Wheat industry gets boost from biofuel, protein plant

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A new wheat protein processing center is providing welcome news to the breadbasket of America.

In Phillipsburg, Kansas, a corn ethanol plant is being retooled so that it can produce wheat-based biofuel and wheat protein (gluten) for the baking and pet food industries.

Amber Wave, through its parent group Summit Ag Investors, Alden, Iowa, purchased the Prairie Horizon Agri-Energy corn ethanol plant in summer 2021, said Chief Operating Officer Steve Adams.

While the converted plant will have the capacity to handle both crops in the future, the emphasis is on the construction and conversion to a wheat processing facility that will produce a wheat-based biofuel for the energy sector and wheat protein for bakers and pet food manufacturers, said CEO Randy Cimorelli.

The Prairie Horizon plant at the time of the purchase was producing 50 million gallons a year of corn ethanol and in the short run will continue to produce that type of biofuel until the conversion to wheat takes place, Adams said.

In January, Amber Wave broke ground on the 27,500 hundredweight wheat flour mill that is currently under construction, he said. In addition to the mill, a wheat protein extraction facility is being built.

“We’ll grind about 20 million bushels of wheat per year, Adams said. “One hundred percent of the flour that comes out of that mill will go to our wheat protein extraction facility and ultimately we will produce in excess of 100 million pounds of finished wheat protein to sell to bakeries and pet food manufacturers.”

During protein extraction a mechanical process is involved that separates the starch from the protein, the protein can then be dried and packed in bags, totes or bulk, Adams said. The starch will then go to the ethanol plant.

Cimorelli said the focus of the plant will be as a wheat processing center for biofuel and protein production. “This country, as a whole, imports over 70%—probably closer to 80%—of its wheat protein, or gluten, (each year),” Cimorelli said. “If you look at what’s been going on in the world the last few years we knew that if we could create a domestic source of manufacturing we would be a solution provider by helping our future customers eliminate the global supply chain challenges and constraints that they were faced with.”

Wheat protein, he said, is the “plant based protein of the world.” Our goal is to be the largest manufacturer in North America.

The interest in wheat as an alternative to corn has been well received by growers, he said. While Mother Nature can be unkind to growers regardless of crop, Cimorelli says the Phillipsburg plant is at the right location for them to leverage best possible outcomes. “We may have some years where we’ll need to go farther away (to secure wheat) for the plant but the opportunity for growers in the region and beyond is real.”

Cimorelli said he believes connections with Kansas State University, seed companies, grower organizations and farmers will produce protein that is beneficial for Amber Wave’s needs while also benefiting growers. “Ultimately, we can reward higher protein levels.

Adams said the ability to repurpose and add to the Phillipsburg plant as well as have it in full production in a year made it the right fit. The region’s ability to produce wheat and the proximity to rail transport facilities was an added bonus.

“Location-wise, from a wheat standpoint, it was very beneficial for Phillipsburg,” Adams said.

Construction and renovation has meant as many as 200 workers, including the local employees, have been onsite on a daily basis, Adams said. The economic impact is being felt in the local community as many of those temporary workers are buying fuel, eating lunch, staying in local motels or renting a place to stay. “We believe the local community is feeling the impact everywhere,” Cimorelli said. Phillipsburg and surrounding communities have been unified in watching the project succeed.

A Kansas native who grew up on a farm and ranch operation in Greenwood County, Adams said the project is a source of pride as he has worked on various successful projects across the country. “Being able to fit something in my home state provides a benefit to the farmers and ranchers in that area I’m excited and it definitely means a lot to me.”

Adams has been busy recruiting milling science interns and full-time professionals and he is eager to see how those talented professionals will mesh in the community.

Cimorelli said the commitment and support from community leaders, the community at large and state officials has been excellent. And that support makes for a great long-term partnership going forward.

Justin Gilpin, CEO of the Kansas Wheat, said the Amber Wave project is great news for High Plains growers as he called it an exciting development for wheat farmers and the state’s wheat industry.

“It will create increased localized demand in the largest producing state of hard red winter wheat in the United States,” Gilpin said. “Increasing localized demand for Kansas-grown wheat will be a positive for Kansas farmers. This plant, in combination with PureField Ingredients wheat protein plant in Russell, will make the state of Kansas the largest wheat protein producing state in the country.”

Gilpin said the Amber Wave plant should create localized demand for wheat not just in Phillips County area but throughout the region, particularly western Kansas. The Kyle Railroad runs from northeast Colorado to Kansas City and there is opportunity to pull wheat from other regions to meet Amber Wave’s commitments, he said, and that can benefit growers from those regions, too.

Amber Wave’s commitment demonstrates its commitment to wheat growers and to the hard red winter wheat industry.

“We’re excited about it, not just because of the increased and demand and that specific project, but we’re encouraged by the leadership team that’s in place with Amber Wave and their approach on how they are coming into the state of Kansas and going into that area of Kansas,” Gilpin said.

“Kansas farmers are some of the most diversified in the United States with crop rotations and they do what they need to do to stay profitable,” Gilpin said.

As reported in the High Plains Journal

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