North Dakota Farmers Union Transportation Specialist Jeff Willer has been the face of the department for more than 20 years. Chris Aarhus / NDFU

NDFU purchased a second bus due to continual growth in its transportation department. Chris Aarhus / NDFU

Nick Mathern likes the convenience provided by North Dakota Farmers Union’s bus trips. The Edgeley family man has been on numerous trips including the past two Minnesota Vikings football games.

“The service and getting dropped off at the door is a big deal,” Mathern said. “It’s quick ride. The bus is nice and clean. It’s a good family atmosphere. It’s easy to take kids with on the bus. To me, that’s important.”

Mathern said doing Vikings trips in two days is appealing.

“You go down (the first day) and you’re back by 9:30 p.m. (Sunday night),” he said. “I like that they take us down to Mall of America. You just appreciate that stuff. It’s a good service offered by Farmers Union.”

Mathern was one of the 5,329 NDFU members hauled on a bus trip in 2017. The trips are only one aspect of an increasingly busy transportation department. Major changes have come as of late, said Transportation Specialist Jeff Willer, who has been with NDFU 23 years.

“These are things that we’ve been looking at the past two years, but it’s all come together in the last few months,” Willer said.

More than half of NDFU’s members hauled in 2017 rode a charter bus, which NDFU pays for when the bus it owns is already in use. In an effort to cut down on those costs, the organization purchased a second bus in November. The bus, all blue with a white NDFU logo on the side, means there will be two buses at the disposal of the transportation department for the first time since 2009.

“From 1948 to 2009, we had two buses,” Willer said. “(Business) had slowed with the recession. Now, we’ve seen an increase in charter costs and a big increase in usage. We’ll be keeping both buses busy.”

NDFU hosts its members on a variety of bus trips that include longer excursions, four-day mystery tours and other agritourism trips. But one of the biggest uses for the buses is to haul kids to and from camp in the summer.

“Our members get a certain amount of education with our bus trips — some agricultural tourism with some vacation aspects to it,” NDFU President Mark Watne said. “(The bus) plays a major role in our youth program, where we really needed a second bus for hauling kids to camp at the junior youth level. Today’s parents don’t have as much capacity to deliver their children. We needed a way to get their kids to camp.”

Watne said the second bus means fewer charter buses. NDFU also leases the University of Jamestown bus — which was previously owned by NDFU — when it needs a third bus, schedule-permitting.

“There are times when we need three buses, but most of the time it’s only two,” Watne said. “The second bus is justified because, for nearly equal cost, we have a second bus that we own with our logo, and that’s another billboard to run around the state. It’s good to have that, but it’s really the economical end of it that made sense for us.”

During the summer, it’s common for NDFU to enlist the services of six buses at one time including its own to haul children to and from camp on a single day. Willer said one day this summer, eight different buses will travel with campers on it.

“That’s one of the big misnomers is that all we do is haul retirees,” Willer said. “We put more miles on our bus hauling youth and members on county trips than we do on the excursions with retirees.”

While it didn’t come to fruition, there was a plan to have three buses out on trips over the weekend of Jan. 13-14. The blue bus went on an 18-day excursion to Florida, the white bus took members to the Minnesota Vikings playoff game and the University of Jamestown bus was scheduled to haul Renville County Farmers Union members to the UND hockey game.

Willer said an area that NDFU members have come to appreciate is the riding experience. Being relatively new, both buses have screens in which movies can be watched, plug-ins and USB outlets, wireless internet and reclining seats. Also, both buses are equipped with restrooms.

“We think having that high quality bus is important in attracting people to events, and our members have some expectations,” Watne said. “They want us to be a good-looking organization, and they want us to represent them well. It’s a tool of recruitment, and we want to fill (the bus) up. You need to have quality transportation that looks good and is fun to ride.”

Farmers Union members went 88,603 miles in 2017, and the white Farmers Union bus was on the road 232 days. Willer said the trips that fill up the quickest are usually the fall foliage trips to New England and the shorter four-day mystery tours.

“We’ve been doing the mystery tours for 18 years — they don’t know where they’re going,” Willer said. “We’re up to three of those every year. They sell out fast.”

In terms of safety, bus drivers are first-aid, CPR and AED certified. Both buses have an AED machine as well as seat belts for every passenger, though belts aren’t mandatory for passengers. Also, the buses are equipped with a fire-suppression system.

It adds up to a convenient, affordable ride for NDFU members.

“Our goal is to continue to provide reliable, safe, red-carpet service to all of our members,” Willer said. “The board of directors and (President Mark Watne) have made sure the members have reliable transportation they can be proud of. The future of the department is very bright.”

Food truck

Earlier this fall, NDFU purchased a tractor-trailer to haul North Dakota family farm products to its restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area. The first load was hauled in October, and since then, two more have gone.

“We do a lot of things that enhance opportunities for our members, whether it’s through education or trying to determine better logistics for their products or finding avenues to help them make money,” Watne said. “One of these is the truck concept. We use it to take products right to the restaurants. It’s really us completing phase two of connecting family farms to the consumer. It’s small at this point and time, but we hope to grow it into a system of trucks.”

The first load hauled wheat from family farms, sugar from American Crystal Sugar and flour from the state mill and elevator.

“We’re really close to hauling safflower oil, and we’re hoping we can add a few more products like butter.”

The truck is managed through the transportation department, which added Transportation Coordinator Kevin Widmer to help with the added workload. Eunice Olivier moved into the department as travel coordinator, rounding out a three-person department that stays plenty busy.

“There are a lot of exciting things on the horizon,” Willer said.

– Chris Aarhus, NDFU