DENVER, COLORADO, US — In a move that would strengthen the company’s position in the gluten-free milled grains market, Ardent Mills LLC on Sept. 27 announced it has reached an agreement to acquire substantially all the assets of Firebird Artisan Mills, Harvey, North Dakota, US. Pending the successful completion of due diligence, Ardent Mills said the transaction is expected to be completed before the end of 2021.

Specializing in the milling of gluten-free specialty grains and pulses, Firebird is part of Agspring, a holding company based in Leawood, Kansas, US. Under the Agspring umbrella, Firebird was established in 2014 with the acquisition of the assets of Dakota Prairie Organic Flour Co. in Harvey. In 2017, Firebird added two production lines to the Harvey operation and said it believed the company had become the “largest 100% dedicated, certified gluten-free and allergen-free flour mill in North America.”

Dan Dye, chief executive officer of Ardent Mills, noted that the company has a long history of working with Firebird.

"Firebird Artisan Mills has been a collaborative and well-established partner of ours in the gluten-free and specialty ingredients space since the formation of Ardent Mills,” he said. “They have proven again and again to go above and beyond for their customers.”

Ardent Mills has marketed ancient grains for many years. The acquisition of Firebird would, for the first time, bring the ability to mill these specialty grains in house, Dye told Milling & Baking News, a sister publication of World Grain. Products Ardent Mills will be able to offer with the acquisition include gluten-free flours, mixes, blends and specialty grain products.

“It’s the further processing capabilities and addition of another gluten-free milling facility — for organic, non-GMO, gluten-free, and more — that we will now have as part of our portfolio,” he said. “Today we would have to do that work through a co-manufacturer. The big add for us is providing that ability to offer a full supply chain offering, and also helping our family farms get their gluten-free and specialty grains to market faster.”

Gluten-free grains that Ardent Mills will be able to mill at Harvey, include amaranth, teff, millet, sorghum, buckwheat and quinoa, all gluten-free and non-GMO ingredients. Each would be available in organic or conventional versions. Additionally, for plant-based food applications, the Firebird mill processes peas, lentils, beans and rice. Ardent Mills said the Harvey facility will advance the company’s “plant-forward business.”

Firebird and the other specialty businesses falling under The Annex by Ardent Mills should be viewed as a complement to the wheat flour business, Dye said. A growing number of wheat flour customers also are seeking specialty grain solutions. Ardent Mills’ investment in specialty grains allows the company to offer a differentiated product offering to customers, diversifies the company’s business and provides it with a promising avenue for added growth, he said.

The value of Ardent Mills’ acquisition of Firebird and its growing portfolio of businesses in the specialty grain/milling space has been heightened by worsening supply chain challenges in recent months, Dye said. By building out an integrated supply chain, the company will be “creating distinctive value” for its customers, he said.

“Supply chain challenges are everywhere, but within the specialty space they have been more disjointed,” he said. “With this expected acquisition, we are beginning to bring complete supply chain solutions to our customers in these areas. The gluten-free and specialty markets are continuing to grow, and if we can help with that supply chain more holistically, that allows us to be more efficient and more effective, which makes the process faster and less expensive. And we can add consistency and reliability because we’re managing the whole thing.”

As an example, Dye said Ardent Mills currently is working with chickpea growers as part of its recently acquired Hinrichs Trading Company business. The Firebird acquisition will help expand the capabilities of Ardent Mills in that space.

“Once Firebird closes, we will be able to mill chickpeas into flour as well as other products and applications,” he said. “Having that capability is pretty unique and a real value proposition to our customers.”

When completed, the Firebird Artisan acquisition would be the fourth for Ardent Mills since the beginning of 2019. Other acquisitions since include Hinrichs Trading Co., which specializes in cleaning and packaging chickpeas, in June 2021; Andean Natural’s quinoa operations, in February 2020; and an organic grain elevator in Klamath Falls, Oregon, US, announced in July 2019. Also in 2019, Ardent Mills announced the addition of capabilities at its Denver mill to clean and pack intact specialty grains, pearl barley and dehull heirloom grains like emmer, einkorn and spelt.

While the merger and acquisition activity of Ardent Mills has been focused on specialty grains, the company continues investing in its core wheat flour milling business, Dye said.

“We are investing significantly in our core flour milling business,” he said. “We have a new mill that we are getting ready to open in the Port Redwing area of Tampa, Florida. That’s a major investment — a brand new wheat flour mill right in our core business. We’ve continued to invest across our network, and we see lots of pockets of growth.”

The mill in Harvey is located in central North Dakota and would be Ardent Mills’ second mill in the state. Ardent Mills operates 32 wheat flour mills in the United States, including four in the Upper Midwest — Fairmount, ND; and Hastings, Lake City and Mankato, Minn. North Dakota is a leading producer of specialty grains and pulses.