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Catching up with 'Mr. O'

FARGO, N.D. - Ronald D. Offutt doesn't sit still for very many interviews. The world's biggest potato grower and the biggest John Deere store operator is just too busy for all of that attention. But there are times to pause. He's been named one o...

FARGO, N.D. - Ronald D. Offutt doesn't sit still for very many interviews.

The world's biggest potato grower and the biggest John Deere store operator is just too busy for all of that attention.

But there are times to pause. He's been named one of four international honorees by the World Potato Congress, which met in late August in Boise, Idaho. (J.R. "Jack" Simplot is the only other U.S. producer so-honored.)

"Can you do it on the plane?" he asks.

On the go with RDO

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It's a Monday, the opening day of the World Potato Congress, and Offutt is traveling to Boise in a Citation II jet, a six-seater.

His company, R.D. Offutt Co., based in Fargo, N.D., has two such planes, he says. They're good to get him and his people to places across the country in a hurry - and then get them back.

Beside Offutt in the plane is his wife, Karen, who, like many of his closest friends, calls him "Ronnie." Other friends and close associates call him "Mr. O." Across from him in the plane is Kent McGovern, a son-in-law and chief operating officer of R.D. Offutt Co.

As the plane taxis for take-off, Offutt, 63, says he tells a visitor that he's feeling good.

Five years ago, he underwent gastric bypass and lost 100 pounds. Now he walks a couple of miles every day on a treadmill while he reads the morning paper. Offutt hands around a bag full of them - The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, USDA Today, the Wall Street Journal, among them. Offutt takes time for several of them. After 45 minutes of reading, Offutt pulls out box lunches that have been acquired by Chuck Allison, his trusty pilot, and he passes them around. He gets a cup of coffee and relaxes.

"OK, shoot."

The view from up there

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At Offutt's level, you're constantly entertaining new ideas, business concepts and deals.

"Lots of people think I buy everything that comes down the road," Offutt acknowledges, but there have been a lot of deals. The pressure doesn't seem to bother him. "I sleep pretty good," he says.

But there's not much time for sleep.

For starters, Offutt farms in 13 states. Two-thirds of the farming operations are owned by RDO solely. A third are at least half-owned by other operators - "partners." This year, Offutt farms 64,000 acres of spuds under irrigation, as well as other acres of rotation crops.

Offutt has been a food processor since the late 1970s, when he bought a french fry plant in Atlanta and back-hauled carpet in the trucks.

Today, he has potato flake plants in Grand Forks, N.D; Dubois, Glenns Ferry and Winnemucca, Nev.; and Rupert, Idaho; and fresh pack potato plants in O'Neill, Neb., and Winnemucca.

He's a partner in the RDO-Lamb Weston frozen processing potato plant in Park Rapids, Minn., which has a capacity of about 480 million pounds of frozen potato products.

His RDO Equipment Co. has 58 John Deere stores, including 19 farm stores. He operates in Arizona, Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota and California. He owns Hall GMC in Fargo and RDO Mack in Fargo and Hall Volvo of Grand Forks.

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He's done some small-scale farming in Russia for 10 years. A year ago, he became a John Deere store in Krasnador.

"The opportunity for production agriculture in Russia is great," he says, but the problem is getting clear title to land.

RDO is a technological leader.

The company recently built a seed potato operation in Colorado City, Colo., that provides disease-free stem cuttings for his potato operations nationwide as well as for others. Half of the seed grown for potato snack giant Frito-Lay comes from Offutt's CSS Farms. Potato seed is grown in an artificial nutrient "film" medium in an area that's dry, with a lot of cloud-free days, which bodes well for seed production.

The most complicated farming deal yet has been the Threemile Canyon Farms deal in Boardman, Ore. The farming and dairy partnership involve 6,000 acres of irrigated spuds, four years of rotation crops, a 21,000-cow dairy in three operations (his partnership runs two out of three large dairies on the farm) and organic vegetables. After overcoming initial environmental concerns, Offutt and his partners recently have faced new challenges as labor unions work to organize the farm.

Pinnacle of potatoes

In the midst of a complicated business life, the World Potato Congress was a big deal for Offutt.

After his opening address at the World Potato Congress Aug. 21, Offutt greeted Jack Simplot, the aging patriarch of a potato production and processing, mining and fertilizer company that bears his name.

For much of Aug. 22 and 23, while the world's elite potato expert gave and heard lectures on the dark corners of potato production and marketing, Offutt often stepped out to meet potato industry contacts in a coffee shop at his hotel.

"I got more done in the past two days than I could have in two weeks with the plane," he'd say later, flashing a smile.

Offutt emerged from his meetings to welcome family and friends who had traveled on the RDO jet to be with him when he received the award Aug. 23. Flanked by a Boise backdrop and a logo of McCain Foods - the huge Canadian-based potato processor that sponsored the banquet, Offutt joked that he'd brought his own cheering team to Boise - his wife, two of his daughters, a sister and business associate Al Knoll and his wife.

Offutt spoke emotionally about his pride in the award that capped 40 years of potato farming and industry work.

"If I ever wanted to dedicate anything, this award would be the pinnacle for my father, who gave me the vision that has made it possible for me to achieve this status," Offutt says, referring to his father, Ron D. Offutt Sr. "He gave me the background, the tools to pursue the opportunities I have done."

Mr. O's crystal ball

Knoll stayed on with Offutt Aug. 23. The farmer and his longtime accountant-associate since 1974 strolled through potato variety demonstration plots to see what was coming up in the world and to hear advice about the vulnerabilities of some of them.

On the plane back to Fargo, Offutt talked about the future.

Personally, Offutt says he's working to get his company prepared for a future without him.

In all probability, his replacement will come from some combination of talent within his family.

"The kids are interested in it continuing," he says of the company.

There is Christy Offutt, 37, a lawyer by training, who recently took a sabbatical as chief operating officer of RDO Equipment. She plans to return Nov. 1 after an advance management school at Harvard.

Son-in-law Keith McGovern trained as a pilot and married to Rondi, 42, currently runs the farming operations. McGovern is being groomed to add food processing leadership.

"Keith loves farming, and he's better at it than I ever was," Offutt says. "He executes better. I tended to fly too high."

Shelly Neal, 43, a former marketing executive with RDO, is a full-time mom and is married to Scott Neal, who handles real estate development for the company.

Son Ryan Offutt, 28, heads the human resources and looks out for the company's interests in Russia.

And then there's Knoll, who Offutt describes as the company's "head brain."

"He's the guy that says, 'Be careful,' and when he says it, you listen," Offutt says. "He knows the numbers - the causes, the effects and the application of the numbers. Nothing major gets done unless I get his input."

Offutt says he's becoming more encouraged about livestock opportunities back home.

"I think there's a real possibility in North Dakota to have a successful dairy," he says. North Dakota and Minnesota have some climatic issues that make dairying difficult, as opposed to Oregon, where the climate is milder. Ethanol plant development bodes well for dairy in North Dakota and South Dakota.

And for potatoes?

"I think the next level for our company has got to involve off-shore adventures," Offutt says. Besides Russia, he sees opportunities in Argentina and Brazil, but they're farther from major customers.

"After 40 years in this business, I think there's as many opportunities in this business as there always has been."

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