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AGVISE Labs among tornado's victims

NORTHWOOD, N.D. - The tornado that ripped through Northwood, N.D., Aug. 26 took out the headquarters for AGVISE Laboratories Inc. - one of the region's major soil and plant testing laboratories.

NORTHWOOD, N.D. - The tornado that ripped through Northwood, N.D., Aug. 26 took out the headquarters for AGVISE Laboratories Inc. - one of the region's major soil and plant testing laboratories.

The storm had a hit-and-miss effect on other major agricultural installations.

Bob Wallace, AGVISE chief executive officer and chief financial officer, says the company's board has decided to rebuild - a process that will save 65 jobs in the town, including 30 year-round employees. He estimates that the process might take a year.

The company has some redundancy in its Benson, Minn., laboratory, which employs about the same number of people and does about the same thing. He says the company lost no records for customers and that it had not yet entered the busiest part of the soil sampling season, which makes up the bulk of its work.

"We're going to be able to receive soil samples here, prepare and get them ready to send to Benson," Wallace says. "We'll be operational (this) week."

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Last year, the Northwood lab handled about 154,000 samples. So far this year, it has handled about 40,000 samples, so the majority of samples have yet to come in, generally following crop harvesting progress.

Temporary facility

The company provides its services largely in North Dakota, South Dakota and surrounding states and Canadian provinces.

AGVISE will set up some kind of temporary facility in Northwood to accept these samples in Northwood. In the interim, this work probably will require only about 30 employees in Northwood. Some of the Northwood employees may be detailed to Benson.

In the immediate days after the storm, the company was letting its Northwood-based employees tend to their homes. Employees who lived elsewhere were busy picking through the empty shell of the building, trying to salvage records from filing cabinets.

"I don't believe we lost any records," Wallace says.

"Our goal is to still supply our customers the best we can," he says. "There's going to be some delays with limited equipment at Benson, but we're going to run 24-7."

Northwood companyAGVISE was started in 1976 by Ed Lloyd. The Benson facility was added in the mid-1980s. (Lloyd and his sons have AGVISE Research in Northwood, which is now a separate business that is located three miles west of town and was unaffected by the storm.)

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A fire in 1996 wiped out the same Northwood headquarters building that's been destroyed again. In May 1997, Lloyd sold the company to its employees, and the building was completed that September.

The Northwood facility has a staff of three soil scientists and the rest technicians and support staff, all related to agronomy, Wallace says.

Among the company's work, about 15 percent is GLP (Good Laboratory Practices), a program of third-party verification of testing that commercial companies use to submit data to the Environmental Protection Agency for regulatory applications.

Another 5 percent to 10 percent is tissue culture - the analysis of growing plants to guide farmers' application of fertilizer during the growing season.

The bulk of the company's activity is the soil testing.

Wallace says company officials estimate it'll take 10 months to a year to rebuild.

The 1996 fire occurred Dec. 29, so the company was not in its busiest season. The new building was up in nine months and was estimated to cost up to $4 million at the time. Wallace declines to speculate on the facility's current value, pending discussions with insurance officials.

"Now we have three months yet of sampling that we have to concentrate on before we can get into the building mode," he says.

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Wallace acknowledges that there have been some half-jokes about the location in Northwood being bad luck, but that has been quickly dismissed.

"You go through a fire; you go through a tornado. What else can happen?" he says, adding, "We're not close enough to a river for flooding."

Other damageHere are immediately available reports from other notable agribusinesses in Northwood:

Northwood Equity Elevator Co. sustained major damage, according to manager Scott Ostlie. The company annually handles nearly 3 million bushels of grain, including wheat, barley, soybeans and corn.

Ostlie figures about a third of the company's 1 million bushel storage capacity had been affected by the storm. A concrete facility that counts for a third of the elevator's storage capacity hadn't yet been inspected two days after the storm.

"Right now, we're in clean-up mode," he says, noting he'd called in specialized clean-up crews from South Dakota.

"We're just getting done with the wheat harvest and in the next month or two we'll get to the corn and soybean harvest," Ostlie says.

Some steel grain bins and conveyors were damaged. Roofs collapsed on three bins and a fourth is peeled back. Still another steel bin lost its roof.

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"We have a 'head house' that's destroyed on part of the elevator," Ostlie says. "A seed plant across the street has a wood annex that was totally destroyed."

Northwood Mills L.L.C., a soybean crushing facility located north of Northwood, went largely unscathed. The plant started producing biodiesel in March, using oil from a facility in Winkler, Manitoba. In July, it added crushing capacity for soybean oil and feed for biodiesel production, the food market and for livestock feed.

"We're one of the blessed few, I suppose," manager Clarence Lescheid says. "Our crushing plant is completely untouched and our house had a few broken windows, but there's barely any damage." Even Lescheid's airplane hangar at the airport remained intact.

Sunrise Acres, a feedlot complex owned and operated by the families of Enoch and Madeline Thorsgard, went largely unscathed, according to Madeline. The 6,000-head facility is one of the largest cattle feeding operations in the region and, among other things, is known for feeding potato waste from the Simplot french fry plant in Grand Forks, N.D.

ADM-Edible Bean Specialties Inc. and Northwood Bean Co. Inc. officials were not immediately available for damage reports.

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