As soon as Eric Halverson was old enough to reach up and take hold of a steering wheel, he began contributing as a working member of his family's Black Gold Farms. But according to his tax records, he first started farming full time in 1999. A graduate of North Dakota State University's agricultural and bio-systems engineering program, he always knew he'd be involved with farming and agriculture in some way. Today, Halverson is the executive vice president of technology at Black Gold.
Likewise, he was destined to represent the growers and potato industry of the Red River Valley and Northern Plains on the United States Potato Board (USPB). He was elected to serve on the USPB while he completed the 2008 Potato Industry Leadership Institute (PILI) program. PILI is a two-week program providing an overview of the potato industry's challenges and issues beyond the production sector, and the roles of the industry's state and national organizations in maintaining a positive business climate for potato growers. PILI is a joint venture between the National Potato Council and the USPB and is sponsored by Syngenta.
Halverson was later elected by his 2008 PILI class to be the grower-leader, attending and leading the 2009 PILI class through its program - so you could say he received a double-dose of valuable industry leadership training. After the 2009 USPB annual meeting, this extra experience was put to good use when his peers on the USPB North Central Caucus ¬- the Northern Plains Potato Growers - voted for him to serve on the USPB administrative committee.
Black Gold is a multi-generation, family-owned organization firmly planted in North Dakota's Red River Valley. In 1928, Halverson's great-grandfather, A.E. (Alfred Eric) Halverson planted the farm's first seed potatoes on homesteaded land near Forest River, N.D. Next in succession was grandfather Jack Halverson, who further developed and improved the farm. Then Halverson's father, Gregg Halverson, president and CEO of Black Gold, brought continued growth and advancement to the farm.
"Dad really expanded the farm while I was in high school," Halverson said. "Our family had a registered Angus cattle herd since 1965, and this was one of the origins for calling our farm ‘Black Gold.'
"In the 80s, we made some monumental changes. We sold the herd in 1985, and started growing potatoes on a farm near Charleston, Mo., in 1986. This was our first farming location outside of North Dakota. Today, we have farms in Texas, Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, Missouri, North Carolina, Maryland, Indiana, Michigan, Louisiana and the original farm in Forest River, N.D," Halverson said.
Halverson lives and works in Grand Forks, Black Gold's headquarters, but travels to the farms in the other 10 states as part of Black Gold's executive team. He works alongside his father, and brother, John Halverson, vice president of operations. A sister, Leah Brakke is an account manager for AdFarm, an agricultural advertising agency that does marketing in Fargo, N.D., and is ready and able to serve Black Gold's advertising, communication and promotional needs.
"As the fourth generation of farm and business leaders, we've been given many opportunities, and Dad has done a very good job preparing us," Halverson said, "but, we're fortunate in having a great team of executives and farm managers. We can't be everywhere at once, so we need to put our trust in the abilities of the good people who make Black Gold successful."
Rounding out the Black Gold executive team is Danielle Golden, executive vice president of sales; Bob Hoffert, chief financial officer; and John Nordgaard, executive vice president of operations. Black Gold's sales, marketing, transportation and accounting teams are also at the company's Grand Forks headquarters. At each farm location across the country, Black Gold has an able staff of managers, assistant managers, specialists, farm technicians, agronomists, directors and office staff.
"Chipstock production is far and away our largest crop enterprise, and we grow Atlantics and Frito-Lay varieties," Halverson said. "We market to Frito-Lay and have dealings with most chippers east of the Rocky Mountains. We've expanded our farming operations to be nearer to our major markets. We currently have 17,000 acres in production at these farm locations across the United States."
On the Forest River farm, certified seed potatoes are still grown, the same as when the farm first started as a certified seed potato operation in 1928. In 1959, table-stock potatoes were added, and today, Black Gold produces red, white and yellow fresh potatoes specifically for retail and foodservice.
Halverson is just completing his third year as a USPB board member, and his second year on the USPB international marketing administrative committee. He has been an active participant on USPB trade missions and reverse trade missions (RTMs). He helped open a new market for U.S. chipstock potatoes in Central America.
Halverson joined a team of U.S. growers and traveled to Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala on a USPB trade mission during November-December 2009. The delegation met with major snack food manufacturers, importers and distributors in each country to learn more about the Central American snack-food market and each of the company's supply needs.
"The companies we visited were very open to learning more about US potatoes, and quite a few expressed interest in trying them in the future," Halverson said.
As a chip producer, Halverson is enthused with the USPB grower chip committee's work in variety development. Methods and technologies to fast track new varieties are important to maintaining the chip industry, but holds promise in ultimately benefiting other potato production sectors also.
"As a potato industry, we need to support the USPB in developing programs that will ultimately work and provide benefits for each segment," he said. "The chip deal is a great example of how the potato industry has taken a proactive stance to solve health and quality issues, and this work will eventually prove beneficial to the entire potato industry.
"The potato industry is in good hands with the USPB. Though each sector competes for limited program funding, and everyone might not be in agreement on how to best accomplish long-term market development, the USPB is doing a good job channeling resources and industry efforts. As a catalyst for positive change in the industry, it is uniquely positioned to equitably represent each production sector, and affect the long-term improvement that will shape the future of the industry," Halverson said.
— By David Fairbourn, manager, industry communications and policy, at the United States Potato Board