Entrepreneurial Farmers Find Niche with Flax

24 Jan 2018

Running a small family farm these days is a challenge. Thinking creatively and having an entrepreneurial mindset can help. Many farmers are diversifying their crops and finding a receptive market through value-added products.

Gene and Wanda Bethke found the right niche with flax more than a decade ago. The Bethkes operate a third generation family farm in Raymond, South Dakota, with help from their sons.

The Bethkes had long grown a number of traditional crops for the region, like wheat, corn, soybeans and alfalfa. When Wanda’s doctor told her she could take flaxseed as a natural remedy for high cholesterol, it got her thinking. “I realized this was a product we could grow, promote and sell ourselves,” she says.

Flax has a number of health and nutritional benefits. It contains antioxidants and is rich in fiber. It’s also one of the best plant-based sources of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids found in fish like salmon.

In 2005, the Bethkes decided to start growing flax and to try selling flaxseed as a value-added product to supplement their regular crops. They started out small, packaging whole seeds in small plastic bags and listing them for sale on eBay. “We wanted to feel out the market and see how things would go,” explains Wanda. “That was our first test market.”

Sales went well. They purchased a small grinder to be able to grind seeds on demand and renovated an old semi trailer to have a dedicated area for packaging. But this small operation was labor intensive, according to Wanda. After about two years, the Bethkes decided to make a more serious investment in the venture.

They started Purity Seeds; a company based solely on their flaxseed sales. A REED Fund loan helped finance construction of a new building for storage and packaging as well as needed equipment for the business.

By purchasing an industrial grinder, the Bethkes were able to transition from grinding one pound to 200 pounds at a time. Wanda says this was a game changer. The automated packaging equipment meant they no longer needed to weigh every bag by hand. It vastly streamlined the process and enabled them to scale up production.

Wanda says acquiring the lower interest loan to bring the business to the next level was critical. “There were a lot of expenses we never dreamed of,” she says. From business fees to advertising, licensing and UPC code costs — it all added up.  

Now Purity Seeds has a successful business, with whole and ground flaxseeds available for sale locally in grocery and specialty stores from Aberdeen to Miller, South Dakota. The Bethkes sell products direct to consumers via their website and maintain a presence on eBay too. They also sell craft grade flaxseed on Etsy.

Purity Seeds has maintained a good business over the last 11 years, thanks in part to people realizing the health value of flaxseed, according to Wanda. “So many health items are fads that go away. We haven’t really seen that with the flaxseed. It’s still as strong as it was in 2007. More and more I’ve talked to people whose doctors recommend flaxseed, even more than what they did in past.”