Ag know-how is key to new countertop manufacturing business

Mikkel Pates
Forum News Service

NEW EFFINGTON — Some farmers take an off-farm job to make ends meet.

Jeff Hoeft, of Wahpeton, N.D., is performing the ultimate “counter-move” to the vagaries of agricultural economics. He’s transforming part of his farm shop at New Effington into Prairie Stone LLC, a stone countertop manufacturing business.

“I’m thinking the way this is probably going to work out, this will be the main business and farming will be the companion, or ‘go-along’ thing,” said Hoeft, in an interview at the shop. The company started a Facebook page that noted the official opening of the company was July 13, but in August, it is intensifying marketing in a 100-mile radius.

Hoeft, 50, grew up on a farm west of Hankinson, N.D., and his career has been shaped by changes in the farm economy.

His family scrapped a farrow-to-finish hog operation during the low prices of the 1980s.

He graduated high school in 1988. He went on to North Dakota State College of Science for agribusiness and farm management, where he’d connected with the adult farm management program.

He would take over the farm from his father, Willard. Hoeft added rented land at New Effington, S.D., near the homestead where his mother’s family had lived in the late 1860s. The New Effington place had one farm building at the time. Hoeft built about 100,000 bushels of bin storage from 1993 to about 2005, visible from Interstate 29.

It was that land in northeast South Dakota where his future business would sprout.

On the farming front, Jeff ramped up to about 2,800 acres, but the work was hard on his back. After back fusion surgery five years ago, he cut back to 1,200 acres. He looked for other opportunities.

Ashes to stone

On May 28, 2017, a garage fire burned in the Hoeft family home in Wahpeton. (No one was hurt.) The Hoefts rebuilt in the same location and bought stone countertops for their new kitchen. Suddenly, Jeff saw a new career direction — stone countertops.

“I honestly thought he was crazy,” said Jennifer, who married Jeff in 1997 and is the mother to their twin girls, “I thought, ‘We can’t do something like this!’ We’ve farmed for so many years — if you’re a farmer, you’re a farmer!”

Undeterred, Jeff Hoeft talked with Kara Wulfekuhle, his adult farm management instructor at NDSCS. Wulfekuhle helped him work out cash flows and pricing. In November 2019, he formed a limited liability corporation.

He worked with the Bank of North Dakota, and Lincoln State Bank in Hankinson. Hoeft credits Roberts County, S.D., officials for helping facilitate the farmstead location. It isn’t initially intuitive that a company without direct access to I-29 would be the place to manufacture stone for countertops, but Hoeft says transportation isn’t “any issue at all.”

He installed the equipment into a main farm shop he’d built in 2011.

“We tore everything apart this winter, rebuilt the floor and put in water drains,” he said.

The shop retrofit and equipment installation involved nearly $1 million. The figures are large, he acknowledges, but the cash flow is “year-round,” and not just two or three months in a year, like farming is.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic had its impact on installation.

Pandemic install

Technicians arrived from Northwood Machine Manufacturing Co., Louisville, Ky., which makes computerized numeric coding (CNC) machines for the system. Other workers came from Helix Professional Tools of Vernon Hills, Ill., which provides “sawblades, polishing pads, grinder bits and polishing wheels.” They were there five days as the pandemic took hold.

Matthew Pelton, of Salt Lake City, Utah, an installation and training technician for Northwood Machine, said Hoeft should do well with a shift from farming to countertops. After all, that’s what Pelton did.

With a degree in farm and ranch management, Pelton had managed a sow farm near Milford, Utah, before going into the business. The off-track location is helpful for zoning, Pelton said, adding, “This is one of the prettiest, well-set-up granite shops I’ve seen.”

Alex Bores, Gilbert, Ariz., tool specialist for Helix, called Hoeft a “unicorn”in the business, coming from no stone background. He said similar shops often are in more populated areas with walk-in business.

Hoeft’s “general knowledge of machines, how something works, he’s able to work on it himself, or pinpoint an issue where most people wouldn’t know where to begin,” Bores noted.

Prairie Stone LLC is on Facebook and has a website that allows consumers to pick out products online. Customers can choose the stone and the color — quartz, granite, marble — and the price point.

Once a sale is made, the company measures and makes a digital blueprint. They order in the stone. The company’s computerized saw rough-cuts the stone within about 1/16th inch of the finished product. A router makes seven passes to put on final edges and polish. The company does most of its own installation. Some work goes to other parts of the country where others will install it.

Out of the box

Jeff chuckles about the mixed reactions he gets about his new career direction. One lifelong farming friend stopped to comment, and shook his head, saying, “Why are you doing this!?”

Others have been more encouraging.

The business still is in the early stages, but Jennifer says she feels this is where her husband’s heart is leading them.

“We still have that piece of agriculture that Jeff has had his whole entire life,” she says.

The challenge has consumed his time for three years, and “now it’s real.” Hoeft acknowledges moving counters can also be hard on a man’s back, but sees his long-term role in management and sales.

Jennifer said she’s gotten used to the idea and admires her husband for thinking outside the box of farming. The family of girls is behind him.

“Farmers have so many skills that they possess that isn’t farming,” Jennifer said. “You’re a mechanic. You have to market your grain. There are so many facets that come into farming that you could pretty much do anything. Farmers have this ball of knowledge they can use and ours led toward the construction side of it all.

“Don’t be afraid to do something different.”

Jeff Hoeft has the support of his wife, Jennifer, and daughters — twins, Gracie and Claire, both 19, and Gillian, 12, as well as Caleb Bellig of Wahpeton, who is working with the family’s farm and its stone countertop business — Prairie Stone LLC.
A semi-tractor trailer with the Prairie Stone LLC advertisement, as well as samples of the stone slabs, stands north of the New Effington exit onto Interstate Highway 29. Farmer Jeff Hoeft of Wahpeton, N.D., is shifting some of his time away from farming and into stone countertop manufacturing.
Jeff Hoeft, owner-manager of Prairie Stone LLC, right, works with Caleb Bellig, who helps him on both the manufacturing and farming sides of the business.
A Northwood computer numerical control machine weighs up to 30,000 pounds, leveled within 1,000th of an inch. It puts edge work on the stone, gauges the thickness and polishes the stone.