Building for the Future

by World Grain Staff
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by Suzi Fraser Dominy

When Dr. Virgil Smail stepped down as the president and chief executive officer of the thriving American Institute of Baking (AIB) to head up the Department of Grain Science and Industry and the International Grains Program at Kansas State University (KSU), he had only an inkling of the task that lay ahead.

Of course Smail, who had worked cooperatively with KSU during his 10 years with AIB, was familiar with the department’s long and proud history of training flour and feed millers and its record of pioneering grain research and development. He was well aware also of the ambitious building program in progress and the restructuring plans aimed at raising the bar even higher on its future achievements.

Coming from AIB, a near neighbor of KSU in Manhattan, Kansas, U.S., Smail was also only too aware of the financial difficulties that the state of Kansas had been experiencing in the past several years and that there were some concerns about the impact on the grain programs at the university.

"These have been bad economic times in Kansas," Smail told World Grain.

"I knew the State had to impose several cutbacks in funding but I really didn’t have an idea of how bad that impact was on the department until I got on board and had a chance to really delve into the numbers," he said.

Smail was shocked to find that in the last five years the grain science department had shrunk from 22 to 7 full time faculty as a direct result of the cutbacks.

"Faculty members who have retired have not been replaced and a phased retirement program has seen the disappearance of a number of well known names," Smail said.

In 1998, the Grain Science Department boasted over 70 graduate students. Today that number is down to 25. Undergraduate numbers have not been so badly affected, but there has been a slide from more than 200 to fewer than 150 across the department.

The good news is that all that has started to change.

In August 2004, a month prior to Smail’s arrival at KSU, a fellow wheat breeder and plant geneticist, Dr. Fred Cholick, became Dean of the College of Agriculture and Director of K-State Research and Extension. One of his first achievements was to negotiate a U.S.$2 million infusion of state funding into the College of Agriculture. This has allowed him to open up 24 positions across the college.

"The dean has a background in grain; he understands the industry and the importance of the grain science department," Smail said. "Within the last three months we have been given three of those positions and next year we are slated to get five based on funding commitments from the State."

This will bring the faculty level back to 15 within three years.

"A larger faculty will bring up our grad student numbers too," said Smail.

Buhler is funding yet another position with their donation of equipment and funds to the department. The company is a major sponsor of the grains program; to date it has donated in the region of U.S.$1.5 million in equipment for the new flour mill that is to be the cornerstone of the industrial milling training program and has gifted U.S.$100,000 for the next five years to fund an industrial milling training position. "We are hiring someone who has good industry expertise and flour milling training experience. When the new mill is ready the person will be tasked with starting up our industrial milling training program."

Smail explained that the program will model AIB’s baking training course. "It will be targeted towards individuals who are new to the industry and want to take a 15-16 week course to become certified as a professional miller."

This will be a departure from KSU’s traditional resident undergraduate milling degree courses and will appeal to engineers, business students and other non-millers who want good industrial training in mill design, operation and management. The courses will be dovetailed and run jointly with some of AIB’s classes, such as food safety.

Smail is also looking to industry to sponsor students, graduate students in particular but also undergraduates, in collaborative research projects.

"The grain industry needs to invest in its future and what could be a better way than for companies to offer scholarships to promising young people?" Scholarships could be tailored to minority or disadvantaged groups to help companies recruit from areas in which they have a particular interest, Smail said.

Construction of the new facilities that will house all these new training programs is well underway. In 2004 the Bioprocessing and Industrial Value-Added Program (BIVAP) and the International Grains Program Conference Center buildings were opened and ground was broken on the third of the five buildings that make up the new 16 acre Grain Science and Industry complex: the $6.8 million pilot-scale Hal Ross training and research flour mill and wheat quality laboratory. The feed mill is next on the agenda.

"At the groundbreaking in May, I made the bold statement that the feedmill groundbreaking would happen when we ribbon-cut the flour mill – so that gives us two years to raise U.S.$7 million just for the building," Smail said. "We have U.S.$500,000 in the bank in private donations so far," he added. Equipment donations are being sought and given the global reach of KSU’s feed graduates, Smail is hoping to see interest from international companies.

"We are also revisiting the original feed mill design," Smail said. "With all the interest in DDGS and other wet ingredients such as liquid micro-ingredients, we need to expand the design to include liquid additions."

As with the flour mill, the feed mill design has also been expanded to incorporate a bay to allow companies to bring in different equipment to test. "This increased flexibility will make the facilities more useful and attractive to industry," Smail explained.

Once the mill is up, the feed production course program will be expanded to offer a certification short course, similar to the flour milling course.

Last to be built will be the classrooms and labs.

Smail speaks enthusiastically of the opportunities provided by the BIVAP.

"BIVAP will give us a new focus. Through extrusion, extraction, fermentation and bioprocessing, it is going to take us out of just milling and baking and traditional feed and into other applications for grain."

"The big lesson the industry learned from the Atkins Diet phenomenon and the need to reformulate for low-carbohydrate products, was that there is more to flour than just, well, flour: flour is made of valuable, healthy components," Smail said.

"Nutrition and health increasingly will be the drivers of consumption. Wheat can give us prebiotics, probiotics, fibers for satiety, cancer-fighting orthophenolics, resistant starch, flavor through fermentation, gluten and so much more we have yet to fully understand." "The nutraceutical and functional properties of flour components will let us give consumers a reason to eat bread in the future, not just an excuse." WG

Find out more about Grain Science and Industry at Kansas State University at: