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Marshall entrepreneur knows exports

Jim Moline has his feet in Minnesota and his eyes on Asia.

The president of Midwest Ag Enterprises in Marshall, Minn., is a veteran of the ag export business. Since 1996, he has sold specialty feeds to China, Vietnam, Thailand and other Asian Pacific countries. “I love the export business.”

The 52-year-old entrepreneur grew up on a farm near Slayton, earned a degree in agri-business from Ridgewater College in Willmar, and began his career in the fertilizer and grain business in Iowa. In 1996, he joined Minnesota Corn Processors in Marshall, where he sold corn gluten meal and other wet milling coproducts overseas.

In 2002, after the Marshall mill was acquired by Archer Daniels Midland Company, Moline and two colleagues struck out on their own, forming a liquid feed company, Midwest Ag Enterprises. The new venture was financed by the local Bremer Bank.

Moline and his partners marketed a wide variety of liquid coproducts, including beet molasses, dairy-processing liquids and corn steep water, and built a thriving regional feed business.

In 2003, as the Midwest’s ethanol industry was shifting into high gear, Moline again turned his attention to the Far East. “I saw an opportunity to export distillers grains (DDGS) to Asia,” Moline says. “Our company was the first to market the new generation of higher-value DDGS in Asia, primarily for the poultry industry. Later, we expanded into swine.” At the peak, Moline was exporting 20,000 tons of DDGS per month from the company’s container loading facility in Kansas City.

But as the DDGS export sector matured and competition from giant players increased, profit margins began to shrink. “So we scaled back on DDGS exports and looked at other alternatives.”

Moline saw a chance to supply higher-value feed products to increasingly sophisticated Asian livestock growers.

He and one of his partners in Midwest Ag Enterprises bought a plant in West Bend, Iowa, to manufacture high-protein, branded swine feeds. “We take liquid coproducts and dry them on different carriers,” such as soybean meal. “We traded a high-volume, low-margin product — DDGS — for lower-volume, higher-margin products.”

Later, they brought in other partners —the owners of Form A Feed and Tech Mix, Inc. of Stewart, Minn., who handle all domestic marketing of feed products from the Iowa plant.

Now, Moline’s company is developing a high-protein, digestible soybean meal for export to Asia. “I’m all about developing proprietary branded products,” Moline says. “I don’t want to market a commodity.”