Culbertson, Montana oilseed-processing plant. (Photo by Rick Knick)
Culbertson, Montana oilseed-processing plant. (Photo by Rick Knick)

All but a few of the 30 employees of the biggest private employer in Culbertson, Mont., a plant that made cooking oil by crushing safflower seeds, got pink slips just five days before Christmas in 1996.

Jennifer Kessner, the controller, was one of the lucky few, but she worried about her future employment. There were no other jobs in this town of 900 (700 now) for an accountant with a college degree.

“Here, when you get a decent job, you keep it for life,” she told RE Magazine at the time. “You probably won’t get another chance.”

Kessner and her husband realized immediately they might have to move away. If her co-workers did the same, the resulting housing glut might leave them no choice but to let the bank take their home.

Twenty-five miles away in Medicine Lake, Mont., Bill Schell, general manager of Sheridan Electric Cooperative, also was losing sleep, worrying about the impact losing the plant would have on residential rates. It was the co-op’s biggest load by far.

At stake were $500,000 in annual revenue and one of the sturdier local economies in the utility’s northeastern Montana service territory.

Culbertson is on the Lewis and Clark Trail, just a mile from the breathtakingly rugged Missouri Breaks, which rise up from both banks of the Missouri River. It had several restaurants and a casino, a hospital, a high school, and the stalwarts of a healthy Main Street: a hardware store, a supermarket, and a pharmacy.

The oilseed plant’s $1 million annual payroll supported these businesses, as did the farmers who grew safflowers for it. Many small northern plains towns had withered away in the second half of the 20th century. Culbertson was, in Schell’s words, “still viable.”

That winter, Sheridan Electric’s board of directors voted unanimously to try to save the plant. The membership soon lined up behind it, voting two to one in favor of buying the business.

Co-op officials talked a local farmer, Neil Turnbull, into managing the plant. He had worked there 15 years earlier when it was owned by Continental Grain, an international giant. With the right business plan, he was sure it could be successful again. “Since I was from this area and had been watching what was happening, it really tugged at me,” he told RE Magazine at the time.

Working capital came from local and state banks, both in Montana and North Dakota, and from start-up grants provided by both states, since the area lies within what’s called the Mon-Dak economic region. Sheridan Electric spent about $2 million on new equipment and worker training.

Member Services Director Rick Knick, now the co-op’s CEO, went from farm to farm writing crop contracts. The co-op needed about 65,000 acres of safflower to break even. The plant also processed sunflowers, canola, flax, and other oilseeds.

The plant reopened as Montola Growers, Inc., or MGI, in June 1997, to the great relief of Kessner and the 25 or so other households that depended upon it. Sheridan Electric operated it successfully until 2005 and then sold it to a company that planned to produce safflower-based biodiesel fuel.

“Those folks stood up and got us through a tough period,” Turnbull told the Billings Gazette when the sale was announced. “They kept a business in place and grew it.”

In 2015, the plant was sold again and converted for reclaiming fracking water from the Bakken oil patch, which spreads north and east from Culbertson up to Saskatchewan. Oil now is 70 percent of Sheridan Electric’s load.

Kessner never lost her job or her home. She rode the ups and downs of the oilseed business until landing on solid ground in 2010 as the chief financial officer at Roosevelt Medical Center, the small hospital and nursing home in Culbertson.

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