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Through 100 years of peaks and valley in agriculture, the North Dakota Mill and Elevator keeps grinding

The North Dakota Mill and Elevator opened its doors in Grand Forks on Oct. 20, 1922, after several decades of attempts by farmers to halt the hold the grain trade had on pricing and grain grading.

A sign that says North Dakota Mill is in front of railcars and blue and white buildings
The North Dakota Mill and Elevator in Grand Forks will celebrate its 100th anniversary on Oct. 20, 2022. Photo taken Sept. 23, 2022.
Ann Bailey / Agweek
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GRAND FORKS, N.D. — The only publicly owned mill in the United States will celebrate in October a century of making flour from hard, red spring wheat and durum produced by northern Plains and Montana farmers.

The North Dakota Mill and Elevator opened its doors in Grand Forks on Oct. 20, 1922, after several decades of attempts by farmers to halt the hold the grain trade had on pricing and grain grading.

The state-owned mill will celebrate its 100th anniversary on Oct. 20, 2022, with a dinner and reception for invited guests who will include mill customers, state officials and state legislators, said Vance Taylor, North Dakota Mill and Elevator president and CEO. Taylor who is the 14th leader of the facility.

Taylor, who has worked at the mill and elevator for 22 years, is one of the longest serving leaders in the mill’s history.

A man in a blue polo shirt points to an old photo of a group of men in front of the North Dakota Mill and Elevator.
North Dakota Mill and Elevator president and CEO Vance Taylor points to an old photo that hangs on the wall of the conference room. Photo taken Sept. 23, 2022.
Trevor Peterson / Agweek

“It’s a nice place to be,” Taylor said. “We have received great support from the state to keep the mill updated and stay on the edge of the latest technology, which helps a lot. We have some of the best people in the industry working in the mill.”

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“The State Mill and Elevator has been adding value to North Dakota wheat and supporting farmers, agriculture and the local economy for 100 years,” North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum said in a prepared statement.

“We’re grateful to all Mill and Elevator team members, past and present, for their dedication to innovation and continuous improvement and their commitment to fulfilling the Mill and Elevator’s mission to promote and provide support to North Dakota agriculture, commerce and industry," Burgum said.

Canisters with pipes connected to them contain yellow and white flour.
The North Dakota Mill and Elevator in Grand Forks, North Dakota, grinds durum into semolina flour and hard red spring wheat into flour for baking. Photo taken Sept. 23, 2022.
Ann Bailey / Agwek

North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring also praised the contributions the North Dakota Mill and Elevator has made to the state.

"As the North Dakota Mill and Elevator celebrates 100 years, it continues to be a value-added market for North Dakota wheat and a boon to the economy,” Goehring said in a prepared statement.

“The mill has continued to strengthen the market through scale and innovation and is an important partner to the state of North Dakota,” he said.

Such praise and support for the North Dakota Mill and Elevator from state officials has not always been the case.

Three men in winter coats and hats stand outside of the North Dakota Mill and Elevator.
North Dakota government officials stand outside of the North Dakota Mill and Elevator during a re-dedication ceremony.
Contributed / State Historical Society of North Dakota, photo #00018-00020-25

The efforts of North Dakota farmers to found the mill began in 1887 when a group called the Farmers Alliance requested that the Territorial Legislature build a publicly owned grain terminal, according to a State Historical Society of North Dakota article..

Six years later, the North Dakota Legislature tasked the newly created Board of Grain and Warehouse Commissioners, made up of the lieutenant governor, Board of Railroad Commissioners chair and Agriculture and Labor Commissioner, with the selection and purchase of a site for a state elevator in Duluth, Minnesota.

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That attempt failed, partly because the law required that the elevator accept only North Dakota wheat and that the state of Minnesota immediately had to cede jurisdiction of the elevator property to the state of North Dakota, the State Historical Society of North Dakota article said.

During the next three decades several attempts to build state-owned elevators failed, as did a bill in the 1915 North Dakota legislative session that authorized construction of a state terminal elevator, the historical society article said.

The defeat of the bill in 1915 angered the North Dakota Union of the American Society of Equity, which had demonstrated for its passage, and was part of the impetus for creation of the Farmer’s Non-partisan Political League, which was renamed the Nonpartisan League.

A building under construction in 1922.
The North Dakota Mill and Elevator, which opened Oct. 20, 1922, was under construction in this photo.
Contributed / State Historical Society of North Dakota. Photo No. 2019-P-134-00007

The NPL and Arthur C. Townley, a politician with a gift for riling up people and rallying them behind causes, campaigned on farm issues, including the establishment of a state-owned mill and elevator. The NPL quickly became powerful, and gained control of the North Dakota House of Representatives, but North Dakota Gov. Lynn Frazier in 1917 vetoed a bill to create a state-owned mill.

The next year, the NPL won majorities in both the state house of representatives, and North Dakota voters approved several key constitutional amendments which paved the way for the League to create a state mill and elevator system, the State Historical Society of North Dakota article said.

The North Dakota Mill and Elevator Association was established in 1919 and had authority to construct a “system of warehouses, elevators, flour mills and factories” in the state. During the 1919 legislative session, the Industrial Commission — made up of the governor, attorney general and Commissioner of Agriculture and Labor — was created.

In 1919, the Industrial Commission also selected Grand Forks as a state for the State Mill and Elevator. Construction, however, was stalled because of lack of funding. Two years later, disappointment with the progress of the mill’s construction and disillusionment with the NPL resulted in a recall election of North Dakota Gov. Lynn Frasier, Attorney General William Lemke and Agriculture Commissioner John Hagen.

Construction of the North Dakota MIll and Elevator, which included three milling units, began again in 1922, and it opened in late October that year.

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The tumultuous times for the facility didn’t end then, though. The state mill and elevator didn’t turn a profit through the remainder of the 1920s and into the 1930s, the historical society article said.

A postcard of the North Dakota Mill and Elevator.
The North Dakota Mill and Elevator was featured on a postcard.
Contributed / State Historical Society of North Dakota. Photo No. 2019-P-134-00001

Meanwhile, control of the state-owned facility bounced back between the governor and the North Dakota Industrial Commission during the first 11 years of operation. The commission has been in charge since 1933.

Besides battles for control, opposition to the state-owned elevator and structural damage from fires were other challenges the elevator faced during its first 50 years of operation. In 1967, for example, a bill to abolish the North Dakota Mill and Elevator Association was introduced in the North Dakota Legislature. Two major fires, one in 1969 and one in 1970, caused the mill and elevator to shut down operations for 18 months.

While the North Dakota Mill and Elevator barely survived some of its first 50 years, it thrived during the subsequent 50.

Two computer screens in front of a window that has flour milling machines behind it.
The North Dakota Mill and Elevator in Grand Forks uses state-of-the-art equipment to make flour for baking from hard red spring wheat and semolina flour durum. Photo taken Sept. 23, 2022.
Ann Bailey / Agweek

The mill and elevator, which receives no funding or financial assistance from the state of North Dakota, has contributed more than 50% of its profits to the North Dakota general fund for the last 50 years, according to the North Dakota Mill and Elevator website.

“It is the largest automated mill in the country, the largest single-site mill in the country,” Taylor said.

The mill employs 156 workers who support the local economy with a payroll of $16 million annually. Twenty-eight of those workers have been hired during the last 20 years, a time period in which the production capacity and the mill’s efficiency has doubled, Taylor said.

A white rail car with the North Dakota Mill and Elevator logo.
The North Dakota Mill and Elevator in Grand Forks ships some of its flour by rail. Photo taken Sept. 23, 2022.
Ann Bailey / Agweek

The mill and elevator has expanded several times during the past several decades and now includes 10 milling units, a terminal elevator and a packing warehouse, which were paid for with operating profits. Meanwhile, the North Dakota Mill and Elevator has improved its access for rail cars.

One of the keys to the North Dakota Mill and Elevator’s financial success has been the high quality of the hard red spring wheat and durum grown by U.S. farmers, Taylor said.

“It’s all domestic wheat we grind here at the mill. No grain comes from Canada,” he said.

The facility purchases the bulk of its wheat and durum from farmers in North Dakota and Minnesota and a small amount from farmers in Montana and South Dakota, he said. Every growing season produces unique spring wheat and durum crops to work with, and some years that’s more challenging than others.

“This year we have a great crop to work with, good growing conditions, good harvest conditions — a bumper crop. We’re really excited about that,” Taylor said.

Wheat flows out of the bottom of a truck.
The North Dakota Mill and Elevator in Grand Forks buys durum and hard, red spring wheat from North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota and Montana farmers. Photo taken Sept. 23, 2022.
Ann Bailey / Agweek

The North Dakota Mill and Elevator processes and cleans about 140,000 bushels of wheat daily, annually adding value to 40 million bushels of spring wheat and durum.

Ninety percent of the grain that the mill buys is hard red spring wheat, which is made into flour used for baking, and the remainder is durum used to make semolina for pasta. The mill’s terminal elevator has capacity to store 5.3 million bushels of wheat annually.

Eighty percent of the wheat’s flour and semolina is shipped by truck or in bulk rail cars. The remainder is packaged in 5-, 10-, 25- and 50-pound bags.

Bags stacked in a warehouse.
The North Dakota Mill and Elevator in Grand Forks ships flours to buyers across the United States. Photo taken Sept. 23, 2022.
Trevor Peterson / Agweek

About 95% of the mill’s flour sales are to commercial customers across the United States and the Caribbean Islands, Taylor said.

“We ship flour to almost every state in the country, but most of our customers are east of Grand Forks and closely centered around New York City. We send a lot to Chicago, and points in-between, up and down the East Coast,” Taylor said.

The mill sells a small amount of flour used for baking, under its signature Dakota Maid label — about 4% of the total it produces — to retail stores in 11 states in the U.S. northern tier.

White paper bags of Dakota Maid All Purpose flour.
The North Dakota Mill and Elevator sells about 4% of the flour it mills for baking use to retail stores in 11 U.S. northern tier states. Photo taken Sept. 23, 2022.
Trevor Peterson / Agweek

The facility also is certified to process organic wheat products and sells retail bread machine mixes and pancake mixes.

Through the past 100 years of ups and downs of agriculture, the volatility of commodity markets and the dramatic technological advances that have occurred, the mission of the mill remains the same.

“The mill was built for North Dakota farmers to increase demand in the local area, and it did that in 1922, and in 2022 it still does that job,” Taylor said. "High quality and great customer service, we strive to be No. 1 in both."

Ann is a journalism veteran with nearly 40 years of reporting and editing experiences on a variety of topics including agriculture and business. Story ideas or questions can be sent to Ann by email at: abailey@agweek.com or phone at: 218-779-8093.
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