CARRINGTON - A man has turned his small family farm into an international exporter of specialty oilseeds and has plans to expand his oilseed business even further in the coming months.
Roger Gussiaas, president of Gussiaas Family Farm Inc., became the owner of the original Gussiaas farm with his wife, Stacey, in 1994. A fact sheet on the farm says that traditionally spring wheat, sunflowers, barley and flaxseed were produced, but now several oilseeds along with grasses such as barley and wheat are raised to improve crop rotation to naturally break weed, disease and insect cycles.
In 2002 the farm started exporting oilseeds internationally, and that enterprise has now become an important part of the family business.
Dan Feldner/MDN --
Roger Gussiaas, left, president of Gussiaas Family Farm Inc., and Valentin Ciubotareanu, who runs the farm for Gussiaas, demonstrate how the bagging machine fills a bag of oilseed April 2.
"Our business is exporting oilseeds, specialty oilseeds such as golden flaxseed, brown flaxseed and borage, both nonorganic and organic," Roger Gussiaas said.
Flaxseed has gained national attention in recent years, and many North Dakota farms are planting it.
According to Gussiaas' fact sheet, flaxseed is high in fiber, omega-3 fatty acids and phytochemiclas called lignans. While flaxseed oil contains omega-3 fatty acids, it doesn't have the beneficial fiber the seeds have.
Studies indicate that flaxseed oil, as well as ground flaxseed, can lower cholesterol and significantly reduce the risk of heart disease. Flaxseed oil might also have a protective effect against angina (chest pain) and high blood pressure.
Flaxseed has also been found to play a role in protecting against certain cancers. The lignans in flaxseed appear to play a role in protecting against breast, colon, prostate and perhaps skin cancer. Flaxseed is also beneficial for problems associated with lupus, gout and constipation.
Although the Institute of Medicine has not set a recommended daily intake of omega-3 fatty acids, it has established adequate intake amounts of between 1 and 1.5 grams a day for adults. One tablespoon of ground flaxseed provides 1.6 grams of omega-3 fatty acids.
While many people have probably heard of flaxseed, borage might not be as familiar. The fact sheet states borage has been used for thousands of years for medicinal, culinary and decorative purposes. Borage is native to Europe, North Africa and Asia Minor.
In 1985, wide-scale production of borage crops in North America began for the purpose of harvesting the seed, which contains an oil rich in Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA), a "good" fat with numerous health benefits. The seeds of the borage plant contain 20 to 23 percent GLA, providing the richest natural source of this fatty acid - almost twice as much as in any other source. Due to its high concentration of GLA, borage oil has begun to replace traditional GLA-containing oils such as evening primrose and black currant.
GLA is beneficial for several health conditions such as premenstrual syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, eczema/psoriasis, diabetic neuropathy and cardiovascular disease.
"It's used in some cosmetics, it's also used as a supplement. People take like a spoonful a day or something like that, or it's mixed with flaxseed oil," Gussiaas said. "It's an essential fatty acid, EFA. The same with flaxseed, it's an essential fatty acid."
Gussiaas has been farming for decades, and said doing a few exports here and there led overseas companies to contact him about bigger orders. While farming is still vital to the family business, exporting has slowly become a more important part of the operation.
"My first year of farming was 1979 with my father (Mervin Gussiaas) ... and then about six years ago I was approached by a company in South Africa wanting borage," Gussiaas said. "And I sold them borage, and then I've sold them a lot of flaxseed since then and I've sold to other companies also in other parts of the world. I've also shipped to China, Spain, and Canada, and I work in several other countries now."
Gussiaas puts in bids to various companies around the world two or three times per week, and also ships some domestically, although that is only a small part of his business. Like any international business, Gussiaas said the highs and lows of the U.S. dollar affect him greatly, and even a small change can either help or hinder him as he tries to compete with other shippers.
"We're very dependent on the U.S. currency. The currency is very strong now, and if the U.S. dollar drops it's a lot easier for us to export," Gussiaas said. "It makes our products a lot cheaper in other parts of the world, and I compete a lot with Canada, so Canada is very tough competition right now."
Flax and borage are the only oilseeds Gussiaas currently exports, but he might eventually get into some other types as well.
More information on the Gussiaas Family Farm and the benefits of flaxseed and borage can be found at (www.healthyoilseeds.com).
The business of exporting
While the work needed to be a successful farmer is often hard on the body, the work needed to be a successful exporter is just as tough on the mind. Gussiaas said the stacks of paperwork required to export a single item is staggering, and it can quickly add up to an imposing mountain of paper and ink.
"I do all my own paperwork, and it's a tremendous amount of paperwork, the export side," Gussiaas said. "And then export declarations along with phytosanitary certificates and the collecting of money."
Collecting payment in particular can be difficult for an exporter. Gussiaas said some foreign countries try to protect their native industries from outside competition because they want to be as self-sufficient as possible. To do this the countries make it extremely difficult to send money to companies outside their borders.
"They don't want products coming from outside their country, they want to be able to grow them or build them or whatever as much as they can," Gussiaas said. "So it's even difficult for some companies to send checks for that reason, send a wire transfer."
Gussiaas is also a member of the North Dakota Trade Office, which he said has been essential in helping him establish and expand his export business.
The North Dakota Trade Office's Web site states its many membership services include:
Market-entry research and planning.
Export education and certification.
A network of 45 reliable export service providers international shippers, law firms, bankers and other professionals who are dedicated to North Dakota and its business community.
Product research and export project assistance to meet trade requirements.
Access to market research that is specific to countries and industries.
Promotional services on a statewide and industry-wide basis.
Assistance in finding qualified, well-suited international distribution partners.
Management of trade missions that connect North Dakota businesses with high-level trade officials and the world's most reliable and committed importers.
Quarterly meetings with trade experts who share their insight about export opportunities, export tax credits, grant opportunities, trade issues and other valuable information.
"The North Dakota Trade Office is very helpful in helping people become successful in the export market of any kind," Gussiaas said. "If it's education, as far as universities trying to bring people in, or if you have something that you build that you want to export, they're very instrumental, very helpful. They want to make you successful."
Natural Route LLC
A new venture is also emerging from the export business. Plans are in the works for a new business called Natural Route LLC. This business would involve crushing various types of oilseeds, mainly flax and borage at first, at the Gussiaas farm and then bottling the oil for shipment all over the world.
"We're gonna start crushing oilseeds and bottling oils. I am part owner, along with two people from South Africa who will also be owners," Gussiaas said. "One of them has been in the business for a long time, it's actually a husband and wife."
The couple is Paul and Margie Quinton, and Gussiaas said he's been doing business with a company Margie is a manager of. He has tried to sell the company's bottled oil products over here before, but shipping costs always proved to be the nail in the coffin when he approached other companies about selling the oil.
"I've been considering it for a long time. One business especially we've done business with in South Africa, and they've been very successful in this business and I just felt that I would like to get into that," Gussiaas said. "I have actually tried to bring their products over here and sell their products here, (but) because of the transportation costs, you know a lot of the seed is raised here and then it's shipped over to South Africa and then it's brought back over here again. I mean because of logistics it would not work. The transportation costs are just too high.
"So I thought, well, there's an opportunity here for me to get into it. So one of the managers of the company I do business with, I visited with her about the idea of coming over here and she (Quinton) was very enthusiastic right away. She has managed this company for a long time and she wanted to start her own company, so I gave her that opportunity, and I think it's a good fit. I have some things that can help the business and maybe some skills and a little bit of knowledge and then there's areas where she's very good at and she could do a very good job."
There will be a large variety of oilseeds used for oil extraction, Gussiaas said. The company will handle orders both large and small, but one thing Gussiaas noted is that they will not be trying to penetrate markets that already have major companies established in them. Natural Route is aiming for the specialty niche market, where Gussiaas believes it will be able to thrive.
"We're going to be crushing (oilseeds) and expelling and bottling oils, and it could be anything from bulk oils to small bottles. It could be anything from flax oil to hempseed oil, grapeseed oil, sesame seed, sunflower, soybean, but most of it's a specialty market," Gussiaas said. "We can't compete with the major cooking oil companies, and also we would be doing not just cooking oils, but also like a supplement, a health supplement like a spoonful of oil for health reasons. ... And we'd also want to supply the cosmetic industry, that's a big one for us, that's a real specialty market."
While Gussiaas would get as much oilseed as possible from his own and other farms in the area, he said some of the product would have to be imported because it doesn't grow in North Dakota.
"We would have to be doing some importing outside the area, definitely. Some of it can't be grown here," Gussiaas said, giving coconut as an example of something that would have to be imported.
They will be selling the bottled oil through a variety of channels, including on the Internet and to larger companies. While he also has visions of being able to sell the oils on a more local level, Gussiaas said that probably won't happen for quite a long time, if ever.
"We'd sell through Internet sales and we'd also sell to larger companies, maybe bottling for somebody and putting their label on," Gussiaas said. "It would be really nice, but I'm not sure if this will happen, but it would be nice at some time to be able to put a product on grocery store shelves, but that's a very difficult thing, that would be down in the future a ways."
The oilseed would be crushed and bottled on Gussiaas' farm using an existing building he will have to convert. He hopes to have things up and running and be producing oil by July.
"We're gonna begin on our farm. We're just trying to keep costs down as low as possible, but eventually we'd hope to build a building, but right now we're going to use an existing building on our farm and kind of renovate that to fit the business."
After all the oil is extracted, the crushed seed can be turned into a high-quality feed in the form of a meal or cake. This is another way they can add value to the business, as Gussiaas noted there is pretty good demand for flaxseed cake or meal.
Communicating for America
Gussiaas said one of the major factors that got him into the export business was his involvement with the organization Communicating for America, an agricultural exchange program for which he serves as vice president on the board of directors.
"We have a large exchange program, it's the largest in the United States. We bring over about 1,200 people a year from different countries to work here and it's kind of a cultural exchange also," Gussiaas said. "And also we have an outbound program where Americans go overseas to work. We also run that program."
Gussiaas said the exchange program covers four different aspects of agriculture - traditional agriculture like what is found in North Dakota, an equine program for racehorses in Lexington, Ky., an enology (wine production) program, and greenhouses.
A number of exchange workers have been on Gussiaas' farm over the years, as well. In fact, one is there helping to run the farm right now. He said it was his exposure to those people from all over the world that convinced him doing business on an international level was the right avenue to pursue.
"We've had 23 different people from different countries that worked with us, everywhere from Russia, France, Moldova, if you know where Moldova's at," Gussiaas said. "We have a guy from Moldova right now, it's between Romania and Ukraine ... in Eastern Europe. Also we've had German, Swiss, Swedish, Brazil, South Africa, and that's kind of made me feel that I want to do business internationally. That's kind of what got me going. These people had a big influence on me. ... I've been to several of these countries with the people, visited several of these people and got to be very, very good friends with the people that have worked with us."
There are two men from Moldova working on the Gussiaas farm - Valentin Ciubotareanu and his brother Ilie.
"I actually call them partners, because they're just great people and they're great friends of mine," Gussiaas said.
Along with Gussiaas' son Brock, the Ciubotareanu brothers help with the farm, allowing Gussiaas to concentrate on the export business. Currently Ilie is back in Moldova while Valentin basically runs the farm for Gussiaas.
"Valentin, he speaks about four languages and he's helped out the North Dakota Trade Office because they've had trade teams come in from Russia or Eastern Europe and he can visit with them fairly well," Gussiaas said, noting that the vice president of Moldova actually visited the farm this past year.
A bright future
While he only started putting full-time hours into the export business this past winter, Gussiaas sees a lot of potential in his current venture as well as in Natural Route.
"I think it looks good. I mean it's just like any new start-up business, there's gonna be definitely some obstacles to overcome and there'll be some struggles and stuff, but I think it looks good," Gussiaas said. "I mean that's why we have to keep costs extremely low, we have to be a very low-cost producer."
Gussiaas said they can keep their costs down by doing simple, economically sound things like not buying more equipment than they absolutely have to and using existing buildings instead of building new ones, as is the case with the seed-crushing building for Natural Route.
Gussiaas admits he's not a major force in the export business, but he believes he has a lot to offer customers willing to give him a chance. After all, at one time Amazon.com and Google were small players in their respective industries as well.
"I'm very small, but there's growth potential," Gussiaas said. "I love what I'm doing and hopefully we'll continue to grow."