Bjerke Brothers Inc.
Founded in 1990 by Curt and Tracy Bjerke, Bjerke Brothers Inc. (BBI) is one of the Midwest’s leading designers and suppliers of grain- and seed-cleaning systems and equipment. Based in Buxton, North Dakota, BBI serves customers big and small, including grain cooperatives, private and commercial grain and processing companies, among others, completing work on export terminals, elevators, flour and seed mills, malt, pulse and oilseed processors as well as seed cleaning plants.
Led by the brother management team of Tracy and Curt Bjerke, who have a combined 75 years of experience in the industry, BBI has developed a niche in providing customized processing solutions that can ensure accurate separation of grain and seed based on length, width, thickness, surface texture density and color.
“Our niche is in our expansive customer base and 35 years of experience in the business,” says Tracy Bjerke. “Other companies might send some young guy in and set him up with a sales office —it’s not too long before that office is closed up because he doesn’t have broad enough experience or any service to provide aside from a piece of equipment.”
Over the last 26 years, BBI has designed and supplied more than 1,500 grain- and seed-cleaning systems to customers across the U.S. with a geographic footprint that extends well beyond the company’s home state of North Dakota. The company specializes in fully integrated system made up of as many as 25 distinct machines, installing them in more than 100 grain elevators and terminals and working with some of the biggest names in the agriculture industry, including ADM, Cargill Grain, ConAgra and General Mills.
On the grain-processing systems engineering side of the venture, BBI designs value-added processing equipment that has the potential to extend operators’ inventory positions, allowing producers to retain their product until it can command the best possible price on the market. BBI has designed such systems for industry leaders such as Dahlgren and Company, Pioneer Grain and Bunge.
A full complement of companies
Duane Bjerke, father of Curt and Tracy, worked for a processing equipment company in Minneapolis in the early ‘70s. Curt and Tracy joined their father in the late ‘70s and learned the trade before striking out on their own to form BBI in 1990.
Today the Bjerkes operate a suite of four distinct companies all aimed at serving various facets of the diverse agriculture industry. “We are full service; we can sell any of the equipment, we can build you a processing plant, we can service the equipment, or we can process your product. I don’t think there’s any other full service company quite like us,” Tracy says. BBI itself focuses on the domestic market, selling, installing and servicing processing equipment for all small grains, beans and peas as well as designing and building processing plants for said commodities.
Crippen Northland Superior Supply Co. (CNSSC) — another associated company — sells and commissions processing equipment for all small grains beans and peas in Canada and internationally, with customers in Mexico, Central and South America.
Founded in 1994 by Curt and Tracy, Cummings Ag Inc. (CAI) is a custom processor of commodities with a focus on dry edible beans, field peas, lentil and garbanzo beans. CAI processes commodities for other commercial companies from its’ two processing facilities in Cummings, North Dakota, and a new state-of-the-art warehouse and bagging facility unveiled in 2015 under a unique business model that sets Bjerke apart from the competition.
“As far as I know we are the only custom processor that works with other commercial companies,” says Tracy. “All the other companies are in the commodities business, so they’re in direct competition and if bean company A and bean company B are trying to get the same acreage and same farmers, they are not going to custom-process for each other.”
By staying out of the fray and serving myriad customers, CAI can ensure that business never dries up completely. “We like to say we’re everybody’s customer and we’re nobody’s competition; we’re neutral,” Tracy says. Moving forward, Tracy would like to see CAI expand its storage capabilities, allowing the company to lease more storage space to customers on a yearly basis than at present time.
The last element of BBI’s agricultural solutions empire is Northwest Seed Cleaning Services Inc. (NWS), a mobile service that uses four portable processing units to clean customers’ seeds on-site at farms and other processing facilities across the U.S.
“We have the ability to provide customers with a processing service if they’re not ready to invest in their own processing plant but want to garner some business and grow their marketing base before they invest in steel,” Tracy says. BBI and CNSSC share a staff of eight employees while CAI and NWS employ 10.
Almost all of BBI’s manufacturing is done at St. Louis, Michigan-based Crippen Manufacturing Company, a 40,000-square-foot fabrication and assembly shop with CNC plasma-cutting equipment, forming, fabricating, assembly and painting capabilities.
“Our whole business has been built on our customer’s needs and it was kind of a natural progression,” says Tracy. “Most of our expansion has been based on customer response and request, even our new plant.”
Finger on the pulse
The rise of pulse crops such as lentils in recent years has spurred major growth at CAI and NWS, where a continual investment in technology has allowed the company to keep pace with industry trends.
“We’re booked all the time,” Tracy says. “Say you have a company that has previously only bought pinto beans. Well, if they use our capabilities they can now buy their customers’ black beans or red beans and service their customers fully by having the capabilities to process different varieties,” says Tracy.
The custom seed and grain business has changed a lot since the Bjerkes first entered the industry as higher yields necessitate new marketing strategies.
“Back in the day everyone would hold on to their product to ensure that they had enough to keep their plant running until the next harvest,” says Tracy. “Now the volume is such and the dollar is such that if there is a market for the product, they will get it shipped, sold and paid for as fast as they can.”
This has created ample opportunities for BBI, which can help customers dramatically expand their processing capabilities in order to capture that next big sale. “If someone has the ability to buy 50,000 hundred weight of any dry edible beans and can’t process it but have a market for it, they can turn that into money by utilizing us,” Tracy says.
The recent slide in commodity prices has taken its toll on the agriculture industry over the last year, and BBI has not been immune. “It’s definitely slower than last year, but as far as equipment sales and building go, we’re still doing well,” Tracy says. “It’s a good time to invest because money is cheap; that’s exactly why we thought to build a new plant a year ago.”
Consultation has become a steadily larger portion of BBI’s business over the years, with the company offering expert advice to both established customers and prospective clients. “Sometimes it ends in a sale, sometimes it doesn’t. There have been a number of times over the last 35 years when people have bought from someone else and then come back, so you never burn any bridges,” Tracy says.
“Our consultations are normally free unless they need to fly us somewhere,” says Curt Bjerke, co-owner at BBI. “I had a guy call me on a Saturday morning who is big in sesame seeds in California. He flew us out to his plant and soon we had a portable unit headed to his facility in Corpus Christi, Texas.”
Curt travels the world offering his special brand of expertise to clients. His work has taken him as far afield as Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Australia. “These factories that build the equipment often don’t know how to operate or commission it. There was a company in Ohio that sold some equipment to a company in the Ukraine and couldn’t instruct them how to operate the equipment so they gave them my number and they hired me to go to the Ukraine and commission a seed plant,” Curt says.
As trusted experts in the industry, offering a full-slate of custom designed grain and seed cleaning systems and equipment and leading expertise, Bjerke Brothers Inc. is making a name for itself across the globe from the Plains of North Dakota.