Crookston, Minn. — Robin Brekken grows his farm by concepts rather than acres.
For now, a small retail package of roasted soy nuts is the most tangible manifestation of those concepts, but the package points to a larger vision — the world market for organic and identity-preserved grain. With his partners in Earthwise Foods and Earthwise Processors, Brekken is placing his bet on the future of identity-preserved, non-GMO and organic crops.
“It’s no secret that commodity prices kind of stink,” Brekken says. “My farm was big into sugar beets, and the economies of that business have tailed off in the last few years.” Instead of expanding his 3,000 acre farm to 5,000 or 6,000 acres — an option he once viewed as necessary just to keep up financially — Brekken sees Earthwise as a way to improve his family’s quality of life while farming the same acreage.
“My farm is in transition to be organic, which will happen next summer,” he says. “It’s not all about money, either. I’m not necessarily a full-fledged tree hugger, but I don’t miss all the spraying and chemicals. … Health was not a main factor, but it was a small one.”
While Earthwise Foods markets roasted soybean snacks under their own brand, the recent purchase of the former Busch Agricultural Resources plant in Moorhead, Minn. allows Earthwise Processors to handle soybeans, organic popcorn, flax, wheat and other grains in identity-preserved lots.
The partners plan to continue retailing their own products, but they also see a niche in supplying identity-preserved beans, flour and other ingredients for big-time buyers, according to Moorhead investor and organic farmer Lynn Brakke. With few big elevators able to supply identity-preserved, contamination-free ag products, Brakke believes Earthwise is in the right place at the right time.
“Identity-preserved is going to be virtually all of the U.S. production eventually, I believe. … Commodity-based agriculture is going to be Third World,” Brakke says. “Here in the United States, it’s going to be value-added. The average elevator is not equipped to handle it.”
The growing demand for non-GMO crops will help Earthwise business, Brakke adds. “No GMO crops will go through the facility, because of (the potential for) contamination.”
With recently adopted federal guidelines for organic crops, Earthwise can only stand to benefit, adds Michael Sparby, AURI project director in Morris. Its standards are “above and beyond the USDA organic standards. The rest of the industry is catching up to what Earthwise is doing.”
Snacks big on coasts
Earthwise Foods markets four soybean snack flavors: roasted no-salt, roasted and salted, barbecue and honey-roasted. Ranch and hot-and-spicy flavors will be added soon, according to partner Curt Petrich of Crookston, Minn.
Packaged at Dahlgren’s in Crookston, most product is shipped to the East and West coasts, but the company is actively pursuing markets in Europe and Australia.
“This market has a potential to grow a lot,” Petrich says. “It’s similar to the sunflower industry. It can hold its own. A company that wants to focus on a single commodity may do well with the soybean.”
Earthwise snacks have received “excellent response” at retail stores and trade shows, Petrich adds. “We have 12 to 15 medium to large customers (retailers), and we just picked up our first distributor.” The soybean snacks are popular in health food stores and vending machines, and Earthwise’s packaging and quality have been “very well accepted. … We don’t take a back seat to anybody in the quality of our product or packaging.”
Beating the competition
Earthwise soy snacks’ success to date has been “better than expectations and projections, Sparby says. He and AURI’s Lane Loeslie helped Earthwise partners tap marketing expert Jack LaMont, who helped grow Captain Ken’s line of baked beans and chili. “LaMont continues to work closely with them,” Loeslie says. “It’s a good match-up.” AURI food scientist Charan Wadhawan provided technical assistance and helped Earthwise Foods comply with labeling regulations.
Retailing the snacks has seen “a little bit of a slow start in some regards,” admits Brakke. “You may have 10 or 20 deals on the table and one goes through, and then one may resurface later.”
About 50 other companies produce similar snacks, and there’s a wide difference in taste, size, texture, roasting methods and nutrition, Brakke says. Nevertheless, “we believe taste-wise we have the best product out there. At trade shows we often hear, ‘These are the best ones we’ve ever tasted.’”
More than a business
Brakke, who says he saw the niche for organic crops 10 years ago, values his organic operation for its answers to the “sustainability, economic and health concerns that go along with farming conventionally. I like the challenge, because it’s definitely a higher management situation. Our goal is to vertically integrate, where everything we grow on the farm we would take to retail, to take as much value as we could out of what we were producing. Purchasing the plant was a big step.”
For Brakke, Earthwise means more than a package of soy snacks or even a way to make a living. “The ultimate goal is to have a business that would be sustainable enough to be here for several generations.”