Would Cargill Inc. ever sell its stock to the public? Twenty years ago, the answer would have been an unequivocal "no." A tight circle of silver-haired men -- all descendants of Cargill's founders -- still managed the company, and they preferred the secrecy of private ownership to the bright lights of public stock markets. But today, these patriarchs have either retired or passed away, and none of the 100 or so family members who own the company work there, fueling periodic speculation that they will want to cash out their stock.

In August, the Cargill board of directors considered a proposal for an initial public offering of the shares of the late Margaret A. Cargill -- granddaughter of company founder W.W. Cargill and one of its largest shareholders. The board dismissed the idea, but trustees who represent Margaret said they might take their proposal directly to the family.

A public offering of Margaret's 17 percent stake would be one of the largest agricultural IPOs in history, raising an estimated $8 billion. More importantly, it would force the company to fundamentally change the way it does business.

With stock markets languishing and a credit crisis threatening farmers from Brazil to Saskatchewan, this might seem like a poor time for Cargill to go public. But Cargill's capital demands have grown dramatically in recent years -- and public shares might give it a safety valve if it needs to raise cash, say analysts.

Stuart Tobisman, an attorney for trustees of Margaret's estate, predicts an IPO will happen. "Whether it happens next year or three years from now, I don't know. But it will happen."

Cargill has beaten back IPO calls before. In 1963, Cargill asked Chase Manhattan Bank to conduct a review of its operations, but rejected the bank's suggestion that a public offering would sharpen executives' skills by exposing them to outside criticism and a "public appraisal" of its performance.

In the early 1990s, some younger family members upset about the company's lackluster performance and modest dividends began clamoring for a way to cash out. So the company sold 17 percent of the family's shares to employees.

CEO Greg Page does not appear eager for the extra scrutiny that comes from public ownership, including responding to Wall Street's often short-term focus. The families' strongest character strength was its "optimism" and ability to remain calm during cyclical downturns, he said in a recent interview.

In interviews, rank-and-file employees often discussed feeling like part of the family. Indeed, former CEO Whitney MacMillan's wife is said to have kept recipe cards with names of employees' children and their birthdays.

This summer, Cargill sent thousands of less affluent retirees money to help defray rising medical costs. A retired receptionist who lives in the Twin Cities said she was surprised to find a $1,500 check in her mailbox.

"How do companies last?" Page asked. "The things that last are affection and pride in something, and I presume that was instilled by parents of each of those generations. ... You didn't have to be here very long before you understood completely that how you went about business mattered a huge amount here."