A new leader in flour milling capacity

by Meyer Sosland
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By certain measures, recent capital projects completed at the North Dakota Mill & Elevator Association, Grand Forks, North Dakota, U.S., are modest. Adding 7,000 cwts of daily milling capacity over a period of a few years, the initiative was far smaller than the 16,000 cwts of capacity installed in 2002.

Still, while the earlier project focused principally on the company’s core spring wheat flour milling production, the latest efforts center on two of the most dynamic markets in flour milling — organic and whole wheat.

With the expansions, the North Dakota Mill has moved squarely into the position of the largest wheat flour mill in the United States (U.S.). With 34,000 cwts of daily milling capacity, the North Dakota mill ranks well ahead of the U.S.’s second-largest mill — the Kraft Foods plant in Toledo, Ohio (31,000 cwts) — and Horizon Milling in Wichita, Kansas., and General Mills, Inc., in Kansas City, Missouri, which each have 27,000 cwts of daily capacity.

The North Dakota Mill & Elevator has operated in the same location for 85 years. Still, with the completion of the latest projects, 31,000 cwts of the mill’s daily capacity, or more than 90%, was either built or modernized since 2000.

Of the 7,000 cwts of capacity added most recently, 4,000 cwts is accounted for in a new "C mill." While the idea of adding capacity in the "K mill" building was considered, it was determined that a separate building situated between the K mill and the cleaning house would be most efficient, said Vance Taylor, North Dakota Mill president.

"There are two reasons the C mill was built," he said. "First, we needed to keep up with increasing demand from existing customers. A close number two (reason) was to create a dedicated mill for flour ground from organic wheat."

In a 2004 interview, Taylor expressed the long-term objective of raising organic flour to 5% of total production from the 2% milled at the time. Since then, production is up more than 50%, accounting for 3% of total flour production.

"Five percent is still our target, though we’ve created a range of 5% to 7% now," he said. "As organic demand becomes more and more mainstream, we saw the need for additional capacity."

The C mill will alternate between organic and conventional flour, Taylor said. It currently grinds organic wheat about a third of the time, he said.

The C mill was installed in a new slipform concrete building. Vigen Construction, East Grand Forks, Minnesota, U.S., was the contractor. Ocrim SpA, Cremona, Italy, supplied equipment for the new mill. The new building contains the mill’s tempering system, which provides a 24-hour temper. First-in, first-out sequencing helps uniformity and allows switching between conventional and organic milling, Taylor said. North Dakota Mill worked with Gerald Richardson of CETEC, Millersville, Maryland, U.S., on engineering.

Completed late in 2006, the opening of the C mill followed by about one year a tripling of the company’s whole wheat milling capacity. A unit dedicated to milling whole wheat flour was added, replacing an old 1,000-cwt mill with a mill with a new 3,000-cwt unit. GBS Group supplied equipment for the new whole wheat mill.

"Our feeling is that demand for whole wheat products will continue to grow," Taylor said. While North Dakota Mill does not yet produce ultra-fine whole wheat flour, the company has introduced a whole wheat flour milled from hard white spring wheat.

As part of the whole wheat mill, a new specialty packaging line was added for bran products for human consumption as well as various different whole wheat products.

The final project was a modernization of the K mill, completed earlier this year. Built in the 1980s, capacity of the spring wheat mill was increased to 9,000 cwts from 8,000.

The upgrade to the K mill was completed during a three-week shutdown during February. The project included the addition of five new double-high roll stands, a six-section sifter, an additional pneumatic system and five new bran dusters, which help remove the last particles of flour at the tail of the milling process. Removed as part of the project were three purifiers, vestiges of the unit’s origins as a durum mill converted into a spring mill.

"The objectives of the project were to increase capacity and achieve higher extraction," Taylor said. "It’s a more consistent, reliable, smoother-running mill. It’s more efficient."

The North Dakota Mill has significantly heightened its levels of automation over the years, and the latest mill additions take automation "one step further," Taylor said. As is the case with the other mill, wheat is delivered automatically from elevator through tempering.

"What’s new here is that we have automated the flour delivery system from the mill to bulk storage," Taylor said. "The entire week’s run can be programmed, from which elevator silos the grain will be pulled to which bins the flour will end up, again for a full week at a time. We’re using the capability extensively, though, practically speaking, we often can’t program a full week simply because schedules change to meet individual customer’s needs. To respond to those needs we adjust our programs accordingly.

"But the programming is a very valuable tool to increase our efficiency and improve the consistency of our flour."

Combined, the C and K projects cost North Dakota Mill $7 million. Although a sizable investment, the projects still were considerably smaller than the $20 million expansion completed at the beginning of the decade with the construction of 16,000 cwts of capacity in the new A and B mills.

With its overwhelming focus on milling spring wheat, Taylor said North Dakota Mill is well positioned to take advantage of trends in baking. He noted the ability of spring wheat to allow for formulations that "carry" more specialty ingredients.

"We try to focus our efforts on dedicated spring wheat customers who want stronger flour that carries other ingredients better and offers higher absorption and more tolerance, as well as the better consistency we offer because of our wheat blending and multiple units," Taylor said.

Most of the flour milled at North Dakota mill is sold primarily up and down the East Coast, he said. He said the company’s single location and wheat sourcing capabilities represent an advantage for the company.

"We look at who we are and our wheat sourcing as an advantage," he said. "Every year we draw wheat from the same areas, 95% from North Dakota. Because we do this, we have more consistent products."

Taylor noted several staff members who played important roles in the latest expansion projects, beginning with Chris Lemoine, production manager, who oversaw both initiatives. Also heavily involved were milling supervisors Ken Pahlen and Randy Egstad.

New to the company is Travis Devlin as head miller. He joined the company in February 2007 and was part of the project completion effort. Previously, Devlin worked at the Columbia, South Carolina, U.S. flour mill of American Italian Pasta Co., which is based in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, U.S. WG

Josh Sosland is editor of World Grain’s sister publication, Milling & Baking News. He may be contacted at jsosland@sosland.com.