‘Unsettled” Harless outlines lingering effects of the pandemic on rail transportation

After discussing lasting effects of the pandemic that cause the economy to be ‘unsettled’, Chairman Harless focused on issues primarily related to the rail transportation industry.

Leading up to the pandemic relations between class I railroads and labor unions were already stressed due to the staff reductions related to precision scheduled railroading (PSR) implementation. As the pandemic unfolded, rail freight was reduced, employees were furloughed, and equipment was parked. “Contract negotiations, at a boiling point over PSR implementations, were further complicated when the pandemic amplified staff shortages,” said Harless. As the economy recovered, unions threatened strikes that could have caused severe harm to the economy. A tentative agreement was reached in September and imposed on Class I railroads and Unions in early December.

Harless stated the rail industry is still not staffed to pre-pandemic levels. Staff shortages coupled with a difficult winter have meant HFCS tanker cars arrived late and were not shipped timely to customers. As a result, the plant had to cut back on production from December to March. “BNSF is still working their way back to the quality of service our plant expects to receive and BNSF expects to provide,” related Harless. He thanked BNSF’s Matt Jensen for his presentation to discuss BNSF’s plans going forward.

Harless then shifted gears to discuss the new partnership in ProGold which appears to be ‘calm and steady’.

“One year ago, we announced that Golden Growers and Cargill had become fifty-fifty owners of the ProGold plant in Wahpeton. That significant event started Golden Growers on a path that holds both possibilities and a promise.”

The possibility is the potential for a long-term joint venture with Cargill. The promise is a set purchase price of Golden Growers share in ProGold for $81 million in late 2026 if a long-term agreement does not occur, explained Harless.

Harless stated that the partnership had been a positive experience with open lines of communication between partners. He highlighted several major capital investments that had occurred to include initial phases of the distributive control system (DCS) conversion, a pre-dryer rebuild, and the germ burner replacement.

“I can say with a level of certainty that the ProGold plant will continue to provide employment and serve our farm community for many years to come.”

“It has been a great honor and privilege to serve on the Golden Growers Board. Thank you for allowing me to serve as your Chairman,” concluded Harless.

Matthew Jensen relays BNSF’s challenges and plans going forward

During his keynote speech to Golden Growers members, Matt Jensen discussed problems the railroad has experienced recently. “Frequent and Extreme winter weather has resulted in slower train speeds, longer car dwell at terminals, the need for additional locomotives, and reduced work productivity.”

BNSF is very experienced with winter conditions. “Winter conditions are tough, but we believe we are better than any railroad in winter operations.” He relayed how they prepare their locomotives and rail cars for seasonal extremes by numerous winterization measures to increase reliability. Jensen explained how winter operations are different. BNSF has proactively winterized over 1,500 locomotives. This includes heated air drains for moisture that can get in air lines and the relocation of locomotive air pipes, so they are less susceptible to freezing. BNSF has also replaced more than 33,000 railcars valve systems and replaced more than 6,300 gaskets between railcars. This will ensure air isn’t allowed to escape the train brake system during extreme cold weather. Railcar values and gaskets need to be replaced and changed to avoid frozen air hoses. And when major snow events occur, it takes crews several days for crews to clear the snow in rail yards so operations can resume.

Jensen relayed BNSF efforts to become fully staffed. “We achieved our hiring goal for 2022 of 3,000 new employees. For 2023, we are planning for 3,000 more.” According to Jensen, half of those hired are for additional train crews. To meet goals, they have enhanced recruiting efforts to include hiring incentives, streamlined applications, and engagement with high schools, colleges, and military communities. Jensen acknowledged that it takes time to get fully staffed. “New hire training for conductors can take up to 15 weeks to complete”

From a North Dakota perspective, BNSF has 1200 employees maintains over 1500 route miles, and ships around 325,000 carloads from the state annually. Over the past ten years, BNSF has invested $1.5 billion into rail assets within the state.

Directors Elected, Amendment Approved, Retired Directors Honored

GGC members approved a proposed bylaw amendment to change minimum income to be allocated to Method A pool members from 25% to 15%.

Golden Growers members also elected directors for three-year terms. They include: Brady Koehl, of Hancock, MN as At-Large Director; Nicolas Pyle of Casselton, ND for the Central District; and Richard Bot of Minneota, MN for the South District. David Kragnes of Felton, MN was elected for the North District for a two-year term.

At the 2024 Annual Meeting, directors will be elected for three-year terms for the At-Large, North, and South Director positions. If you have an interest, please contact Scott Stofferahn.

Harless & Johnson Honored

Mark Harless and Chris Johnson retired from the Golden Growers Board at the conclusion of the 2023 Annual Meeting. Harless was first elected in 2011 and served on the Board a total of 12 years. Johnson served twelve years from 2008-2020 and again in 2022 to fill a one-year term. Secretary Matt Hasbargen offered appreciation to both directors.

“Chris has the distinction of having served 13 years, tying the record set by Jason Medhaug,” commented Matt Hasbargen.

“Mark set the record as the longest serving Chair since our cooperative began. Mark dedicated a great deal of time and talent. He led us during two key negotiations including the change in ProGold ownership. Mark set the standard for leadership,” stated Hasbargen.

Guest Speaker, Matthew Jensen, BNSF

Golden Growers is pleased to announce Matthew Jensen as our annual meeting guest speaker.

Mr. Jensen is BNSF Railway’s Manager for Agricultural Development within our region.

Changes in management within Class I railroads, effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain issues, and workforce have combined to cause serious challenges for railways and the industries that rely on them. Matt will address these issues in his presentation at the GGC Annual Meeting.

Golden Growers Annual Meeting, March 23rd

PLEASE ATTEND the Golden Growers ANNUAL MEETING, Thursday, March 23rd at the DoubleTree Conference Center, 825 E. Beaton Drive, West Fargo, ND

The Agenda Includes:

  • 9:00 a.m. Short Courses
    John Hejl, Casselton Fire District Chief
    Angie Johnson. NDSU Ext, Grain Bin Safety
    Pat Pithey, Cargill Corn Merchandising
  • 10:00 a.m. Annual Meeting:
    – 2023 Election Results
    – Review of the Financial Statements
    – Reports by the Chairman and Executive Vice President
  • 10:45 a.m. Guest Speaker Matthew Jensen, Manager Ag Development, BNSF Railway
  • 11:45 a.m. Lunch followed by our members only Q&A session

2023 Elections coincide with the March 23rd Annual Meeting

Enclosed with the notice of Annual Meeting, members have the opportunity to re-elect and elect Directors to serve on the GGC Board of Directors.  Ballots may be mailed in the envelopes provided or submitted at the annual meeting.

Current directors up for re-election for 3-year terms are: Brady Koehl, Hancock, MN (At-Large Director) and Rick Bot, Minneota, MN (South District). Board Chair Mark Harless (North District) will reach his term limit and Chris Johnson (Central District) has decided not to run for re-election. We are so thankful for the leadership Mark and Chris have provided to our cooperative.

Due to Bylaw changes approved in 2019, the North District director position will be filled as a 2-year term. The Central district position is for a 3-year term.

David Kragnes submitted a petition to run for the 2-year term for the North District and Nicolas Pyle submitted a petition to run for the 3-year term for the Central District.

In addition to the election of Directors, Members will vote on an amendment to the Golden Growers Bylaws that would reduce the Method A income allocation threshold from 25% to 15%, effective as of January 1, 2023.

More information about candidates for Golden Growers Board of Directors candidates and the proposed Bylaw amendment can be found here:

(Click Link) 2023 GGC Candidate Profiles and Bylaw Amendment Summary

Our accounting firm, Eide Bailly LLC, has agreed to receive and tally the mailed ballots. Having an independent firm receive and count the ballots will give members assurance of election accuracy.

Method A Incentive Doubles to $0.10/bushel for 2023

At their December Meeting, the Board of Directors decided to double the Method A Incentive payment for deliveries to the plant from $0.05 to $0.10/bushel for 2023.  This is the incentive provided to members who patronize the plant by delivering corn directly to the plant either by themselves or through an affiliated party.

As a result of this decision, GGC members will be given an extended period of time to change their pool election for 2023.

Given this new information, members who may want to change their delivery method may submit a new Annual Delivery Election form.  Members who no longer have their election form, may contact the office (701-281-0468 or scotts@goldengrowers.com) for a replacement or they may download a form from the GGC Website here.  Only members who intended to change their delivery method for 2023 needed to respond.

Because this information has come so late in the year, GGC will allow a member to change their election through the end of March 2023.  After that deadline, GGC will not able to change a member’s delivery obligation for the year.

Note: If a member changes from Method B to Method A from January through March, any corn delivered prior to the changes may not be able to be assigned to the delivery agreement.  Therefore, if a member would like to delivery Method A for 2023, it would be best to submit a new Annual Delivery Agreement prior to any deliveries.

A REMINDER: Method A Pool Participants have Delivery Choices
Provisions of GGC’s Grain Services agreement with Cargill allows members to complete their deliveries through affiliated persons who: 1) Have a familial relationship to the Member; 2) Own or control more than 50% or has management rights over the Member; 3) Shares farming resources with the Member; 4) Are an entity in which 50% ownership is by an immediate family member(s) of the Member; OR Rents land from the Member on which the crop is produced (Tenant). Cargill may pay Affiliated Persons directly for corn delivered on behalf of the Method A member. Incentive payments will be issued to the Method A member, however.


Golden Growers Cooperative will hold its Annual Members Meeting on Thursday, March 23rd at the Doubletree Conference Center, 825 E Beaton Drive, West Fargo, ND. Members will have the opportunity to elect Directors to serve on the Golden Growers Board. Current directors up for re-election for 3-year terms are: Richard Bot, Minneota, MN (South District) and Brady Koehl, Hancock, MN (At-Large Director). Chris Johnson, Wahpeton, ND who was elected in 2023 for a 1-year term has chosen not to run for re-election leaving an open seat in the Central District for a 3-year term.

Our Board Chair Mark Harless (North District) will reach his term limit. We offer our deepest appreciation to Mark for his dedication to Golden Growers Cooperative. We especially appreciate his steady leadership serving as Chairman for the past eight years!

Due to the change in Bylaws approved at the 2019 Annual Meeting, the North District director position, vacated by Mark Harless, will be filled as a 2-year term. If you have an interest in serving on the GGC Board, this is an excellent time to consider the idea!

Any member in good standing is eligible to be nominated as an At-Large Director or as a Director in the district where the member is registered. If you are interested and want more information about district elections, visit our website at www.goldengrowers.com or contact us at 701-281-0468 or scotts@goldengrowers.com.

Board Proposes to Amend Bylaws in 2023

The GGC Board of Directors will propose an amendment to the GGC Bylaws which would change the allocation of income between Method A and Method B pools.

Presently, Section 8.2 (c) of the Bylaws requires the allocation of 25% of income to bushels delivered through the Method A pool even if Method A bushels delivered are less than 25%.  This situation would result in varying income allocations by year and by bushel for each member of the cooperative.  Tracking these varied allocations through distributions to members and through the member K-1 tax forms has been described as a ‘nightmare scenario’ that could cost in excess of $250,000 in increased administrative and accounting costs on an annual basis.

Historically, Method A pool bushels delivered have exceeded the 25% threshold so there was no cause for concern.  Lately, however, we have come dangerously close to dropping below the 25% threshold.  In response to this situation, the Board: a) increased the Method A incentive payment from $0.05 to $0.10/bushel for 2023; AND b) proposes to reduce the Method A income allocation requirement from 25% to 15%, effective as of January 1, 2023.

Given the change in the Method A Incentive for 2023 and in light of the proposed amendment to the Bylaws, GGC members will be given the opportunity to adjust their Annual Delivery Election for 2023 through the end of March of 2023.

The proposed amendment will be submitted to GGC members along with their ballots to elect Directors for the Board in advance of the 2023 Annual Meeting.

Rail Transportation Continues to Roil Ag Industry

In March, the National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA) wrote the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to highlight “significant” service disruptions reported by their members.

Corn refiners also identified problems with ‘first mile’ and ‘last mile’ rail service – situations where product is not picked up to be shipped OR product has arrived in a nearby rail yard, but not delivered to its destination.

Roots of rail transportation problems are several. Beginning in 2003, Class I railroads (with the exception of BNSF) began adopting Precision Schedule Railroading (PSR) a operational method focused on maximum asset utilization and return on investment.

Critics (Shippers and Unions) insist that PSR puts investor interests ahead of customer service by slashing expenses for equipment and headcount. They say PSR leads to the loss of redundant capacity and service disruptions caused by severe weather and seasonal surges in shipping.

COVID also impacted the entire shipping industry. Supply chains were disrupted, shipments were dramatically decreased, and railroads parked assets and 12,500 employees were furloughed. When the economy began to improve, furloughed workers were not available making it difficult for railroads to re-deploy power and equipment.

Problems were further exacerbated by failed contract negotiations between Class I railroads and Unions. Salary increases aside, main sticking points focused on quality of life issues. This all came to a head when, with the intervention of the Biden Administration, an early morning tentative agreement averted a national rail strike.

Despite the apparent contract resolution, concerns persist. Customers wait for product to be delivered timely, processors wait for supplies to arrive and stranded cars to be returned, and shippers, in general, hope that we are not experiencing a ‘new normal’ for rail freight service.