The Sugarbeet Grower — Passed Away in August
That man was Al Bloomquist.
I used to wonder — in the years before Al’s failing health precluded him from making that breakfast stop — how many other patrons of the Fryn’ Pan restaurant possessed any idea of the impact this soft-spoken, unassuming elderly gentleman had on the region in which they lived. Did they know that he played a major role in preserving and expanding the sugarbeet industry — an industry whose direct economic impact in Minnesota and North Dakota, as of 2011, was estimated at $1.7 billion . . . an industry whose gross business volume as of that year was in the neighborhood of $4.9 billion? Did they know that for decades he knew — and was highly respected by — many of the real “movers and shakers” in Washington, D.C.?
My guess is that very few of those folks sipping their coffee and eating their eggs and pancakes had the slightest clue. I also doubt that their lack of insight or interest mattered at all to Al.
Aldrich “Al” Bloomquist, age 91, passed away on August 6, shortly after the July/August issue of The Sugarbeet Grower had been printed and mailed. In subsequent media coverage, he was hailed as a longtime leader in the region’s sugarbeet industry — and he certainly was. But many people don’t know that Al also established this magazine — The Sugarbeet Grower — in the early 1960s and owned it until 1986. Given that he was a journalist before entering the world of sugar, it was a natural extension for him.
A native of Willmar, Minn., Al enrolled at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., after high school. His college years were interrupted by World War II, however, during which he served in the U.S. Navy. He returned to Gustavus after the war and graduated in 1946. Al and his wife of 68 years, Meredith, were married while he was in the service.
After several years during which he worked at various jobs, including a couple stints with southern Minnesota newspapers, Al entered the sugarbeet industry in 1955 as the Minneapolis-based regional manager for Western Beet Sugar Producers, a group funded by beet sugar processing companies to promote sales of their product. When the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association decided to hire its first executive secretary in 1961, they offered the post to Al — and he accepted.
His decade-plus tenure with the RRVSGA involved numerous duties for Al; but by far his most far-reaching accomplishment was to spearhead the 1973 purchase of American Crystal Sugar Company by Red River Valley growers. While the company’s transition into a grower-owned cooperative obviously wouldn’t have happened without those farmers’ bold financial commitment, it’s widely agreed that Al Bloomquist’s vision, tenacity and strategical smarts sparked and fueled the historic venture.
In a 2003 interview with The Sugarbeet Grower, Al was asked, “What do you believe would have happened to sugarbeets in the Red River Valley had not the growers bought Crystal when they did?” He answered: “Well, East Grand Forks [factory] would have closed the next year (1974). That was already on the chopping block. It needed a lot of work, and the company had decided not to invest in it. Hillsboro was not part of Crystal at that time. So that left Moorhead, Crookston and Drayton, and they were getting run down — minimal maintenance. Actually, Crystal was a company that was moving toward the end. They just were not putting anything back in.”
After American Crystal became a co-op in 1973, Al was named its vice president of public affairs, focusing on grower concerns, legislative issues and public relations. He held that post for nearly two decades, during which he made innumerable trips to Washington, D.C., lobbying on behalf of Crystal and becoming a highly respected spokesman of the beet sugar industry. He capped off his long career by serving as president and CEO of American Crystal in 1991 and then, for a time, in a consultancy role.
Given the number of lives he touched, the knowledge he had and the role he played for decades, an entire book could be written about Al Bloomquist — the type of person he was and his importance to the U.S. beet sugar community. For purposes of this tribute in the magazine he founded, however, we asked three individuals who knew Al well to share a few thoughts about him. — Don Lilleboe
• George “Bud” Sinner served as governor of North Dakota from 1985 through 1992. A partner in the family farm at Casselton, N.D., since 1952, he was president of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association during 1975-79. After leaving the governor’s office, he became vice president-public affairs for American Crystal Sugar Company, a post he held until 1996.
“Al had a wonderful calm demeanor and a tranquil mind. He thought his thoughts, and he thought them quietly. He listened to everybody — but he was not persuaded by anything he didn’t really believe. I always admired his ability to take flak — sometimes abuse — and yet stay the course.
“He wasn’t a ‘rabble-rouser’ leader. He was a quiet, persuasive leader who drew others to understand what he understood. His background was in journalism, but he understood that if a railroad’s going to run, you have to run it. You can’t just let it idle along, not fixing the tracks and not updating. He understood a ton of things.
“I think Al was probably among the first to realize that American Crystal had to have a political action committee. I don’t think it was in the minds of the farmers; it was a ‘dirty word’ to most of them. But reality was, that’s the way the world ran — and it wasn’t going to change anytime soon. So either you played or you stayed home.
“On the Washington scene, he had so many friends — in Congress, in the Department (USDA) — and his influence was huge. He would remind them of the needs of the sugar farmers. That’s what he always talked about.”
• James Johnson joined the staff of the United States Beet Sugar Association in February 1989 and became its president in 1999. He first met Al Bloomquist several years earlier while a congressional staffer. As president of American Crystal in the early ’90s, Al sat on the USBSA Board of Trustees.
“As a leader and a founding father of the beet sugar cooperative movement in the Red River Valley, Al’s experience and expertise ‘spilled over’ and led the way for so many other parts of the country. During the past 15 years or so, the beet sugar industry has become totally farmer cooperative-owned. I think many people would look back and see Al Bloomquist’s work in the ’60s and ’70s as essential to that evolution — ground-breaking.
“His credibility was unmatched. Whether it was at the farm gate or the factory line or in the halls of Congress, Al Bloomquist’s word was his bond. You could bank on it. When he came into a room where members of Congress were present, I noticed they would come over to Al to find out what was on his mind; he didn’t have to cross the room to them.
“It was a combination of his personality and the respect that he earned through decades. I’ve always heard there are ‘show horses’ and there are ‘work horses.’ Al was a work horse who really did shine in the ring as well.
“He was a lovely man. I miss him still.”
• David Berg is president and CEO of American Crystal Sugar Company. He joined the company in 1987 and held several management posts prior to becoming president in 2007. Berg first met Al Bloomquist in 1979 while working as a reporter for Fargo-based television station WDAY.
“While working at WDAY, I came into American Crystal to ask what the impact would be when Coca-Cola reformulated to use high fructose corn syrup. Was it going to hurt the sugar industry? Al was confident the industry would be able to absorb it. So here we are, 30-plus years later. Coke has used a ‘gazillion’ tons of HFCS since then, and the sugar industry is as healthy as it’s ever been, considering the hit it took.
“After I came to work at Crystal, he remembered me and that conversation, and we laughed about it.
“Al understood the whole picture. He wasn’t an accountant, he wasn’t a salesperson; but he understood all of it. And he understood the people, the relationships — and they were important to him. That’s why he was so respected: intelligence and decency. He understood it all, and he treated you with respect. It was just nice to be around him. He was as unassuming and unegoistical a person as you’ll ever meet.
“The stereotype of a lobbyist is the sharpie who always has an angle, who’s always trying to figure out a different way to convince you to do something you might not be otherwise interested in doing. That wasn’t Al. He just knew the whole story, the whole equation, and he used logic, facts — and decency.
“He understood people, he understood coalition building with other agricultural commodities. He worked with them so everybody knew their interests were going to be heard. Then, when he went to a member of Congress or a staff person, they understood they weren’t going to be flimflammed. You were going to get the whole package from Al.”