Cindy Doane Brown did not anticipate running the family business one day.
She grew up in Dunn County and initially planned to operate a hotel but began working on the family farm as a college junior. Doane Brown enjoyed the job and progressed to a full-time job after graduation. She worked her way up and has served as president of Chippewa Valley Bean and Doane Limited for nine years.
For Doane Brown, who oversees one of several area vegetable growers, the role represents the chance to build the company’s local legacy. The business was established in 1858 and is now one of the world’s largest kidney bean exporters, selling products around the globe from its headquarters at N2960 730th St., Menomonie.
Generally, Chippewa Valley Bean oversees sales and marketing, while Doane Limited handles the farming operations. The companies employ a total of about 40 people, some of whom now work from home because of COVID-19.
Doane Brown’s son and nephew work for the company, and she feels it is important to carry on the family name.
“Our wish has been to keep the business strong and healthy to provide for the next generation,” Brown said. “It’s been with us since 1858, and it’s our job to keep it going for a long number of years.”
Eric Rygg understands the importance of family business as well. As president and co-owner of Huntsinger Farms and Silver Springs Food, 2424 Alpine Rd., Eau Claire, he is well-acquainted with local ties.
Rygg, a fourth-generation Huntsinger, leads the world’s largest horseradish grower and producer on about 9,000 acres in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The company was slated to host Farm Technology Days this year, but the event was moved back to 2021 because of COVID-19.
Rygg said a family business offers the luxury to look long-term, compared to a corporation where decisions are driven by short-term profits.
“We can really develop these strong roots here and develop the culture that we want and share the progress and the benefit with the employees and the community,” Rygg said.
Rygg did not grow up in the area but has come to love it over the past several years. He was raised in California and while attending college, he spent summers working on the farm in Wisconsin. He had other jobs over the years and eventually moved back about five years ago to help run the company with his brother and mother.
“It was never an expectation that my parents put on me to take it over some day,” Rygg said. “They just gave us access to the company and allowed me and my brother both the opportunity to work in the company.”
Huntsinger Farms began in 1929 and now employs about 300 people who work to produce horseradish, mustards, sauces and Kosher products. According to Rygg, the overarching mission is “to bring excitement and flavor to food.”
Horseradish is grown on about 1,000 acres per year but needs five- to seven-year rotations, so the company also grows crops like corn and soybeans. Workers usually start harvesting horseradish in the middle of April with a customized harvester that cuts the tops and goes for the root vegetable below the surface.
After the horseradish is taken out of the ground, it is refrigerated as quickly as possible to maintain strength and flavor. The cooler climate provides an ideal setting.
“We want a big, hardy root under the ground,” Rygg said. “We have that natural cold storage in Wisconsin all winter long, and it doesn’t harm the product.”
Like Doane Brown, Rygg’s goal is to leave Huntsinger Farms better than when he started. He wants to make the company a good place to work; help solve customers’ problems; incorporate the company into the community; and “make the world a tastier place.”
“I feel that if I do those four things well, we’re going to be around for another 90 years,” Rygg said.
Rygg must balance long-term success with short-term problem solving, and the past few months have entailed challenges caused by COVID-19. The company sent as many employees to work from home as it could, which was about 11% of the workforce. It also stopped having outside visitors, staggered workforce hours and implemented physical distancing and masks for employees.
Rygg said the coronavirus has not impacted overall sales too much but it has changed where purchases come from. Supermarket demand has increased, while restaurants and buffet demand significantly decreased.
At Chippewa Valley Bean, the pandemic has affected workflow, but production levels have essentially stayed the same. Demand for kidney beans may have actually increased, Doane Brown said, because they can easily be preserved and are relatively inexpensive.
While the pandemic has not directly affected output, it has disrupted the supply chain that puts beans from field to plate. Shipping and transportation are more difficult. and processing has slowed down.
“Our food supply system in the U.S. is challenged right now,” Brown said. “It’s not that we have a shortage of food anywhere. It’s just our ability to get it moved and processed in the right format to the right spot.”
Robert Wachsmuth, co-owner and vice president at Chippewa Valley Bean and Doane Limited, manages the farming operations. He said the coronavirus has resulted in employees enacting physical distancing, wearing face masks and doing temperature checks before beginning their labor.
Wachsmuth has worked at the company for more than half a century, beginning as a college freshman in 1969. He founded Doane Limited with Russell Doane a few years later.
“I’ve always had the farmer in the blood,” Wachsmuth said. “I was very intrigued with the challenges, and it’s been there, no question about that.”
Kidney beans are rotated with corn and alfalfa on about 4,000 acres in the Chippewa Valley and planted from about mid-May to mid-June. The kidney bean is larger than other beans and must be planted with more space in between. Technology improvements have made that easier over the years.
Kidney beans do not need as much water to grow, which is helpful and makes them appealing to buy in mass quantities. Kidney bean skin is fragile, so it must be harvested carefully before being canned.
“That’s a constant battle to try and keep these beans as whole as we can,” Wachsmuth said.
Doane Brown’s career has involved constant challenges as well. She is involved in many national and international industry organizations and said her career has tremendously exceeded her expectations.
“I never dreamed that this job would have me testifying before the agricultural organization of the U.N., or my opportunity to testify before Congress on agricultural issues,” Brown said. “Growing up on this farm in Dunn County, Wisconsin, I never dreamed that my life would unfold like that.”