March 7, 2021

Stevens County Times

Your spot for community news in Stevens County, Minnesota

Manufacturing companies are also impacted by COVID-19 pandemic

Wilkens employees practice social distancing while working in the plant. Submitted photo

We have heard a lot about our small businesses including restaurants and retail stores and how they are suffering during the COVID-19 outbreak, but what about our manufacturing companies. Stevens County has several companies that continue to work on supplying some of the essential products needed to keep things operational. However, they are also having their struggles.

There are several types of manufacturing companies in the county ranging from food processors to concrete builders. As varied as their products, so are their COVID-19 concerns. However, each one simply wants this to be over so they can go back to business as usual.

Changes in manufacturing and demand for product

Carson Berger of Denco has noticed nearly a 50 percent drop in fuel demand. Their main product is ethanol which is a high-quality additive to gasoline. Ethanol makes up about 10 percent of the total gasoline fuel supply. Because of the limited travel and stay at home orders, they have seen a decline in fuel demand which has put severe pressure on the ethanol industry. “As of today,” Berger stated, “about half of the total ethanol production capacity in the country is offline.”

Micah Zeltwanger of Superior and Westmor stated that the demand and orders have dropped off dramatically in recent weeks. They have previously signed orders in production right now but all new orders are on hold. One thing helping them is that the industry buying cycles for their product tend to be longer but if the pandemic lasts longer than a couple of months, they will be affected like the businesses termed as non-essential.

Mike Snyder of Wilkens stated that phone traffic and bids have slowed. The need for their product is still there but the calls have decreased. He feels this may be simply because the customers are in a holding pattern, waiting to see what will happen.

Paul Schmidgall of Fresha has also noticed a drop in sales. The demand for the retail packaged carrots increased in March but was offset by a dramatic drop in use by restaurants and schools. They have had to find alternative ways to use the surplus foodservice product.

At Riverview Dairy, the feeding and milking continues as usual. However the usage by foodservice and restaurants has dropped so the milk product sales are shifted more toward retail. The demand has not increased by the shift that has strained the supply chain.

Backman Welding has also seen changes but theirs has been toward an increase in sales. This is probably because of the spring farm work set to start soon. However,owner Steve Backman is getting more phone calls from customers who are worried that they may not be open when they are needed. He stated that they appreciate the customers who call ahead of time so the finished product can be set outside the door.

David Schmidgall at Hancock Concrete is taking seriously the president’s words “If you work in a critical infrastructure industry… you have a special responsibility to maintain your normal work schedule.” Therefore they remain busy preparing to serve great long-term customers like Riley Brothers in Morris and other road contractors. They have a healthy backlog with a lot of great work ahead.

Denco has been using this time to do extended maintenance, inspections and cleaning. This is usually done each spring and fall and was scheduled for the end of March. Due to the coronavirus, Carson Berger stated that this outage was extended to allow them to complete more of the required work with their own staff and limited the number of contractors on site. They were able to space out the work over time and segregate crews in order to inhibit the spread of the virus.

Helping and protecting employees

Each one of the manufacturing firms contacted is doing everything they can to protect their employees. At Superior they made changes to break times and staggered some shifts to minimize the close contact of employees during those times. Backman welding is practicing social distancing and has disinfectants available. Fresha has made accommodations for parents of school-age children who are at home by adjusting shift schedules.

Hancock Concrete is staggering breaks and limiting travel between their six locations. They have also put into place shipping and receiving guidelines to better protect customers, vendors and employees.

Denco has limited access to its office from outside visitors and grain producers. Administrative staff is working remotely and only entering the office to perform critical duties. All of the business functions have remained operational.

Wilkens has seen several changes. They are taking precautions to distance workers from one another, and limiting incoming visitor traffic. They are doing the best to squelch anxiety of their crew and working through implementing any government programs that pertain to them.

Kevin Wulf of Riverview stated that “everyone’s situation is slightly different. We are being as flexible as possible to adjust to new routines.”

Superior is also handling employee concerns as they come up. “Everyone has different health circumstances and a different ability to work at an appropriate distance apart from other employees,” Zeltwanger explained. “We have such great employees that are willing to accommodate others and help each other during this time. In Brazil, our employees are currently being temperature tested and have been encouraged to wear masks by their local governments, but we have not implemented those measures at our other locations to this date.”

Laying off employees

Of all the firms, only Superior/Westmor has had to lay off employees. “We have been able to lay off a lot less than our competition because our competitors are large publicly-traded companies,” stated Zeltwanger, “they tend to treat their employees like they are a number on a spreadsheet. We are locally owned and I’m thankful that our culture and community is one where we take care of each other. We pray that we will not have to do additional layoffs because it affects each one’s family so much.”

Hancock Concrete is having the opposite scenario when it comes to employment. Their business cycle is seasonal with a layoff period over winter. They are currently calling employees back to work and actively hiring. They are always on the lookout for great people to join their team. Anyone who is interested can visit to learn more about employment opportunities.

David Schmidgall added that “Our people are the best and if shows in how they continue to look out for each other daily.” Some of the suggestions and practices in place are to get touchless thermometers and cleaning the common areas like break rooms and bathrooms.

Business travel

Many of the manufacturing companies do a lot of travel for their businesses but that has pretty much come to a stop. Instead they are doing videoconferencing or simply canceled the trips altogether. When it comes to shipping and receiving, most of the companies are not seeing many changes. However, Superior has made a slight change to drop-offs to mitigate the risks associated with close human interactions. Riverview is communicating frequently with the dairy and beef plants they work with as each has different situations.

Hancock Concrete is also doing virtual online conferences and has limited plant-to-plant travel. “Rather than travel to our locations,” stated David Schmidgall, “we use video conferencing to stay in touch.”

Shipping and delivering has slowed at Denco since they are receiving less grain. Wilkens is seeing delivery complications with incoming parts which causes some delays. The explanation they are getting is that some vendor departments are closed or short on staff.

What will happen if extended

The strain on our manufacturing companies is starting to be felt and this will only increase as time goes on. For Riverview, they can foresee more stress on the supply chains and demand as the quarantine continues. Zeltwanger added that the more scared people are, the more restrictions will increase. He is also concerned that this is not the last pandemic and world interactions and travel will be decreasing in the future.

Schmidgall added that Fresha is concerned for the foodservice industry as they will have a very difficult time surviving the business downturn. These are businesses that sell to restaurants and schools.

Mike Snyder of Wilkens stated “I believe we will have to learn as we go but I expect that there will be changes in how to adjust to product/supply availabilities, new physical distance rules, washing and cleaning practices.”

At Denco the restrictions, if extended, would be harmful for both the ethanol producer and area grain producers. “We produce a substantial amount of high-quality livestock feed as an industry,” stated Berger, “this has been pulled from the feed supply during this time. Any extensions in restrictions will continue to make feed scarce for area livestock producers.”

Kevin Wulf added that “this is a very difficult time for our country’s health and economy, as well as for our local communities and businesses. We are prayerful for the leaders who are called on to make weighty decisions.”

“By practicing these safety precautions we are showing each other respect for life,” stated Snyder. “We are respecting our peers and neighbors, building unity so we can continue serving communities across the United States.”

Zeltwanger echoed that but expressed thankfulness for the support of the community during this difficult time. “I know that I speak for our employees who would like to thank collectively, all of the healthcare workers and people who are putting in an extra effort on behalf of our community.”

“Not only are our employee’s amazing people,” said David Schmidgall, “but so are the communities we are a part of. We have witnessed small acts of kindness over the past few weeks. This is such a great area of the country. ‘Minnesota nice’ is alive and well! If we do not see a commitment to infrastructure spending at the federal level, it’s likely the various state

Departments of Transportations will begin to delay or cancel road projects. Change is always possible and we continue to pray for protection and seek wisdom from the Lord daily.”

And remember – as Steve Backman stated “God will provide for our needs.”

Katie Erdman