Inside Stybel's newest mill

by L. Joshua Sosland
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Each of the two milling units at Ad Halom features 6 Bühler double high roll stands and 14 singles.
Photo by Meyer Sosland.
The origins of the 2010 decision by Stybel Flour Mills to build a new flour mill at Ad Halom by the port city of Ashdod may be discovered in the pressing need to close Dagan, another Stybel mill 42 kilometers to the north.

Located in tightly congested Bnei Brak, just east of Tel Aviv, the Dagan older mill was an industrial vestige of a much different time in pre-Israel Palestine.

Bnei Brak was established in 1924 as an agricultural village by Polish Chasidic (ultra-orthodox Jewish) settlers. When the flour mill was built in 1940, it was situated on an open field with houses and other structures dotting the landscape — the village encompasses 709 hectares (less than 3 square miles). Over time, Bnei Brak grew as an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and is among the most densely populated cities in Israel with a population of 182,000.

“The mill was in the middle of a residential neighborhood, which wasn’t the case originally,” said Hadar Golombek, whose family owned the Dagan mill there for many years. Now a partner in the Ad Halom mill, Golombek spent many years working at the Dagan mill.

“It became very difficult for the mill to operate logistically,” he said. “Regulations from the municipality, which is Orthodox and very crowded, were difficult.”

While logistical problems accompany attempts to operate a flour mill in any densely populated area around the world, Bnei Brak brings another layer of challenge. Observant Jews are not allowed to use or even own flour during the holiday of Passover, and they carefully clean their homes of any traces of flour in advance of the festival each year.

“A flour mill in an Orthodox community like Bnei Brak is not ideal around Passover,” said Boaz Turgeman, a managing director of Stybel.

Stybel leased the Dagan mill in 2005 with an agreement to move out in five years.

For Stybel, a need for additional milling capacity heightened in 2008. In addition to the impending closing of Dagan, a grain silo collapsed on a milling unit at the company’s Beer Sheva mill, necessitating a halt to production there.

To replace the capacity of Dagan and Beer Sheva mills, Stybel leased a mill in Ashdod in 2009 as a stopgap measure and decided to convert an old feed mill outside of Ashdod into a large flour mill. At the guidance of engineers from Bühler Group, who helped design and was the principal equipment supplier of the Ad Halom mill, Stybel jettisoned the feed mill conversion plan and instead built a new building on the property. Stybel’s new flour mill outside Ashdod is the largest in the State of Israel.

“We acquired the feed mill in 2004, mostly for wheat storage,” Boaz Turgeman said. “It is near the port of Ashdod, and it was an advantage to be able to store wheat — 80% of wheat consumed in Israel is imported.

“We called Bühler to evaluate and see how we could rebuild the mill there. We wanted to move quickly into a new mill for both Bnei Brak and Ashdod. At the time we didn’t know we were going to be able to buy the Ashdod mill. Bühler was very thorough. They make you think about every point. Together with them, we developed a timetable. As I said, we had wanted to convert a 40- or 50-year-old feed mill. Bühler’s experts said, ‘No way. You need a new building.’ Then we decided to build here first of all, taking over capacity of Beer Sheva and Dagan. Luckily we had the mill in Ashdod rented. We moved production from Beer Sheva to Ashdod for the time we were building the new mill here. “

Wheat storage factors particularly heavily in Israel’s milling economics because of the country’s dependence on imported wheat and other factors. The flexibility to divert wheat shipments from Haifa to Ashdod is among reasons having storage near the latter port is worthwhile, Boaz Turgeman said.

“Sometimes the queue at the port is so long that in order to avoid demurrage, you might consider diverting ships to Ashdod to unload it earlier, and vice-versa,” he said. “Haifa and Ashdod are the only ports.”

The addition of rail service in Ashdod is expected in 2017, an enhancement expected to generate great efficiencies, Boaz Turgeman said. Labor costs associated with transferring wheat the short distance between the port and the mill represent an onerous expense, he said.

He described “semi-hard wheat, like U.S. hard red winter” as the principal grist for the Ad Halom mill.

“Most hard wheat is either European — from Germany, Hungary, Russia or Ukraine,” he said. “Soft wheat with low protein is imported from France and Russia. We had imported U.S. soft red wheat for many years but stopped because of vomitoxin.”

At one level, the decision to install the mill in a new building simplified the Ad Halom project for Stybel, but plenty of additional complications remained to be addressed.

Any food or ingredient plant producing certified kosher products must be regularly inspected to ensure compliance with the ancient laws of Jewish dietary observance. These laws mostly pertain to keeping out prohibited ingredients (e.g., pork and shellfish) and making sure dairy and meat products do not mix. For wheat milling, an entirely new set of requirements must be met.

Helping Bühler navigate rules and requirements associated with Jewish religious practice was Baruch Turgeman, the 84-year-old chairman and chief executive officer, his son Boaz said.

“My father brought the input of his many years of experience,” Boaz Turgeman said. “We had issues regarding the kosher restrictions. We needed special designs which affected some of the flow sheet. Bühler made these special adjustments.”

For example, certain customers seek fresh bran and fresh semolina (endosperm without bran particles) from soft wheat or semi-hard wheat directly from the mill without any intermediate storage.

“I’ve never seen such a feature in a mill design,” said Josef Pfister, a Bühler engineer involved with the Ad Halom project.