By Mike Spieker The retirement bells rang this fall for one of American Crystal Sugar Company’s longest and most valued employees. Jerry Christenson, agronomy manager for American Crystal, stepped down after four decades with the United States’ largest beet sugar manufacturer.
"In one word, I can describe Jerry’s contribution to the company as an asset. He’s been an asset to the shareholders and the management group," said American Crystal general agronomist, Tyler Grove. "The next word I would use to describe him is energetic. He’s basically a walking supply of unlimited energy. The guy has a lot of passion for this industry. He’s a very good people person. With that combination, he’s been a lead-by-example type that has really encouraged his staff over the years to go the extra mile." Christenson’s career with American Crystal began right out of college in 1977, where he had just graduated from North Dakota State University with a degree in agronomy. At that time, American Crystal was in the process of moving its research tech center from Colorado to Moorhead, Minn. "I drove by one day and thought, ‘I wonder what they are doing here,’" recalled Christenson. "So I walked in and asked if there were any job openings. There happened to be an opening so I interviewed for a research technician position." Christenson worked at the research tech center for about three years before an agriculturist position opened up in the Moorhead district. During his 13 years as an agriculturist in Moorhead, Christenson also held the position of an agriculturist superintendent, where he assisted in managing the harvest, piler maintenance, and working side by side with growers. In 1993, Christenson’s path led him to the corporate office, where he became the general assistant to the vice president at American Crystal. "That was really interesting," he said. "I got to look at the company from a little bigger picture than just one factory. I did that for three years before I became an ag manager in Moorhead." When the department split between agronomy and harvest maintenance in 1998, Christenson became an agronomy manager for the East Grand Forks and Crookston, Minn. factories. "I was up there for close to 20 years after that," said Christenson. "When I first started at American Crystal, I had no intention of being there 40 years. But as I found out, American Crystal is a great company to work for. They believe in training and personal development. If I was ever interested in a certain training program, they always supported it and let me go for it." During his tenure at American Crystal, Christenson says two highlights that first come to mind are all the great people he worked with over the years and the ag internship program that he helped inaugurate. The ag intern program started three years ago and assigns an intern to each of the three agronomy managers within American Crystal. In its first three years, the internship program has yielded four full-time agriculturists. "We get to work with these students for three months out of the year and we get a pretty good idea of who they are and what they can do. They also get a pretty good idea of what the job entails. So that’s been really successful, we’ve hired some really good people as agriculturists," Christenson said. Over the years, Christenson’s involvement grew into the ag policy realm of the company. "Those policies are important. We create them out of necessity and we don’t like to do it very often," said Grove. "Jerry had a critical role in making sure we had policies that made sense, were easy to understand, and had a purpose for the shareholders in the company. Jerry led that and that will leave a long term impression and mark on this company with no doubt in my mind." Christenson has seen many ups and downs of the sugarbeet industry during his time, but in his opinion, the biggest juncture came with the introduction of Roundup Ready® sugarbeets. "When Roundup Ready became regulated, that was really a turning point. Growers had already seen the advantages of Roundup Ready technology and really wanted it to go on sugarbeets," he said. "Weeds were probably our biggest challenge at that time. Growers were no longer using migrant labor – at least a lot less than they used to – so they were relying on the herbicides to control the weeds. Nothing worked like Roundup. "With it not only being less expensive, if you don’t count the technology fee, you only had to apply it a couple times. The timing didn’t have to be critical. With the microrates and the conventional herbicides, it was every five to seven days and if that seventh day came on a Saturday, you sprayed. You couldn’t go to the lake. That changed with Roundup because growers could manage their time a lot better." Looking ahead, Christenson leaves big shoes to fill from both a professional and personality point of view. "His energy just exuded from him. It was contagious," Grove reiterated. "It kept you motivated as an employee in the company and you knew he had your back. He was and still is very supportive. Most importantly, he is a very good friend."