Corn growers in Minnesota and the Dakotas saw the potential for value-added processing cooperatives in the 1980s and early 1990s. The model created by sugar co-ops and a corn miller in southwest Minnesota provided the incentive to consider possibilities for the tri-state region.
In 1993, discussion moved from speculation to planning. At the same time, American Crystal Sugar Company in Moorhead, Minn., was considering expanding its product line to include corn sweeteners. Corn growers held their first meetings with American Crystal that summer, and the sugar co-op committed resources to the project.
The group had a volunteer planning board and a conceptual agreement to pursue plans for a corn wet mill. American Crystal and a second beet sugar co-op, Minn-Dak, Wahpeton, N.D., had expressed interest in joining in a project.
By March, 1994, the corn growers and sugar co-ops had developed a preliminary plan, and each group had tentatively agreed to invest in the project. Plans called for a new corn growers’ cooperative to own 49% of the project, American Crystal to own 46%, and Minn-Dak to own 5%. (Minn-Dak sold its share in 2003 to American Crystal.) It was decided the plant would focus on producing high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). The grind capacity was set at approximately 30 million bushels a year, with maximum annual production of about 1 billion pounds of HFCS.
The corn growers group held meetings with prospective members, asking for contributions to finance the development stage of the co-op and fund its share of further research. Growers responded with $1.7 million in donations, and Golden Growers Cooperative (GGC) was born.
GGC then officially joined with American Crystal and Minn-Dak to create ProGold LLC, and ProGold hired its first employees to begin planning and development of the project. The staff and board hired a plant management team, chose a site for the plant, and chose an engineering-design company.
In May, 1995, ground was broken the ProGold plant at a 150-acre site north of Wahpeton, and construction continued until the plant was operational in late 1996. Start-up of the ProGold plant unfortunately coincided with the lowest HFCS prices in history. In addition to the ProGold plant, other HFCS factories in the U.S. had been built or upgraded since 1995, and the resulting over-capacity resulted in falling prices.
The low market prices created losses throughout the HFCS industry, and ProGold was no exception. Although losses were anticipated for its start-up year, ProGold experienced much higher losses than expected in 1997 and projected even greater losses for 1998.
ProGold sought a partner with strength in operations, marketing and finance. ProGold signed a lease agreement with Cargill, Inc., to operate its Wahpeton plant and market the products from that plant through 2008. The lease was renewed for ten years in 2008, five years in 2018, and was recently extended through December 31, 2026.
Along with the 2018 lease, Cargill, American Crystal Sugar, and Golden Growers entered into Option and Consent agreements giving Cargill the ‘option’ to buy 50% interest in ProGold from American Crystal Sugar. On March 1st of 2022, pursuant to Cargill exercising its option to purchase 50% interest from American Crystal Sugar, Golden Growers purchased American Crystal’s remaining 1% interest. The result is that Golden Growers and Cargill are 50/50 owners in ProGold. ProGold has leased the plant to Cargill through December 31st of 2026.
Golden Growers is governed by its 9-member board of directors, and currently has about 1,500 members. All members have an annual delivery obligation proportional to their share of ownership. The board meets quarterly, the cooperative holds its annual members’ meeting in March.