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Mikkel Pates column: Cargill and ProGold

FARGO, N.D. I've been on vacation across the Christmas and New Years holidays, but one thing I was glad to come out for was an event honoring Cargill Inc.'s high-fructose corn sweetener plant in Wahpeton, N.D.

FARGO, N.D. I've been on vacation across the Christmas and New Years holidays, but one thing I was glad to come out for was an event honoring Cargill Inc.'s high-fructose corn sweetener plant in Wahpeton, N.D.

The plant was named one of the nation's top 10 best plants by Industry Week, a national trade magazine.

A decade ago, I was one of a gaggle of reporters who stood in an open field, north of Wahpeton, hearing how this $260 million behemoth would become a big new market for the region's corn, and lift our economic prospects. I remember writing an editorial, trying to help people understand how big this deal was. In that opinion, I made the point that this was fully FIVE times the investment in the Fargodome, which seemed to grab all of the headlines.

But the big plan soon ran into a big collapse in the corn sweetener market.

Owners of ProGold explained that too many companies went forward with expansion plans while the Mexican HFCS market failed to materialize. So I was there to report it when ProGold officials announced they were leasing the plant to Cargill.

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Some of the most important political figures thought this was a disaster an unhappy pouring of state tax dollars into a project that would now benefit a multinational corporation.

ProGold didn't go bankrupt, did it?

The owners, through the lease, created a new corn market for this region. The place continues to grind 85,000 bushels of corn every day.

Richard "Red" Geurts, the red-haired corporate executive, who had helped ProGold build the plant, was hired by Cargill. He's still there and is as happy as I've ever seen him.

Among the achievements for the plant are 99.9 percent on-time delivery, which is an impressive statistic considering it makes some 15,000 shipments a year.

This isn't the first time this plant has received an award.

Agweek and others have printed in the past, the Wahpeton plant has earned Cargill Best Plant awards in 2003 and 2007. Now it's honored by a third party. The winners are profiled in Industry Week's January issue.

Team Wahpeton effectively uses 27 "teams" within its staff structure, Industry Week noted. One of the teams is called the innovations team designed to "enthuse, educate and support innovation activities." Employees submit ideas through a Web-based system. More than 75 percent of the employees had participated in the innovation process.

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Safety impresses me. Team Wahpeton recently celebrated 2 million work hours more than eight years without any lost-time injuries in the facility. This is a process that uses heat, mechanical and chemical processes to make a number of products high-fructose corn syrup, corn germ, corn gluten meal and corn gluten feed.

Geurts tipped his hat to the farmers who "had the courage to put the money in and actually build this plant." He talked about the award as a milestone, but not an end in itself. He offered a mix of humility and confidence that I can appreciate.

"Did we win it, or did we earn it?" Geurts said his staff asked itself. "I think we did both."

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