Harvest States takes milling to the mountains

by Emily Wilson
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In the United States, the 1990s may long be remembered as a period of rebirth for the multitude of mill constructions and expansions that occurred during the decade. Among the final projects completed prior to the turn of the century was a state-of-the-art mill tucked away in the mountains of Pennsylvania.

Five years after plans for the Mount Pocono, Pennsylvania, flour mill of Harvest States Milling Co. (formerly known as Amber Milling Co.) originally were announced, the facility was completed. And if early results are any indication, then the facility was well worth the wait, the company said.

Although it is not as expansive as the milling company's Kenosha, Wisconsin, flour mill, which has 21,000 cwts of daily capacity (about 950 tonnes of flour), the Mount Pocono flour mill, at between 18,000 and 19,000 cwts (800 to 860 tonnes of flour), still stands as one of the largest mills ever built in the United States.

Construction of the Mount Pocono mill is just one in a series of three major mill projects that Harvest States has undertaken over the past five years. In addition to Mount Pocono, the milling company, which is uniquely positioned as part of a farmer-owned cooperative, Cenex Harvest States Cooperatives, based in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, has completed mill constructions at Kenosha and Houston, Texas.

Combined, the Kenosha, Houston and Mount Pocono mills have daily capacity of 53,000 cwts (2,400 tonnes of flour), which exceeds company-wide capacity at all but the six largest milling companies in the United States. At 78,000 cwts (3,500 tonnes), Harvest States ranks as No. 7 among U.S. milling companies. ADM Milling Co., Overland Park, Kansas; ConAgra Flour Milling Co., Omaha, Nebraska; and Cargill Flour Milling, Minneapolis, rank as the top three.

Also on tap is construction of a mill in Orlando, Florida. Harvest States announced plans to build the mill in November 1997, with expected ground breaking in the summer of 1998 and operation start-up in late 1999. To date, the land on which the mill will be located has been purchased by Harvest States, and the company is currently in the process of obtaining permits and building access roads to the site. According to Harvest States, it was important to firm up the Kenosha, Houston and Mount Pocono projects before moving forward on another expansive mill project.

Another likely factor in the Orlando delay has been in milling capacity utilization. In 1997, the year the Orlando project was first announced, U.S. flour mills operated at 91.6% of six-day capacity. Since that time, the rates, which are calculated by Milling & Baking News, have gradually declined. In 1998, mills operated at 89.1% of six-day capacity, and in 1999, the rate slipped to 88.4%.

A GRUELING LESSON. Located on a 42-acre site in the mountains of Pennsylvania, the Mount Pocono facility is in the heart of one of the most popular resort areas in the state. Neighboring townships include two golf courses, a ski resort and horse stables, and the small community relies on the tourism business for a significant portion of its income.

The isolated location of the mill in the midst of these resort properties was a key reason that Harvest States had difficulty in bringing the Mount Pocono facility to fruition. The company first announced plans to build the Mount Pocono facility in November 1994, with an expected start-up date of April 1996. But groundbreaking of the site did not take place until September 1997, and the first flour delivery was not made until January 1999.

One of the factors that sets the facility apart from other similar size mills is the design and layout of the equipment, all manufactured and installed by Sangati S.p.A., Padova, Italy.

According to Regis A. Weiss, plant manager of the mill, Sangati was selected to equip the mill in large part because the company was able to put together a package that allowed Harvest States to dictate where rollermills, scourers, sifters and other equipment would be placed.

Mr. Weiss noted that building the Mount Pocono mill was unlike anything the company has previously experienced. The 42-acre site encompasses four townships and includes a mill and warehouse that are located in such a manner that they are situated in two townships. Harvest States had to obtain permits not only from the state of Pennsylvania, but also from each township that the facility touched, which made the entire development process a grueling lesson in permitting and politics, he said.

"It was absolutely amazing what we had to do and to go through just to achieve the permits to begin construction, let alone building the mill itself," Mr. Weiss said. "Building the mill was actually a breeze considering what we went through in the earlier steps."

Part of the difficulty, Mr. Weiss explained, was in convincing the owners of some of the resort areas, as well as two historical preservation agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency, that the mill could be constructed in such a way that would not take away from the natural beauty of the landscape. And it wasn't until three years after initial negotiations began that Harvest States received the go-ahead for the project. As part of its deal with the townships, Harvest States agreed to offset the mill and elevators, which cut back some of the end-to-end length of the facility, Mr. Weiss said.

Despite initial conflicts, all parties involved in the permit process have coexisted amicably ever since the mill received its first shipment of grain in September 1998, Mr. Weiss said.

"We might as well get along together," he said. "They're not going anywhere, and we are here to stay for a long time."

While the Kenosha facility is still considered the "shining star" of the Harvest States organization, Mr. Weiss indicated that the Mount Pocono facility might best be described as the "flagship mill."

Located with access to many of the largest cities on the East coast, the Mount Pocono facility distinguishes itself from mills of similar size by reaching a customer base that is enormous in terms of population. The location opens the mill to an even larger population than the Kenosha mill, which was built with the goal of reaching the heavily populated cities of Chicago and Milwaukee.

"If you take a 100-mile radius (around the Mount Pocono facility), which we consider to be almost a perfect trucking distance to supply your customers, and you create a circle, there are 45 million people that fall into that circle," Mr. Weiss said.

Even though the mill has access to a large customer base, the four townships that the mill touches account for only about 5,000 people. The site has room for expansion and is an excellent candidate for future partnerships, such as one between the Kenosha facility and American Italian Pasta Co., he said.

The Mount Pocono mill has direct access to the U.S. interstate highway system, which allows the company to reach quickly any customer within the 100-mile radius. With such easy access inside of Pennsylvania, the mill serves three out of the five largest cities in the state: Philadelphia, Allentown and Scranton. Extending beyond Pennsylvania, the mill trucks product to Baltimore, New York City, most of New Jersey, and farther east in New England.

According to Grain & Milling Annual 2000 published by Sosland Publishing Co., Kansas City, Missouri, Pennsylvania ranks second in number of flour mills with 16, trailing only the 18 mills operating in Kansas. In terms of daily milling capacity, Pennsylvania ranks sixth.

Even though so many mills already operate in the state, Mr. Weiss said, the reason behind the Mount Pocono mill — as well as the Kenosha and Houston mills — was that the large surrounding metropolitan areas offered a great opportunity for a newer and larger mill facility to enter the market.

"The mills that have been serving the area have done so for more than 50 years and really haven't changed much," Mr. Weiss said. "We felt we had an ample opportunity to come in to Mount Pocono and build on our past successes — to implement a new strategy, a new mill, and develop improved customer service."

Harvest States has had no problem carving out a space in the Pennsylvania market, Mr. Weiss said. Within a year and a half of the project's completion, the mill is up and running seven days a week. And according to Mr. Weiss, there are enough bakery and production facilities in the area that the company could have three Mount Pocono facilities and still not be able to supply the entire customer base.

INDUSTRY EXPERIENCE. Harvest States relied on years of industry experience to bring the mill up to the level of a 21st century operation, according to Mr. Weiss.

Mr. Weiss has been with Harvest States Milling for 13 years. He came to the Mount Pocono facility from the Huron, Ohio, mill, where he was milling manager. Mr. Weiss was instrumental in the design construction.

According to Mr. Weiss, Garry A. Pistoria, who retired in 1999 as president of Amber Milling and group vice-president of the wheat milling division of Harvest States, was a key player in the Mount Pocono project. "He was the one who pinpointed this area and really was the driving force behind our battle to be able to build the mill here," Mr. Weiss said.

Other key figures in the process included Gene Rydlund and Van Sickle, Allen and Associates, Inc. Mr. Rydlund was involved in the initial stages of the project and made numerous trips to Mount Pocono on behalf of Harvest States to iron out the political issues. Van Sickle, Allen was instrumental in the engineering stage and worked with Todd & Sargent to obtain approval for the mill construction.

Because the milling capacity is large, yet the building that houses it is small, it was important in the design stage to pay particular attention to sanitation, Mr. Weiss said. One of the things that Sangati was able to do, and a feature that is becoming increasingly popular in newer mills, was to install double-high rollermills to save space in certain passages, Mr. Weiss said. First and second breaks and first and second sizings in the mill are all double high, he noted.

In the design, Sangati put effort into the spouting flow and the entire mill design from top to bottom to properly maintain a level of sanitation. In contrast to many large mills that have spouts appearing to go everywhere, the Mount Pocono mill has a vertical spouting flow system that not only allows for easy walking access, but also provides ample room to sweep, clean and vacuum.

The equipment placement process was enhanced through preplanning by the company and Sangati, Mr. Weiss said. Holes for the spouts were in place prior to concrete being poured, and as a result, very few holes were drilled into the floor to accommodate additional spouts.

"There were strict guidelines on what we would allow and what we wouldn't allow, and the design is one of the things that really put this mill into the forefront, especially when you consider we maintain sanitation with a minimal amount of people," Mr. Weiss said. "This is the cleanest mill I've ever worked in, or truthfully, ever visited, and we don't have to do a lot of things to maintain that level."

Todd & Sargent, Inc., Ames, Iowa, was the general contractor for the mill. Aside from the electrical and equipment installation, Todd & Sargent handled the building design and construction, as well as the paving and landscaping of the site. The role of Todd & Sargent was expanded for the Mount Pocono mill; the company only designed the elevator for the Kenosha facility.

The Mount Pocono elevator has the capacity to unload 18,000 bus of wheat (490 tonnes) per hour, Mr. Weiss said. Most of the wheat is unloaded in 25- and 52-car unit trains. Six rail tracks serve as staging areas for flour cars and wheat cars. The facility's rail siding is able to handle easily 75 rail cars of grain at one time, with the capability of handling 90 rail cars if necessary.

Despite the access to the rail lines, Mr. Weiss indicated that the mill transports less than 5% of finished product by rail.

Because the mill relies heavily on trucks for transporting finished products, Harvest States has taken steps to ensure that trucks are always on site by forming a relationship with an on-site carrier, Seaboard Food Transport, which is a division of Dunmore, Pennsylvania-based Seaboard Tank Lines, Inc. This unique relationship — the tanks, trailers and trucks are located in the Mount Pocono mill yard solely for the purpose of hauling the mill's flour — allows the company to be extremely versatile in meeting customers' needs, Mr. Weiss said. A yardman and dispatcher stay on site 24 hours a day, he said.

"In the event a customer calls up and for some reason needs some flour immediately, we don't have to set up a carrier to come in and pick up the flour," Mr. Weiss said. "We have the flour in our bins and we have the truck here within an hour, and in 10 minutes we can have that truck on its way to a customer in an emergency situation. Having a carrier in our yard totally dedicated to us and nobody else is a unique aspect of the mill."

The Mount Po-cono facility currently grinds hard winter and spring wheat for bakery flour for the baking industry, and durum wheat for durum flour for the pasta industry. In addition, the mill manufactures wheat germ as well as a food grade germ, or high purity wheat germ, Mr. Weiss said.

According to Mr. Weiss, the mill provides flour to customers that manufacture a variety of products, ranging from Chef Boyardee ravioli and spaghetti to Kit-Kat wafers and even Play-Doh.

Most of the winter wheat used by Harvest States at the mill is originated from northern Kansas and Nebraska, whereas spring wheat comes from North Dakota, the Red River Valley of Minnesota, or Canada. Durum wheat is sourced from Montana, North Dakota and Canada, Mr. Weiss said.

Mr. Weiss indicated that the mill tries to source wheat from locations that are near the Canadian Pacific Railroad, the company's primary rail carrier. The relationship has thus far worked well, he said, as wheat from the areas has performed very well over the past year.

Currently, the Mount Pocono mill is doing
only a minimal amount of sack flour, but Mr. Weiss indicated that future plans call for the bag business to account for approximately 20% of all shipments.

"Our main concentration originally was to focus on our bulk business so we could run this facility," Mr. Weiss said. "Sack flour in this market is very difficult to enter, and we've been attacking it more aggressively now that the mill is running and we are up to full speed. We're moving very quickly to increase our bag business — that is one of our focuses now."

The plant is currently capable of packaging 600 bags per hour, equal to more than half of the facility's production capacity.

In the mill's loading station, four bays are set up with the ability to load 50,000 lbs of flour. After the trucks are hooked up to the bays, a process known as "fluidizing" is initiated. The "fluidizing" process, which takes about four minutes, gives the flour the flow characteristics of water, Mr. Weiss said. Following the "fluidizing" process, the mouth of the bay is opened and the 50,000 lbs of flour flow into the truck in approximately two minutes, he added.

UNIQUE ASPECTS. The Mount Pocono mill contains some features that are not commonplace in similar-size mills. To create the required footprint, the mill utilizes pin mills and Sangati "millibrans and milliflour" units in the place of rollermills.

A unique aspect of the facility, and an important tool in building the mill's customer base, is the utilization of the automated roll gap system, Mr. Weiss said. Through the auto roll gap system, the Mount Pocono mill is able to create a blend to meet a customer's specification. The system reaches out to the rollermills, tempering settings and other machines throughout the mill.

"The auto roll gap system creates a recipe and stores that in its memory," Mr. Weiss explained. "Then, if the customer receives that flour and is pleased with it, we are able to make that flour again just by pulling up the recipe and clicking a few buttons on the auto roll gap system and readjusting the mill to where it was when we first created the recipe."

The auto roll gap system is just one of several technological advances at the mill. Unlike older mills, which may have only a few computers set up in a main laboratory or control room, the advance of the computer age is immediately evident once inside the Mount Pocono facility.

In addition to more than 3,000 individual sensors situated throughout the mill, desktop computers, which are connected to a larger programmable-logic computer (P.L.C.) system that operates the mill, are located throughout the facility. P.C.'s may be found on the fourth and sixth floors of the mill, as well as in the grain elevator, the blenders/loaders office, the laboratory, packing department, control room, and one in Mr. Weiss's office. With so many computers dispersed throughout the mill, the distance needed to travel in order to fix a problem is shortened.

"No matter where you are, you are normally within about 10 seconds of reaching a P.C. that actually operates the mill," Mr. Weiss explained. "They are all over the place, and, as a result, we are never really in the dark as far as what is going on in the mill."

He noted that the implementation of integrated P.L.C.'s is becoming a common feature at new mills. Because many of the newer mills are suspension-style mills, they require fewer people. With fewer people, it is necessary to provide employees with as much information and help as possible. As a result, more computers are being installed in mills, he said.

The P.L.C.'s were programmed by Creek Electric, Inc., Wichita, Kansas. Creek Electric also handled P.L.C. integration, the first time that Harvest States has utilized one company to handle both electrical installation and P.L.C. integration, Mr. Weiss said. He said the process was a resounding success and one of the wisest decisions Harvest States made during the mill project.

"In the past, we've had someone handle electrical installation of the hardware and then had a different company serve as integrator, and that may lead to miscommunication," he said. "By giving the whole project to Creek, we eliminated any problems or lack of communication."

The facility comprises a 14,000-cwt wheat flour mill and an approximately 5,000-cwt swing (wheat flour/semolina) mill. An advanced blending plant, variable speed drive blending and conveyors under all of the mill's products, regardless of what type of wheat, help Harvest States to supply to an exact customer specification, Mr. Weiss said.

Each of the ingredients in the blending conveyors are integrated into the P.L.C. and are controlled and monitored in such a manner that, should a flow rate change or any other operation go awry, the P.L.C. will sound an alarm and shut down the process. This prevents the mill from delivering inconsistent or off-grade flour, Mr. Weiss said.

The Mount Pocono facility comprises 32 workers and operates with a four-man crew. Two persons — a miller and second miller — operate both of the units and both of the cleaning houses at the mill. The mill also utilizes two persons who load the trucks and an additional utility person who is on hand to help out in the mill.

One aspect of the Mount Pocono mill that is similar to the Kenosha mill but different from many mills is the inclusion of an on-site test bakery. According to Mr. Weiss, the bakeries at the two facilities are part of a corporate quality program that helps the company to test bake and ensure that flour generated by the mill will perform in customers' bakeries.

At the Mount Pocono facility, the company has an "ex" mill — a smaller, scaled-down version of the larger mill —in the bakery. The small ex mill allows Harvest States to get samples of the wheat, run it through the ex mill and make flour and then bake — all without having to go through the regular mill.

Mr. Weiss said the company, which bakes on a weekly basis, uses the bakery extensively around a crop change. In addition, customers may come in and test flour in a much smaller setting than their own larger bakeries.

"Having the bakery located right here at the mill is good," Mr. Weiss said. "It gives us a heads up and ensures that we are not going to convey inconsistent product. If our customers are having a problem, then maybe we have already experienced it in the bakery and may lead them in the right direction."

In case of a power failure, the facility operates off of generators, which power up the P.L.C.'s, all of the mill's roller facilities, the mill lighting, the quality assurance laboratory and other operations to allow the company to continue supplying flour to customers.

Because the facility primarily uses trucks for delivery as opposed to railcars, the installation of the generator was more a necessity than what might be necessary at a rail-reliant mill, Mr. Weiss said.

"With railcars, you might be able to have 15 cars sitting at the mill full and ready to go if power goes off," he said. "But you can't do that with trucks. Nobody has so many trucks they can just have two or three days worth of business sitting and ready." He mentioned that it only takes 10 minutes for the mill to switch from real power to the generator.

Mr. Weiss noted that the company continues to put the finishing touches on the mill. The company has several projects in the works, including increasing the mill's flour conveying capabilities. At the end of July, the mill increased the amount of flour it could move through its loadout to 1,500 cwts an hour. Mr. Weiss indicated that the projects were undertaken to help promote the efficiency of the A mill and B mill, as well as possibly squeeze a little more flour out of the mill.

"The versatility is here within our site to do what we feel is appropriate in the future," Mr. Weiss explained. "There is adequate spacing inside the mill itself for expansion. We would have to do something for finished product storage and some grain storage if we were going to undergo a major expansion, but the space is here."

Eric Schroeder is associate editor at Milling & Baking News, sister publication to World Grain.