Food Market brings news, talk and insight into the food business, from farms to supermarkets to restaurants. Reporters Mike Hughlett and Tom Meersman delve into the work of Minnesota’s food companies and issues such as food safety and labeling.

Commodity price slump packs a punch on ag economy

Posted by: Mike Hughlett Updated: August 22, 2014 - 1:34 PM

You can see it in the announcement Friday of a 460-worker layoff at the Deere & Co. tractor factory in Waterloo, Iowa.

You can see it in the bleak numbers in this month’s “rural main street” report from Creighton University.

Sinking commodity prices are spilling over into the broader economy that’s dependent on agriculture. But with bumper U.S. crops of corn and soybeans, prices have fallen to the point where some farmers stand to lose money.

And commodity prices are expected to move even lower in the months ahead, according to Ernie Goss, an economist at Creighton’s Heider College of Business.

Goss publishes a monthly “Rural Mainstreet Index,” a survey of farmland bank CEOs in 10 states, which takes into account such things as farmland prices and agricultural equipment sales.

The index, released this week for August, hit its lowest level in almost two years: 48.3, down from 51.8 and dipping below the “growth neutral” 50 level. Minnesota fortunately saw its index level rise from 50.5 to 51 in August.

When farmers are looking at dismal crop economics, they postpone buying machinery. The falling demand for agricultural equipment has led Moline, Ill.-based Deere & Co. to announce just over 1,000 layoffs over the past week.

In addition to the 460 jobs to be cut in Waterloo, Deere plans to ax a combined 600 workers at two plants in Illinois; another plant in Iowa; and a Kansas facility.

Apparent missile strike on idled Cargill plant in Ukraine

Posted by: Mike Hughlett Updated: August 20, 2014 - 4:05 PM

A Cargill agricultural facility in eastern Ukraine -- already a victim of that country’s civil strife -- may have been struck by a missile this week.

“We have received reports that there was a fire at one of the grain silos at our facility in Donetsk which was attended by the local fire brigade,” Cargill said in a statement. “Unconfirmed reports suggest this may have been the result of a missile hit.”

No injuries and no damage to the rest of the facility have been reported, Cargill said, though the company hasn’t been able to make a further assessment of the plant.

Cargill closed its sunflower processing plant in Donetsk on July 4 as tensions increased between Ukrainian armed forces and pro-Russian separatists. About a week later, the shuttered plant was occupied by armed intruders.

Cargill described the occupiers as “a small number of armed individuals whose intentions are not clear to us.”

The Cargill plant has been operating in Ukraine for 20 years, and “plays an important role in the local and regional economy,” the company said.

The strife in eastern Ukraine is taking an increasing toll on the country’s economy. Reuters, quoting a Ukrainian government spokesman, reported this week that Ukraine will lose 15 percent of its grain crop in two violence-hit regions in the country's east.

Wild rice not quite ready

Posted by: Tom Meersman Updated: August 20, 2014 - 9:48 AM

Wild rice harvesting opened last weekend in Minnesota but most rice stands are not ripe yet because of the late spring. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources estimates that peak harvesting dates will be in early to mid-September as long as the weather remains mild.

More than 1,200 lakes and rivers in 54 counties contain wild rice, although the largest concentrations are in Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, Itasca and St. Louis counties.

Harvesters on public waters need an annual license to collect the rice, and the season is open from Aug. 15 to Sept. 30.

Getting the rice requires a non-motorized canoe or other watercraft, 18 feet or less in length, utilizing only a push pole or paddles for power. The rice is collected by using two sticks, or flails, to knock mature seeds into the canoe. It is illegal to harvest unripe rice.

DNR officials said it may be a good idea to scout rice stands, since early and sustained high water during the spring has hurt some rice beds. The rice is actually the seed of an aquatic grass that is the only cereal grain native to North America. 

It has been a traditional food source and an important part of Native American culture, and is an important food staple for migrating waterfowl each fall.

There is no limit on the amount of rice that can be harvested by those with licenses, but wild rice may not be taken from any waters within the original boundaries of several Indian reservations in Minnesota except by tribal members or other reservation residents.

More information is available at www.mndnr.gov/regulations/wildrice

Cargill expands its Plymouth food innovation center

Posted by: Mike Hughlett Updated: August 19, 2014 - 10:02 AM

Cargill has doubled the size of its food innovation center in Plymouth, the main research facility serving the company’s food and beverage manufacturing customers in North America.

Minnetonka-based Cargill spent $5.5 million on the expansion, which will result in a 40,000 square- foot facility with state-of-the-art research equipment.

Cargill will bring the majority of its North American food and ingredient research staff together in the remodeled innovation center, which opened this month.

 The agribusiness giant says the R & D center will be a “unique environment” where Cargill’s own researchers will work side-by-side with its customers’ staff.

“We designed a facility we believe will promote collaboration, accelerate innovation and help our customers reduce product development cycles,” Kerr Dow, Cargill’s vice president of global food technology said in a press statement.

The food innovation center will provide ingredient expertise in several food categories, including snacks, cereal, bakery, confectionery and frying applications.

It will include a fully-equipped commercial kitchen and a bakery applications center with a host of commercial baking equipment

Bees at the Fair

Posted by: Tom Meersman Updated: August 14, 2014 - 11:42 AM

Bees will receive front-yard attention at the State Fair this year.  An outdoor garden display at the Eco Experience building is dedicated to raising awareness about declining bees and other pollinators, and what homeowners can do to protect their habitats.

At noon each day speakers will talk about how to transform a front yard to be more bee-friendly, why urban beekeeping is great for cities, and why protecting native plants and native bees can help pollinate crops.

The display will include rain gardens with flowers that support pollinators and help improve water quality in cities and towns.

The exhibit will also include straw bale gardens that require less weeding and watering, and close-up views of beehives that are not occupied by real bees.

The Eco Experience building includes dozens of exhibits to learn more about clean air and water, saving energy, climate change, recycling, healthy local food, gardening, transportation, and green building and remodeling.

The Minnesota State Fair is open from Aug. 21 to Sept. 1.

Long-tenured Gold'n Plump CEO to retire

Posted by: Mike Hughlett Updated: August 12, 2014 - 6:02 PM

GNP, the St. Cloud-based chicken producer behind the Gold’n Plump brand, will be led for the first time in its history by a CEO who’s not part of the company’s founding family.

Michael Helgeson, 62, is retiring after 21 years as GNP’s CEO and more than 40 years of working at the firm his grandfather founded in 1926. Under Helgeson’s leadership, GNP’s sales nearly tripled and are now around $400 million.

He will be replaced by Steve Jurek, 63, GNP’s current executive vice president of operations and administration. Jurek, who has been with the company since 1977, takes over as president on Nov. 3, when Helgeson retires.

While Jurek won’t have the CEO title, he will have the same level of authority and responsibility that Helgeson has had, GNP said in a statement.

Jurek will report to Jason Logsdon, CEO of southern Illinois-based Maschhoff Family Foods, which bought GNP late last year. Maschhoff, one of the nation’s largest hog producers, purchased GNP in a diversification move.

GNP has production plants in Cold Spring, Minn., Luverne, Minn. and Arcadia, Wis. It is one of the few U.S. chicken producers of any size outside of the South, the country’s main chicken-raising region.

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