ND ethanol plant workers ponder uncertain future

Source: KEVIN BONHAM • Grand Forks Herald , The Associated Press  • Posted: Friday, February 10, 2012

It’s been just a couple of days since Archer Daniels Midland Co. announced that Walhalla’s ADM Corn Ethanol Plant would close in April, but workers and contractors already are pondering an uncertain future.

“I’m stunned,” said Flint Huffman.

The 46-year-old started at ADM as a welder for a contractor 20 years ago but for the past four years has been in the company’s equipment maintenance section. He also had been working toward becoming certified as a crane operator.

His wife, Lynnette, works for Johnson Farms, a large agricultural business in Walhalla.

“It’s almost a given I’m going to have to go on the road or going to have to move. It’s awful. I’ve got a young boy at home,” he said. “That’s the main reason I took the job, for the good benefits.”

The closure will affect 61 employees, according to ADM. Mayor Chris Jackson estimated that about 50 of the employees live in town, which is about 5 percent of the 996 residents.

“I assure you that throughout this process, we will treat each colleague fairly, with dignity and respect, and in keeping with our values,” Luther Pohlmann, ADM’s corn processing regional manager, wrote in a letter to the mayor

Employees will receive severance packages, including outplacement, he wrote. Some will have an opportunity to transfer to other ADM facilities, though he made no promises

There are ADM facilities in Enderlin and Velva.

The company is still in the process of deciding what to do with the facility and the property, Pohlmann said.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple has offered to help ADM find buyers for the plant and sweeten the deal with state assistance through loans and training.

The plant’s closure will leave northeastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota without an ethanol processing facility. A plant in Grafton closed in 2007.

“This absolutely affects everybody in Walhalla, not just the employees and their families,” Jackson said. “It hits the restaurants, the stores, the gas station. Anytime someone comes to town to do subcontractor work out there, they’ve got to stay at the hotel, they have to eat.

“There’s fear. It’s going to be tough,” he said.

“It sucks,” Dean Kram said bluntly. The lifelong Walhalla resident and an ADM shift supervisor has spent 22 years at the plant.

Working the night shift on Wednesday, he planned to drive to Langdon for the annual Canola Day. Like some of his co-workers, he’s hoping to land a job at the new Northstar Agri Industries canola oil plant, which is under construction near Hallock, Minn., about 60 miles away.

“Hopefully, I can find something there. That wouldn’t be too far from here,” he said.

Scott Newman knows he’ll be piling on the miles.

The trucker from Grand Forks was filling his rig with gas at the local Cenex this week after dropping off a load of corn from Argyle, Minn.

“I’ve been making this trip once a day, sometimes twice,” he said. “It’s nice, because I can bring corn here and then pick up some canola to haul to Enderlin, or some wheat to the State Mill in Grand Forks.

“What I liked about this was that it’s year-round, it’s more consistent, and I could haul both ways,” he said. “Now, it’s going to be a lot more expensive.”

Opened in 1985 as Dawn Enterprises, the Walhalla ADM plant has closed a few times and changed hands throughout its history. But it always came back.

The mayor said he holds out hope that it will make another comeback, either as an ethanol plant, a grain-handling facility or something else.

“Hopefully, they’ll try to bring something in here,” he said. “It’s going to be hard. That’s 5 percent of our population losing their jobs, good-paying jobs with benefits. There’s no way they’re all going to find work in town.”

That’s not too comforting to people like Flint Huffman.

“I knew it has shut down before,” he said, “but I thought it might be the last job I’d ever need.”