New Michigan Sugar CEO sees a bright future for his family and his company in the region

Neil C. Juhnke, the new President and CEO of Michigan Sugar, loves adventure and sees every aspect of his life as an adventure.

The North Dakota native recently moved to Freeland from Minnesota. He stepped in to replace Mark S. Flegenheimer, who retired after leading the company for more than 25 years.

“A new golf course, fishing a new lake, moving to a new state, there’s an adventuresome theme to my life,” Juhnke says. “I like to say life is like a new chapter book, and I’m always ready to embrace a new chapter.”

Michigan Sugar, based in Bay City, is the third largest sugar beet processor in the country. It produces about 1.2 billion pounds of sugar every year under the brand names Pioneer Sugar and Big Chief Sugar.

He took over the helm of Michigan Sugar in early April and spent the first few weeks traveling the Thumb to meet the grower-owners and several hundred employees.

Hitting the ground running, Juhnke had six-grower meetings. Known as “toolshed meetings,” Juhnke shook hands with employees and learned more about the company’s people and values.

In the sugar beet industry, family is a big part of the picture, which Juhnke says is important to him as well.

“I am a family-oriented collaborative leader,” he says.

Michigan Sugar is similar to the American Crystal Sugar Company in Moorhead, Minn., where Juhnke began his career in 1990. He says he appreciates the family atmosphere as a leadership and business model.

“The entire beet sugar industry is grower owned, which helps provide a synergy between the farm families and the community,” Juhnke says.

Before coming to Michigan, Juhnke served as Ag Operations Manager at American Crystal Sugar Company. In 2005, he founded Northstar Agri Industries, a canola processing and refining plant. But Juhnke says sugar was never far from his heart.

“The sugar beet industry flows in my veins,” he jokes.

Juhnke sees a bright future for both the sugar beet industry and his family in the Great Lakes Bay Region.

For the industry, Juhnke says support from the legislature makes a big difference.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-California, has pledged support for the Farm Bill, which is bi-partisan legislation that has a big impact on this region’s sugar beet farmers. He says U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, is also pushing for passage of legislation that is set to expire on Oct. 1.

Part of the bill covers what are known as commodities, which provide price and income support to farmers including those in the sugar beet industry.

“The industry has lived under the threat of the Farm Bill going away,” says Juhnke, but with bi-partisan support that’s less likely to happen.

However, there is still speculation that the debate in Congress over the debt ceiling could make passage difficult.

“McCarthy pledged his support to the Farm Bill,” Juhnke says, “He sees it getting finished up and enacted this year,” which will ease the minds of the local farmers.

Globally, the sugar industry is also seeing a brighter future, Juhnke says.

In Asian markets such as Thailand and India, bio fuels are moving farmers away from sugar production. That means “the world’s sugar supply is tight and prices are rising.” Globally, Asian countries are importing more sugar and Michigan growers will see the benefit of that, he says.

Along with the bright global future, Juhnke says he looks forward to the research being done into new sugar beet varieties. He says seed producers are working to come up with varieties of beets that will make sugar extraction more efficient, which will lead to higher sugar production.

He also says he hopes to see researchers develop seeds that are more pest resistant. Juhnke says sugar beets are a genetically modified (or GMO) crop. He encourages production of seeds that incorporate natural genes to reduce dependence on pesticides.

Coming from a rural area in North Dakota, Juhnke has experienced every side of the agriculture business, and has seen just about every aspect of the industry. He likes what he’s seen and believes the industry is good for families including his.

“There’s something intrinsically rewarding about working for a cooperative,” and the rewards are evident in the surrounding community. “When we do well and have success, the local community benefits, whether it’s restaurants, car dealerships, or anything else, we share in the success.”

Michigan Sugar is a major employer in the region, and Juhnke encourages people to join the family. Post-COVID-19, he says he is seeing a resurgence of people coming back to work, but there are positions available at Michigan Sugar.

“We’re seeing signs that things are stabilizing, but we welcome folks to come join the team,” he says. “It’s a great culture, and you can be part of a family0owned cooperative.”

Juhnke and his wife, Heidi, are empty nesters, with four grown children and four grandchildren. They expect to move their parents to the Great Lakes Bay Region in order to make sure they are able to help manage their care.

When he’s not meeting employees or leading the company, Juhnke will be exploring what the region has to offer. He spends time fishing, golfing, hunting and off-road motorcycle riding. He might also be found angling for bass or boating on the Saginaw Bay.

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