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Vegging out

JAMESTOWN, N.D. -- The Commercial Vegetable Growers of North Dakota is going inactive. Maynard Helgaas, 72, the founding chairman of organization, resigned from his post in July 2007. When no one took Helgaas' place, the group decided in March to...

JAMESTOWN, N.D. -- The Commercial Vegetable Growers of North Dakota is going inactive.

Maynard Helgaas, 72, the founding chairman of organization, resigned from his post in July 2007. When no one took Helgaas' place, the group decided in March to "go inactive," but will keep its articles of incorporation current with the Secretary of State's office. Helgaas may continue some consulting.

The group was organized initially as Central Dakota Growers in 1991 and later changed its name. The group was key in developing a High-Value Task Force, which included utility companies and others that were interested in more high-value crop development in the state. The task force hared the marketing director's cost with North Dakota State University, a position held by Rudy Radke in Fargo, N.D. The High-Value Task Force merged in 2002 into the North Dakota Irrigation Association, which continues to cost-share the NDSU coordinating position.

Helgaas credits Radke for leadership and continual monitoring of high-value irrigated crop market connections and opportunities, as well as the CVG board.

"There's still a lot of potential, especially with the oil price and freight costs and food safety and food freshness issues," Helgaas says of vegetable and other high-value crop potential in the region. "I could see more effort needs to be put into expanding irrigation during these high-price, high-commodity periods because of the risk of crop failure."

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Helgaas' history

Helgaas is a former John Deere dealer in Jamestown, N.D.; his family company owned five dealerships. His Midwest Ag Development Co. at one time owned John Deere stores in Jamestown, LaMoure, Ellendale, Valley City -- all in North Dakota -- and in Selby, S.D. His Midwest Ag Development Co. also had a leasing company and had subsidiaries in the chemical and fertilizer business.

In 1991, Helgaas had pushed for the development of a potato processing plant for the Jamestown area. This turned into Dutch-based Aviko USA, which was bought out by Canadian-based Cavendish Farms in 2002. Because of the work of Helgaas and like thinkers, there are 16,000 acres of contracted irrigated potatoes in central and western North Dakota. Land that had been pasture and hay land in the $200 range immediately became irrigated land in the $1,100-an-acre range, with the irrigation system.

"It really did more than just improve the prosperity of those rural communities where there was irrigable land and water. It also raised the bar on the technology and level of farm management. That carries over into other crops as well," Helgaas says.

It also permitted farmers to move into onions, carrots and edible beans for more intensive cropping.

In 1994, Helgaas tried growing potatoes in Dawson, N.D., but got out of that after run-ins with potato diseases. About this time, Helgaas' wife, Jean Ann, died of cancer. In 1997, Helgaas married Julie Schauer.

In 1998, Helgaas was elected as a director to the Garrison Diversion project, where he continues to represent Stutsman County. In the past several years, Helgaas was part of a protracted effort to get food-grade processing going in the region.

After potatoes, one of the projects was the Dakota Fresh cut salad operation in Medina, N.D., which failed because of a flawed marketing study. The project turned to a cut vegetable project, but ran into distribution problems. In 2006, a construction contractor bought the Medina facility and turned it into a repair shop.

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Other projects have fared better, notably the Kidco Farms Processing plant in Dawson, which continues to work on packaged vegetables.

Project development

In 2006 and 2007, Helgaas was among those who pushed for onions and processing in the Oakes, N.D., area. The fresh pack project didn't attract as many growers as hoped and then ran into abysmal market conditions in 2007 as a result of national oversupply.

"It has promise and I think there'll be other growers joining in, once we have another market," Helgaas says.

Through it all, Helgaas has been at the center of approaching funding sources for marketing and development funding. In a year and a half, the group has approached the North Dakota Agricultural Products Utilization Commission for carrot studies.

"We knew we could grow carrots; we've known that for years," Helgaas says. "We have better-tasting carrots -- sweeter -- and the production of tons per acre was tremendously good. But we needed to find a market."

Helgaas is adamant that there is a future for developing high-value crops in the state. Some of that future might include greenhouse production, he says, and that would use energy that's available from processors of ethanol and electricity. The project he's particularly watching is the Spiritwood, N.D., energy and processing park east of Jamestown.

Helgaas isn't a big promoter of the cooperative as a business form, but he says that in some smaller communities that is a good idea, if it's matched with local, state and federal dollars. Some Bank of North Dakota programs require personal guarantees for projects other than co-ops.

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"If you have a cooperative, with a number of producers in it, you have more of a chance of eliminating those guarantees," he says.

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