SUNFLOWER POWER: As they enter their second decade of producing cold-pressed sunflower oil and microwave popcorn, Tom and Jenni Smude have also found ways to expand their other business ventures.
A History of Helping
Longtime lending initiatives help entrepreneurs launch, expand and provide stability in the communities they help anchor.
A handful of sunflower seeds can be brushed off as bird seed or a snack to be cracked and nibbled in the bleachers at a baseball game. Like any kernel of an idea, it takes an innovator to see what others might miss. It could be a solution to a problem or a need that has gone unmet. To coax these ideas into flourishing ventures requires research, planning, financial investment, and a resilient mindset to overcome the inevitable challenges that arise.
When Smude’s Sunflower Oil launched in 2010, it was one of hundreds of regional businesses that had turned to the Initiative Foundation for loans since 1987. In its first year of lending, the Foundation provided $150,500 in loans to support entrepreneurs as they worked to build a business and diversify the local economy.
Efforts to support entrepreneurs have come a long way since then. “We partnered on nearly $4 million in lending during 2022 alone,” said Brian Voerding, vice president for inclusive entrepreneurship. Through more than 40 loans, ranging from a $3,000 microloan to a $500,000 multi-bank partnership, the Initiative Foundation lent its support to a host of new ventures and growing businesses across its 14-county service area that includes two Native nations.
Initiative Foundation gap loans are the bridge when traditional banks and credit unions are unable to cover all that a business owner might need to accomplish their growth objectives—especially when a sizable investment is needed to take the next step. That final piece of funding can be vital to entrepreneurs who’ve already taken a big financial risk. Meanwhile, startup loans can provide the capital an entrepreneur needs to launch their dream. With the Foundation taking the risk many banks are unwilling to, the loans focus on the entrepreneur’s ability to be successful and generate revenue in their first years.
“It’s a big leap to start a business, and a big leap to keep running it,” Voerding said. “There’s nothing easy about being an entrepreneur, but we like to think our partnership helps to ease the burden.”
Here’s a look at three businesses that received early—and pivotal—loans from the Initiative Foundation and how they’ve grown since then.
Smude’s Sunflower Oil
After two years of drought devastated their crops near Pierz, Tom and Jenni Smude made the decision in 2009 to try sunflowers. The plants required less water to grow, and the Smudes figured the seeds could be pressed for oil while the remaining sunflower meal could be used as a protein-rich source of food for the cattle on the family’s farm.
Within a year they discovered new potential in an emerging and health-conscious market: retail sunflower oil.
With support from the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) and a $60,000 start-up loan from the Initiative Foundation, they created Smude’s Sunflower Oil. They began with a single cold-press machine operating on the family farm. The cold-press technique keeps oil healthier—and tastier—by not requiring heat or chemicals for the extraction process.
After three years of selling cold-pressed oil at farmers markets statewide, the Smudes outgrew their bottling capacity on the farm. They purchased a commercial building in the Pierz industrial park and installed a larger kitchen to accommodate growth.
Customers who used Smude’s buttery oil for popcorn repeatedly asked for microwave popcorn. After extensive and expensive trial and error, they found the right bag in 2017 to hold their simple and preservative-free ingredients: sunflower oil, popcorn and salt.
Their all-natural microwave popcorn was nominated for best new product by the Minnesota Manufacturing Association and earned its place at grocery stores such as Cub, Hy-Vee, Coborn’s, and Kowalski’s.
In nearby Brainerd, and with a Little Falls expansion partially financed by the Initiative Foundation, Barrett Petfood Innovations was growing rapidly. Fueled by demand for healthier pet food, the company struck up a deal with Smude’s to add sunflower oil to its ingredients.
To meet the demand, Smude’s required nearly $3 million to buy manufacturing space in the Pierz industrial park and to purchase additional presses and sunflower seeds. Supported by a multi-lender deal that included the Initiative Foundation, the expansion allowed Smude’s to produce 55,000 pounds of oil—a full tanker truck—each week.
“They’re a big part of why we expanded,” President Tom Smude said. “Last year, we bought 9,000 acres of sunflowers to crush.”
As they enter their second decade of producing cold-pressed sunflower oil and microwave popcorn, the Smudes have also found ways to expand their other business ventures. Those businesses include Midwest Sales and Construction, which constructs and installs grain-storage units and dryers across Minnesota and northern Wisconsin; Rich Prairie Custom Woods, a custom woodworking operation that was part of their latest industrial park expansion; a gravel pit they bought to keep in the family; and Smude Farms, where they continue to plant crops and raise a herd of Black Angus beef cattle.
The businesses employ 20 people year-round, along with about 10 seasonal positions in this central Morrison County town of 1,410 residents. If you drive through town in late July or early August, you may catch their sunflowers in bloom—a sure sign of the economic engine that has sprung from a simple seed.
Looking ahead, their businesses remain a long-term commitment that may one day roll into a second generation. Following in her mom’s footsteps, daughter Katelyn, 20, graduated with a business degree from Moorhead State University and is now marketing manager for the businesses. When not in school or helping on the farm, son Mitchell, 17, works on the grain-bin crew.
Their flagship business, Smude’s Sunflower Oil, has grown to about $1 million in sales each year. “It’s a far cry from where we started,” said Tom, remembering when he and Jenni were the only employees. With their investments and a willingness to move into new markets, “[the business] just keeps on growing.”
COMMUNITY-MINDED: (Left to right) Heidi, Becky and Tony Lourey are committed to keeping Nemadji based in Bruno, population 85.
Inside a former two-story school in the town of Bruno (population 85), 26 miles northeast of Hinckley, visitors may hear the clatter of pans in the kitchen as meals are prepared for local seniors. They might also hear a giggly hubbub coming from the onsite child care center. Most of the building, though, serves as headquarters for Nemadji and bustles with quiet conversations and office meetings.
Through proprietary technology, Nemadji helps hospitals and health care providers across the country recover and increase their revenue, which, in some cases, helps them avoid layoffs.
Founder Gene Lourey had been a codebreaker for the National Security Administration. In the early 1980s, he and his wife, Becky, made the decision to return to rural Minnesota. The couple started Nemadji in 1985. Using data-mining technology developed by Gene, the company reviews patient accounts for missing or unknown insurance eligibility. The process helps hospitals receive payments for services while helping patients avoid bills being sent to collections.
Over the decades, Nemadji has persevered through major upheavals: the tech market crash, rapid industry and technology shifts, and the surprise of the pandemic.
Becky Lourey, who with her late husband Gene had 12 children (eight adopted), considers herself an activist and served for six terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives and Senate. While there, she advocated for affordable healthcare, early childhood education, and other family and community improvements.
She and her husband practiced servant leadership and made community involvement part of their company’s foundation. Among their many accolades over the years was receiving the Initiative Foundation’s 2004 Outstanding Enterprise award for their efforts to buy and convert the two-story former school building into Nemadji offices. The effort was supported by a $200,000 Initiative Foundation loan.
Centered on Employees, Community
The Loureys offered quality wages and premium health coverage to employees, opened a child care center for employees and community members who needed it, and made sure the former school gym could still be used for community events, such as meetings or Veterans Day services.
That approach, however, was scrutinized when Gene died unexpectedly in 2008 and Becky faced their bankers. They questioned Nemadji’s employee benefits, why they were located in one of the poorest parts of the state, and commented that it didn’t look like they wanted the business to make money.
“The community needs businesses like this!” Becky Lourey insisted. Ever the activist, she switched to loans through the Initiative Foundation and local lenders who were interested in investing in healthy communities alongside profits.
The Foundation followed with additional loans in June 2008 and October 2010. The cash infusion was used for working capital, equipment and expanding into new markets. Since then, Nemadji has grown steadily and now employs 77 people.
“The loans the Initiative Foundation gave us allowed us to survive in the region,” Becky said. “The Initiative Foundation took a chance on us, and they saved us.”
The family business officially passed down to its second generation in 2023. Son and new CEO Tony Lourey helped his dad build the company’s software, served three terms in the Minnesota Legislature, and is an expert in public health. Daughter Heidi serves as compliance officer and has been with the company for 33 years while son Nick works as an account specialist and has been with the company for 19 years. Becky continues to maintain an office as the company founder.
About 65 percent of Nemadji’s clients see an additional $1 million in net revenue annually. Through innovation and expressed client need, Nemadji recently began reviewing and overturning insurance denials as an additional way to benefit hospitals and patients.
“We expect to keep growing,” Becky Lourey said. “There are still so many hospitals and patients that need us.”
Every day, employees at Forest Mushrooms in Collegeville walk the cool, humid aisles to skillfully harvest oyster and shitake mushrooms. The delicate crop is swiftly packaged and delivered across the Upper Midwest to be served up on dinner plates in homes and restaurants.
Owner Kevin Doyle didn’t expect to one day be the largest specialty mushroom farm in the Midwest, but with his degree in natural science from Saint John’s University, his interest in sustainability and his entrepreneur’s eye for new markets, growing mushrooms has been a successful mission for the past 37 years.
The company officially launched in 1985 after Doyle read an article about growing mushrooms. During the process of helping a friend draft a mock business plan for a college class, they were able to connect with wholesalers and discover that the nearest specialty mushroom grower was in Colorado.
Doyle and his friend started experimenting with mushrooms and flew to Pennsylvania— where half the country’s mushroom crop was grown—to consult with mushroom experts at Pennsylvania State University.
“Within a few months we were growing mushrooms in Ham Lake and selling to a couple of restaurants in the Twin Cities,” Doyle said.
By January 1986, Doyle and a few partners secured a loan to buy a former Saint John’s Abbey hog farm. The farm offered an artesian well and the buildings featured low ceilings where they could hang substrate bags filled with straw for growing mushrooms. By July, they were growing 800 pounds of oyster mushrooms and shipping them to cities across the country.
Then a crop failure hit. The farm’s bountiful weekly harvest dropped to 80 pounds. Funds were dwindling, partners were spooked, and they wanted out.
“I ended up being the sole owner,” said Doyle. Puzzling through the crop failure, he learned it was due to the wrong kind of straw.
To be financially viable, Doyle knew he needed to quickly advance his low-tech operation. He turned to the Initiative Foundation for a $4,500 loan in 1987 to keep an employee and production going while he traveled to an international mushroom conference in Germany, which was Europe’s top producer at the time.
“That ‘bridge’ loan was a real lifesaver,” Doyle said. “We would have folded right there without it.”
He learned he needed even more money to purchase a Holland-made machine that could chop straw and generate enough heat to pasteurize it, preventing contaminants, mold spores and weed seeds from harming the crop while also getting the straw to the right pH balance for the mushroom spawn to thrive.
Working with two local banks, he used the farm and his family’s home as collateral but still needed another $50,000 to purchase and install the machine, buy supplies and get the business back up and running. The Initiative Foundation closed the lending gap.
“It was relatively high risk and without any collateral,” Doyle said. “But we needed a lender to take the risk. The entire package would have fallen apart without the Initiative Foundation. The Foundation had faith in us, and it worked.”
Forest Mushrooms has grown and expanded into additional markets. In addition to growing and selling organic shiitake and oyster mushrooms, they sell foraged wild mushrooms, package fresh exotic mushrooms from other growers (such as portabellas, enoki, maitake), and they offer dried mushrooms and powders. Their products reach stores and restaurants through wholesale suppliers.
Forest Mushrooms now sells online, and they work to meet demand for more medicinal or functional varieties such as Lion’s mane, chaga and turkey tails. Doyle was shocked by the 2020 onset of the pandemic and the effect it had on sales as people prepared more meals at home.
“Our dried mushrooms online went up 800 percent three months into the pandemic,” he said. The Splendid Table radio program recently did a full hour on mushrooms, and the New York Times named mushrooms as the ingredient of the year in 2022.
“Mushrooms are really having their moment,” Doyle said.
Forest Mushrooms has grown to more than $5 million in annual sales. The business has 15 full-time employees—many of whom have decades of experience. Doyle makes sure they get a complete benefits package, including profit-sharing. As the business has grown, Forest Mushrooms has expanded the farm with multiple buildings for packing, cooling and transportation.
Doyle’s son, Colin, fills multiple roles—from information technology setup to other modernizations that add efficiencies while keeping costs down. Doyle said the business is well positioned to grow with new opportunities and adapt to market changes.
"Without the Initiative Foundation, this wouldn’t have happened,” Doyle said. “We are forever grateful.”
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