The world isn’t the same as it was in 1952.
Gas and milk prices were cheaper, and rather than FaceTime or Skype, if you wanted to see someone you needed to do it in person. Northern Feed and Bean has changed too, but in late February the company was recognized for something it has done from day 1: export.
At the Governor’s Forum on Colorado Agriculture on Feb. 22 the company was honored with the Experienced Exporter Award.
Bob Brunner is the previous owner and current consultant for the company. His dad founded Northern Feed and Bean in 1952. And from day one the company has always exported pinto beans to Mexico.
The company has grown exponentially in those years, and the changes in the company have continued to reflect that.
Northern Feed and Bean makes more than 30 times the amount of money during a decent year than it did early on.
The company has four properties, the main one in Lucerne, Colo., was added in 1991. That’s when general manager and owner Larry Lande entered the picture. He worked for AgLand at the time, but Brunner knew he wanted him with Northern Feed and Bean.
“When we built this — I still ran the Gill (Colo.) location until it closed in ‘96 — we wanted Larry because he was the biggest competitor,” Brunner said.
Lande decided to go to Northern Feed and Bean because it brought on the potential for challenges
“It sounds like I was bought off, doesn’t it?” Lande said laughing.
In 1996 the Gill facility was converted to full-time storage, making the Lucerne facility the main headquarters. There are also facilities in Ault, Colo., and Torrington, Wyo.
Producers for Northern Bean hail from Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming, but even with such a large area, a big challenge is acreage and weather.
When the company started, there were only farmers in Colorado’s Kersey and Gill areas, but now about 300 growers and landlords work with Northern Feed and Bean to grow the beans. Even though their producers have a lot of acres, that doesn’t mean that they will grow beans on those acres. Farmers can change their crop rotation to other crops. And then there are years when farmers change the crops they grow as a reflection of the market. Or, like last year, large storms can wipe out thousands of acres of crops. Development also can take away crop acreage.
But with their expansions and relationships they help keep the business chugging along.
“We’re four times the size today than we were when we started (in Lucerne),” Lande said.
And that size is necessary. The beans are exported to Mexico and the Dominican Republic, and the company is looking at the possibility of exporting to Cuba, too.
“We had goals to increase the business because of our passion and our competitiveness to grow, but you get to a certain point, acres was a concern. We lost a lot of bean acres here because of the grain prices and a lot of dairies coming in, but we knew we were going to grow,” Lande said.
When Brunner’s dad founded the company, he already had contacts in Mexico — that’s how the company was able to start exporting from year one.
Brunner said the company’s brand is very important, and is widely recognized for its quality.
“What we’ve done is we’ve built brand identity with the Frontier Brand, and that’s what we sell. People know when they buy a bag of Frontier beans that it’s going to be premium quality,” Brunner said.
Brunner was in the eighth grade when his dad started the company, and worked for Northern Feed and Bean throughout high school and college. After he graduated, he went into different lines of work — management at JCPenney, co-owning a fabric store and eventually real estate.
When his dad wanted to retire, Brunner stepped in to take over the business. And in that time, the brand never changed.
“I remember back in high school and college, it was important then. My father had established relationships with some of these businesses and then their sons took the business over,” Brunner said.
Eventually Brunner decided to retire himself. Well, almost.
Brunner sold the company to employees of Northern Feed and Bean. He said he knew they would continue on.
But Brunner stays on as a consultant. While, technically, retired, Brunner wasn’t going to leave Northern Feed and Bean.
“I like what I’m doing, and when I get up in the morning I’ve got to have a purpose. I don’t look at this as work,” he said.
Samantha Fox has been a reporter for The Fence Post since February 2016. She can be reached at [email protected] or (970) 392-4410 or on Twitter @FoxonaFarm. Article reprinted