STEPHEN, Minn. — If not for a sign along the highway, a motorist in Marshall County could easily mistake the H&S Headquarters for just another farm.
Close-up, it’s a collection buildings — office and main shop, smaller paint shop, a couple of storage buildings and an assembly shop. The company and farm headquarters in the late 1800s was part of a bonanza-style farm.
H&S Manufacturing is a vibrant, agricultural related manufacturing company that sprang from an innovative potato and sugarbeet farm in northwest Minnesota.
Craig P. Halfmann, 66, is chief executive officer of a farm and an ag equipment manufacturing business that has thrived by providing customized options in niche markets for sugarbeets, potatoes and other crops.
Sons Brent, 36, and Brian, 33, take the lead on the 5,000-acre Halfmann Farms Inc., where they raise sugarbeets, wheat, dry edible beans, soybeans and sometimes corn. Both hold business degrees from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.
Son-in-law Darin Adolphson, 38, trained as an engineer at the University of Minnesota and since 2017 has helped lead H&S Manufacturing Inc., a company celebrating 50 years. The company makes tillage, spraying equipment and sugarbeet harvest carts, and recently has branched into recycling equipment and other urban purposes.
In 1911, Craig’s maternal family came to this area.
Paul Halfmann, Craig’s father, raised potatoes and added sugarbeets in 1965, growing for American Crystal Sugar Co. Denver-based Crystal built its Drayton, N.D., factory in 1963, about 26 miles to the west.
In the mid-1960s, Paul and John Szklarski, his right-hand man on the farm, built an electric skid-steer loader, allowing them to move potatoes inside storage buildings without gasoline power. The two started making them for others and in 1971 together formed H&S Manufacturing Inc. — 50 years ago this year.
In 1972, Craig graduated from high school. That very summer, he bought shares in American Crystal Sugar Co., as it became a farmer-owned cooperative. In 1975, the Halfmanns established Halfmann Farms Inc. as a corporation.
In 1979, they dropped potatoes and concentrated on beets and manufacturing. In 1980, Craig married Marlys Steer, who grew up on a farm in the Angus/Warren area. Their three children were born from 1981 to 1987.
In those days, Paul took more responsibility for the manufacturing while Craig focused more on the farming and helped in the shop in the winter. As potato producers outgrew their skid-steer, H&S shifted to sugarbeet equipment — row crop cultivators and band sprayers, which targeted spray strips over the rows, saving costs from broadcast spraying. H&S also marketed a row crop cultivator.
Everything changed on Dec. 23, 1984, when Paul died unexpectedly from a heart attack.
He was 66.
Craig, at age 30, suddenly had to step up to keep both business going without his dad. The farm had two employees. H&S had five in the manufacturing side, plus several part-timers, especially in late winter and early spring. Marlys worked on the books.
Thanks to “good people on the farm,” Craig spent most of his time on the manufacturing end and helped out in the peak seasons in the spring and fall.
Craig credits his father for leaving a company that had no debt. Craig’s philosophy was to grow it slowly and build working capital. One key advantage was an ability to test new products on the farm.
“We found niche markets where other people didn’t really want to be a part of,” Craig recalled. In the 1990s, onion producers in western Idaho needed six- and eight-row cultivators. Michigan sugar growers were keen on H&S cultivators.
As the years flew by, Craig appreciated that the two enterprises were somewhat counter-cyclical. “The years farming wasn’t so profitable, the manufacturing would pick up. There was balance between the two.”
In the 1980s, H&S benefitted when farmers shifted to bigger band-sprayers.
They made a scrub-chain elevator that was a winner for retrofitting older Hesston harvesting machines that were common at the time.
The company’s products stood out in the wet 1985 crop season. “That scrub chain elevator really took off,” Craig said. “We had a machine that could clean.”
In the early 1990s, H&S started making sugarbeet carts and pull-type sprayers. In the mid-1990s, H&S started getting laser-cut parts from other suppliers, rather than cutting their own with plasma cutters.
Bigger and bigger
Row crop cultivators are getting more popular again, this time to organic farmers in Michigan and elsewhere.
“They’re not 12-row anymore, so they’re building bigger bars,” Craig said.
H&S well known for a range of sugarbeet carts. They’ve increased to 30- and 35-, and recently 44-ton model carts that come standard with tracks.
A typical 30-ton cart starts in the mid- $80,000 range, but can range to the $130,000 range, with all the bells and whistles. The options include sizes of wheels, as well as “transfer tracks,” that can be attached to 10-bolt hubs. They also offer an option for a Camso track, a track from a different manufacturer.
Since 2015, H&S has offered “ridging and de-ridging” tillage equipment. Sugarbeet farmers in Fisher, Minn., have adopted the technique which involves making ridges in the fall, fertilizing, knocking down the ridges and planting on top. The soil warms more quickly in ridges and retains the moisture because there’s less tillage.
The Halfmanns estimate perhaps 20% of the beets in the region now are planted with the technique.
H&S — and A
Craig estimates the business is 10 times what it was in the 1980s.
“Any business has to increase over time, or you’re going to go backward: you’re going to go broke,” he said, flatly. “You have to increase sales, revenue. The overhead keeps climbing, creeping.”
H&S sold through dealerships in sugarbeet areas — Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, Idaho. The Red River Valley always has been the heart of their marketing. Each area involved its own challenges — Michigan and Montana each had their own row spacing preferences.
“We all wear a lot of hats around here,” Brent said. “When Brian and I first started, we were in assembly, helping out as young kids. It’s been fun to transition and to continue to be involved.” Brent and Brian seem to enjoy each other’s company. Brent said there are inevitable disagreements in business, but they agree not to go home angry.
Adolphson adds another dimension. He’d grown up at Argyle and met the Halfmanns’ daughter, Katie, when they were in high school. The couple married in 2005 and have four children. Darin holds a civil engineering degree from the University of Minnesota and worked in building and steel construction until 2017, when he joined H&S.
Adolphson’s main roles at H&S are operations and sales.
H&S has a busy main production shop for fabricating large equipment. They have smaller stations for smaller equipment. There is a wash bay, preparing equipment for a painting, and finally an assembly shop — originally a potato warehouse that was built in 1961.
“We try to find trends for planning ahead, for purchasing,” Adolphson said. “Typically, we’re a smaller company, building products to order.”
In the mid 1990s, Craig became active in sugarbeet growers associations. He became president of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association, representing American Crystal Sugar Co. grower/shareholders. He went on the board membership in the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, and became vice president of the World Sugarbeet Growers Association, before sticking closer to home, in part to watch the boys play football.
Craig said he and Marlys feel very fortunate, with their kids and seven grandchildren around them.
“I have two sons and a son-in-law that are involved (in the business) and want to be involved,” he said. “They’ve gone to school, have the education, the foundation. Marlys and I are very lucky, we talk about it all of the time.”