Minto potato business back after fire
Red potatoes top crop for Lone Wolf Farms
The Lone Wolf Farms’ distinctive logo is back on the scene in Minto. After a devastating fire destroyed their potato warehouse and wash plant in the fall of 2011, three generations of the Bjorneby family of the Minto/Grafton area have returned to the wholesale potato business with a vengeance.
O. C. Bjorneby, who grew up in the Hoople area, moved to Minto to begin his own farming operation in 1938. “The Lone Wolf name came from our potato bag brand name,” said Keith Bjorneby, the third generation Bjorneby to operate the farm and potato business. “O.C. came up with the idea of using the image after seeing it on a painting in a farm house that he bought. He saw it and thought it would make a good potato brand.”
The Lone Wolf brand is now registered for exclusive use on potato packaging.
Over the next 75 years, four generations of Bjornebys would operate Lone Wolf Farms. O.C., his son Dean, Dean’s son Keith, and Keith’s sons Chris and Josh have all stayed with the farming and potato business.
With its new potato warehouse, wash plant, and packaging facility, Lone Wolf Farms is poised to extend into the fifth generation. Chris, Josh and their young families all live on adjacent farmyards northwest of Minto. Currently they grow primarily red potatoes. Rounding out the entire farming operation are other crops including wheat, sugar beets, and soybeans.
Their state of the art potato facility is a hybrid design, built with some of their own ideas intertwined with the best designs from similar operations located around the country. In addition, the wash plant operates with a vegetable scrubber manufactured in New Zealand, an optical grader from a company in Ireland and a bagger from Spain.
A series of local manufacturers worked with the Bjorneby team to build the plant and connect all the machinery.
“We like to work with local manufacturers,” Keith said. “They have stuck with us all these years and we like to use local businesses as much as possible.”
The entire design and build process took a little less than one year. The team put their ideas on paper, then converted those ideas to a three dimensional design with all the components connected. The design is so unique that the Bjorneby team considers some elements to be proprietary – information that they will hold privately.
“It was pretty intense to put it all together in one year,” Keith said.
The plant hosts the best of the washing and grading equipment they found in their travels across the country, along with a gravity water flume system that delivers the potatoes from the warehouse to the wash plant.
According to Chris Bjorneby, some of the key elements of the warehouse design are its insulation and the flume system used to get the potatoes to the wash plant.
“The warehouses are built for long term storage,” Chris said. “They are very well insulated, with a 10 foot concrete wall and metal roof that is insulated with 6 inches of spray foam.”
A dirt bank covered in stones also extends 8 feet up the exterior of the concrete wall, providing additional insulation. Humidity inside the warehouse is at 99 percent and the temperature is maintained at approximately 38 degrees.
Inside each warehouse is an intricate flume system. Every few feet along the length of the warehouse are three foot deep flumes cut into the floor. During harvest each flume is covered by hundreds of small flume boards. Each flume board is made from recycled milk cartons. Once the potatoes are in the warehouse and they start up the wash plant, the flume boards are removed section by section. Water is pumped into the flumes to begin the flow of potatoes to the wash plant.
The potatoes move through a total of seven processing steps prior to leaving the plant in a box or bag marked with the Lone Wolf logo. After a presoak, the potatoes get polished in the Vege-Polisher. After three rinses, the potatoes move over the optical grader, which uses computer images of every potato to sort them for defects. “The grader is used to sort out the #2 grade potatoes and culls,” Keith said.
A final inspection is completed by Lone Wolf employees before the potatoes head for the packaging line. Lone Wolf operates four grading lines. Up to 20 employees work for Lone Wolf Farms during the peak harvest and packaging season.
Lone Wolf’s major customers are re-packers, retailers and wholesale food service providers.
“In addition to the boxes and bags, we also sell 2,000 pound tote bags that re-packers break down to 5 and 10 pound bags,” Keith said. “They are primarily repackaged for grocery stores in large urban retail markets. We also supply some local restaurants.”
The marketing of the product from Lone Wolf’s headquarters never ends, however.
“Chris is on the phone all the time, cold calling potential new customers,” Keith said.
The fifth generation of Bjornebys, Claire, Emma, Anna, Molly and Tyler, ranging in age from three to nine, are a little young to be making decisions about their futures. Their family’s new investment in the potato business may mean there will be plenty of opportunity for the Lone Wolf Farms’ tradition to continue for a long time to come.