Taking it to the next level

by L. Joshua Sosland
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North Dakota Mill
The North Dakota Mill and Elevator has been operating since 1922, but nearly all the company's capacity has been built or reinstalled since 200. The company's new G mill has 11,500 cwts daily milling capacity.
Photo by Josh Sosland.
For years, the North Dakota Mill and Elevator Association has stood out in the milling industry for its steady and large investments to update and expand its milling capacity. The modernization era at the Grand Forks, North Dakota, U.S.-based company reached a new apex in 2016 with the completion of the G mill, the facility’s eighth milling unit.

Built at a cost of $38.7 million and equipped principally by Ocrim S.p.A., Cremona, Italy, the G mill has daily capacity of 11,500 cwts and is one of the largest single milling units ever built in the United States. With the addition, the North Dakota Mill took a quantum jump extending its lead as the largest flour mill in the United States, at 49,500 cwts. The second and third largest U.S. mills have daily capacity of 31,000 cwts and 28,000 cwts, respectively.

Vance Taylor, president and general manager of the mill, said the latest expansion and early additions have matched up well with expanded demand. Beginning in 2014, demand from North Dakota Mill customers exceeded the company’s production capacity.

“Growth has been key to our success in almost every market segment,” Taylor said. “Since 2000 we’ve added spring wheat, durum and whole wheat milling capacity mainly driven by increasing demand from existing customers. We have been able to fill new capacity fairly quickly as it has been built.”

The G mill represents the culmination of a series of major and more modest projects at the company over the last several years, Taylor said. While the North Dakota Mill has been operating at the same location at Grand Forks for 95 years, none of the company’s current capacity is even 20 years old.

“We have kept pace with milling technology improvements,” Taylor said. “Our oldest milling units were built in 2000. We’re not only the largest mill in the United States but also one of the most technologically advanced.”

Capacity installed or modernized during this period includes:

A mill 8,000 cwts spring wheat (added in 2001)

B mill 8,000 cwts swing (spring and durum) (2001)

C mill 4,000 cwts spring wheat (2005)

D mill 2,000 cwts spring (2007)

E mill 1,000 cwts swing (whole wheat and spring) (2008)

G mill 11,500cwts spring (2016)

K mill 11,500 cwts spring (2011-13)

W mill 4,000 cwts whole wheat (2006)

Taylor said all the additions have emanated from a strategic planning process conducted in consultation with Dennis J. Elbert, the retired dean of the North Dakota State University business school. The projects, including several that did not add milling capacity, have “touched every area of the plant,” Taylor said.

North Dakota Mill
The executive team of the North Dakota Mill and Elevator Association includes, from left, Mike Jones, transportation and logistics manager; Steve Sannes, sales manager; Bob Sombke, quality assurance and tech services manager; Jeff Bertsch, grain procurement manager; Vance Taylor, president and general manager; Ed Barchenger, controller and financial manager; and Chris Lemoine, production operations manager.
Photo by Josh Sosland.

Examples of projects include the addition of a 40,000-square-foot pack flour warehouse in 2005 for $3.5 million. More recently a new family flour packaging line was installed at a cost of about $1 million.

“We also rebuilt and reflowed the K mill in fiscal years 2011, 2012 and 2013 in three different phases, taking the mill to 11,500 cwts from a 8,000-cwt spring wheat mill,” Taylor said. “The total combined cost of the K mill projects was about $8.5 million.”

Yet another project, executed in 2015 and 2016, upgraded electric power distribution across the entire plant.

“We replaced all of the power distribution equipment feeding each mill from our main transformer to strengthen infrastructure and prepare for the G mill,” Taylor said. He noted that electricity is the company’s fourth greatest cost, after wheat, transportation and labor.

The planning process led to a decision not to add grain storage capacity in tandem with the G mill addition. Instead, the company is investing $9.3 million in new high speed rail and truck unloading capability.

The decision to build a new 11,500-cwt mill was made at a time the overall U.S. flour market flattened, and the lack of growth has continued. The broader situation is not lost on executives at North Dakota Mill.

“It’s definitely something we’re aware of and take into consideration when planning capital projects,” Taylor said.

Taylor acknowledged that North Dakota Mill’s growing sales have not been matched across the industry.

“Overall the demand for milled wheat products has been relatively flat the last few years, but in specific markets we’ve seen good demand, and have been able to grow the business,” he said. “Customers appreciate the increased absorption and strength they get when they buy spring wheat flours providing stronger doughs, able to carry more ingredients. Because of our access to high quality North Dakota spring wheat and durum, which is some of the best wheat grown in the world, we believe we can provide superior quality flour, deliver it with a high level of customer service and expect to continue to grow.”