Northern Crops Institute (NCI) is an international meeting and learning center which brings together customers, commodity traders, technical experts and processors for discussion, education and technical services. It is a collaborative effort among North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and South Dakota to support the promotion and market development of crops grown in the four-state region.
Now in its 28th year, NCI has always believed that the only way to stay relevant to those it serves is to continually add new educational programming and technical services.
NCI’s latest addition is a "swing mill" that can process testscale quantities of bread wheat (Hard Red Spring, Hard Red Winter and Hard White) into flour for quality and test baking/ processing evaluations.
The swing mill project, which is still ongoing, involved converting an existing durum mill into a facility that can process both durum wheat and bread wheat.
"We were getting a lot of interest from different organizations and companies for doing intermediate-sized flour milling with bread wheat for all sorts of baking and processingtype applications," said NCI Director Brian Sorenson. "There was no equipment in this region that could do that, so we felt it would really serve this region and its producers well to provide that capability."
The swing mill is located inside the NCI building on the campus of North Dakota State University (NDSU) in Fargo. "It is one of the biggest projects that NCI has had in a long time — probably the biggest since the durum mill and feed mill were built in the early 1990s," Sorenson said.
The new mill is capable of milling flour, durum semolina and whole wheat flour. Milling capacity is 200 to 300 pounds per hour, which is a larger quantity than a laboratory mill can produce but smaller than a commercial-scale mill.
Sorenson said most of the equipment that has been used for milling durum wheat, such as the roller mills and sifters, is now being utilized for wheat flour milling as well. What has changed is the installation of wheat cleaning equipment. "When the durum mill was constructed, it was built without a grain cleaning or tempering system," Sorenson said.
"It was one of the shortcomings of the mill. It really hampered its use since it wasn’t really able to be a full-service facility."
The cleaning system includes three Buhler Inc. pilot-scale purifiers, a Buhler classifier, and a Sortex color sorter, which was donated by Buhler.
"With the color sorter in that system, it really provides a very clean grain for the industry," Sorenson said. "I’m really impressed by what we’ve seen so far."
Also installed were two elevator legs and a new tempering system that includes a mixing screw plus a tank that holds up to 2,000 pounds of tempered grain. From there, the grain is transferred over to the milling section.
Sorenson said NCI was able to install the wheat cleaning equipment, which was the second phase in the four-part project, without expanding the building, since the equipment was installed where 16 bulk storage bins used to be located.
"We found out that we didn’t need all of that bulk storage so we removed them in 2004 and built in decking in that space which actually doubled our milling room size," Sorenson said.
The initial phase of the project began in September 2008 when engineers from Buhler did a full audit of the building and came up with a plan to convert the facility into a swing mill.
Sorenson said the cost of adding the swing mill through the first two phases of the project has been about $550,000, with the majority of the money coming from check-off dollars from the wheat commissions in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana. Also contributing to the project were General Mills and Cargill Horizon Milling.
Sorenson said the next phase of the renovation will begin when funding is secured and will include adding a flour mixer, an end-product storage bin and flour-packaging equipment that will fill 25 to 50-pound bags. The final phase will be adding equipment that can incorporate additives such as vitamins, minerals or enzymes into the finished product.
"The goal is to get started with phases three and four in the second quarter of 2010," Sorenson said.
Sorenson said adding the wheat flour mill fits in perfectly with NCI’s mission of promoting the region’s crops and value-added agriculture.
"One of the great things about this from an educational standpoint is we will be able to bring in groups and show them the importance of the quality of spring wheat, durum or Hard Red Spring wheat that we grow in this region," he said. "Hard White wheat also has great potential and we’re hoping this mill will help with expansion of those acres."
He said NCI will be working with U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) and the regional wheat commissions to provide flour samples for the USW’s Overseas Varietal Analysis Program, which provides analysis of the functional milling and baking qualities of new U.S. wheat varieties.
NCI celebrated the opening of the new swing mill with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Nov. 24 that included dignitaries such as North Dakota Governor John Hoeven, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, NDSU Vice-President of Agriculture and University Outreach D.C. Colston and Buhler Inc. President René Steiner.
"NCI’s new flour mill represents another great opportunity to promote northern-grown crops and create new and expanded domestic and international markets for producers in the region," Hoeven said.
NCI is in the process of interviewing candidates for the position of full-time milling specialist whose duties will include overseeing operations of the mill. Sorenson said NCI planned to fill the position by late January.
NCI’S EDUCATIONAL MISSION
When NCI was first launched in 1983, the institute’s educational programming primarily focused on short courses related to grain procurement and pasta processing, and those courses are still among the most popular offered today.
But with wheat acreage in the northern U.S. declining in recent years, primarily due to the biotech revolution in corn and soybeans and climate change, NCI has had to expand its educational programming to include more courses that address oilseeds, pulses and other "specialty" crops that are now grown in significant volumes in the region.
This is reflected in the NCI educational calendar for 2010, which includes short courses on "Functionality of Canola and Flaxseed in Food Systems" and "Legumes in Food Products."
"The last five or six years we’ve had to move into those areas because there’s been a market for it and a demand for it from the industry in the U.S.," said NCI Assistant Director John Crabtree, who has been with the institute since 1984. "We’ve seen a lot of interest in peas, lentils and other specialty crops in food products as an ingredient. Companies have been coming to NCI asking questions concerning functionality of these ingredients so we’ve had to address that.
Crabtree added, "We’re pretty fortunate that we can grow such a wide array of crops. I’d say other than the state of California, North Dakota probably grows a more diverse group of crops than anywhere in the U.S."
From day one, a major part of NCI’s mission has been to educate the international community about the quality of crops from the northern U.S. and how they can be utilized.
"The U.S. is not often the cheapest source of grains and oilseeds, but it stands apart from many export markets in providing quality and value," Sorenson said. "When people overseas come here to our program, they see that we are advocates of agriculture and that crops really are seen as a value ingredient and not just a commodity."
In 2009, more than 300 people from 36 countries outside of the U.S. participated in NCI short courses.
Sorenson estimated that NCI staff members educated another 1,000 people this past year during their overseas visits through crop quality seminar tours and other outreach programs.
Of great interest to NCI’s international clients are dried distillers grains with solubles (DDGS), an ethanol byproduct that has shown great promise as a livestock feed.
Sorenson said that over the last two years five international groups, including several from Japan, have come to NCI to learn more about DDGS. NCI’s newest course on the subject — "DDGS in Aquaculture Feed Production" — is being offered in October 2010.
"As we have become more involved in the use and promotion of DDGS, we have found that aquaculture is an area with great potential for the use of DDGS," Sorenson said. "We have been involved with the USDA out of South Dakota to help them develop test feeds for aquaculture using twin screw extrusion."
The NCI Feed Production Center, serves as an educational and technical assistance facility specializing in feed mill management and feed manufacturing technology for international and domestic clientele.
Built in 1990, the feed center produces between 2,000 and 2,200 tonnes of feed per year, the majority of which goes to the livestock research units on the NDSU campus.
The facility includes a 20-seat classroom and quality assurance lab. Equipment in the feed mill includes a Repete computer control system, Bliss hammermill, Rosskamp roller mills and a CPM pellet mill.
NCI also has a commodity grading laboratory, pasta processing laboratory, baking laboratory, food processing laboratory and analytical laboratory, which are all equipped to test and evaluate cereals, oilseeds, pulses, milled and finished products.
While educational programming is the primary service that NCI offers, product development, crop quality evaluation, technical processing, engineering and plant design are also parts of the mission.
"NCI offers various technical services in several areas in order to enhance the use of regional crops. In general, more than half of our annual technical projects are product development projects," said NCI Technical Director Mehmet Tulbeck.
"We assist many national companies to help them optimize their current products, as well as develop new products for their pipelines," he said, noting that all of the companies find a confidential atmosphere at NCI.
"There are several products on the supermarket shelves that were developed at NCI labs," said Tulbek, adding that NCI is not a "basic research" institution.
"Nevertheless, we collaborate with regional universities such as NDSU and SDSU on several projects and assist the university researchers to develop new products, utilize co-products and eventually assist the utilization of regional crops and co-products." For more information about NCI, visit its website at