in buying other products from the company, Gussiaas says.

"We need to get into other commodities," he says.

Healthy Oilseeds already is working with organic crops, including barley and rye.

Though good things happening for Healthy Oilseeds, the company isn't about to become complacent, Gussiaas says.

"We've got a pretty good start. But we still have a lot of work ahead of us," he says.

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