Farmer Tom Smude of Pierz, Minn., is also an environmentally minded entrepreneur.
In 1998 Smude, 37, and his wife rolled the dice and bought a 160-acre corn-and-soybean farm and dairy cows for about $200,000. The Smudes, who have two kids, made a living and a life, but it helped that Tom also worked some at his dad's farm-implement dealership in Little Falls.
In 2007, amid a continuing drought, Smude decided to diversify away from the water-and-fertilizer intensive crops and started putting half his acreage in sunflowers, which he alternates with corn.
In 2009, the Smudes built a half-million dollar processing plant on their farm that last year produced 20,000 gallons of Smude's Natural Sunflower Oil that's sold in Coborns and Kowalski's grocery stores, restaurants and cooperatives.
Production will double at the plant this year, which employs five people. And Smude is planning to open another production facility in Pierz.
Smude has been helped by the price of sunflowers doubling to 32 cents per pound since the commodity bust of 2009. And the sunflower oil offers a trans-fat-free oil solution for health-conscious consumers. Smude feeds the byproduct to his 400 steers, a high-protein, low-cost feed that cuts his corn tab.
Smude said sunflowers have cut his fuel, chemical and water bill markedly because sunflowers require much less fertilizer and their long taproots naturally cultivate and return valuable nitrogen to the top soil.
Last week Colleen Landkamer, state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, awarded a $298,500 grant to Smude for his ongoing efforts to successfully diversify, invest in value-added processing and employment. The Smude operation is now valued at around $2 million.
Minnesotans are proud of the places where they work and are willing to tell people about it. This year the Star Tribune has received a record number of nominations for the Star Tribune's 3rd annual Top Workplaces issue.
The Star Tribune partners with professional survey company WorkplaceDynamics to conduct employee surveys that are used to determine Minnesota's 100 Top Workplaces. WorkplaceDynamics already has received more nominations for this year's list than it has in the past two years and more nominations than any of the other 30 major newspapers the company works with.
WorkplaceDynamics has found that factors such as feeling "genuinely appreciated" and "confident about my future with the company" are what set top workplaces apart. As one employee said this year, "There is the feeling that what we say really does matter. We are not told what to do, but [asked] 'What do you think?'"
So what do you think? Would your company make the list? Companies can still be part of the program if they complete a registration by March 23. Visit startribune.com/topworkplaces or call 612-605-3306.
'JUST BARE' CHICKENS
St. Cloud-based GNP Co., formerly Gold'n Plump Poultry, says it takes seriously growing consumer concerns about farm-animal treatment, drugs and feed.
It's "Just Bare" brand of "all-natural" chicken boasts no antibiotics, no added hormones and no animal byproducts.
Just Bare Chicken was recently certified by the American Humane Certified Farm Program, which means it meets or exceeds independent third-party criteria for the humane treatment of its chickens. The decision to seek the seal of approval was driven by GNP's target customers, 91 percent of whom rated "verification of animal welfare" as "very-to-extremely important."
Sales of the Just Bare Brand are expected to be $33 million, nearly 20 percent of GNP's branded poultry sales. The difference between Just Bare and Gold'n Plump is very slight, the company said, since the chickens for Gold'n Plump and Just Bare are raised in the same facilities.
•Peter Kitchak, a longtime commercial real estate consultant through his Keewaydin Advisors, has closed the IDS Center office, called it a career and moved to Napa, Calif., to open Kitchak Cellars, "a boutique producer of cult wines," with his wife, Patricia.
"We are presently making about 12,000 bottles per year" of "some of the most interesting and finest wines in the Napa Valley," Kitchak reported recently.
Shannon Reilly, Kitchak's partner of the past 20 years, has moved her book of business to the Frauenshuh Companies, another real estate concern.
•Well-capitalized financial services providers are growing again. Northwestern Mutual, doing business in these parts through the Columns Resource Group and the Bohannon Group, plans to add 5,000 professionals in 2012, including 300 locally. Meanwhile, Securian Financial, Thrivent Financial for Lutherans and Allianz Life North America, all based in the Twin Cities, reported strong 2011 results and are adding people.
"More people are looking for financial guidance, and they're turning to companies ... that have been consistently financially strong," said Mark Heurung, managing partner of the Columns Resource Group in Minneapolis. Heurung expects half the new financial representatives to be "career changers": teachers, ministers, scribes, salespeople looking for a change.
•Über communicator Gail Shore and her Cultural Jambalaya and Twin Cities' Tremendous Entertainment, headed by Colleen Needles, have won a national Telly Award for "Windows & Mirrors: The Middle East," an educational DVD for teachers that gets beyond the stereotypes. Shore travels the world on self-funded solo treks to obtain compelling images and information about the traditions and rituals in countries such as North Korea, Myanmar, Namibia and Tibet. More info at: www.CulturalJam.org.