The Infinite Potential of Food and Feedstocks
By Rachel Duran
Northeast Texas is home to a diverse base of agricultural commodities including an expanding viticulture industry. The High Plains region is home to more than 4,000 acres of wine grape vineyards in commercial production, producing more than half of the state’s wine grapes annually.
“One of the things we have learned is the climate in Hockley and Terry counties is similar to the climate in the Napa Valley region of California,” says Shawn Kirkpatrick, executive director, Levelland (Texas) Economic Development Corp. He says the area’s grapes have been shipped in bulk to wineries; however, beginning this year, growers will begin crushing the grapes locally and ship the juice to wineries, which enables a longer shelf life.
Like many heavily agricultural-based economies, the Levelland region is leveraging a commodity, in this case the expanding base of wine grapes, to build its agri-tourism sector. “Our vineyards are getting into vineyard tours and the bed and breakfast space,” Kirkpatrick says. “We hosted a meeting for the High Plains Wine Growers Association, where people toured the area’s wineries to learn where their grapes come from.” The association was formed in 2012.
And although Texas doesn’t immediately come to mind in regard to producing award-winning wines, the High Plains region’s grapes are used by award-winning wineries such as the Llano Estacado Winery, located outside of Lubbock. “The founders left that company and have started McPherson in Lubbock,” Kirkpatrick notes. “The varieties [of grapes] we grow here have a distinct flavor and produce excellent wines,” Kirkpatrick says.
Moving north to Twin Falls, Idaho, it was an excellent high quality of dairy milk production that encouraged Chobani Greek Yogurt to build a $450 million, 1 million-square-foot processing facility in the community. The company opened its plant in December, at what is being billed as the world’s largest yogurt manufacturing plant. The company’s facility went up in 326 days. “The completion of this 1 million-square-foot project in just 11 short months was the result of dedication, can-do spirit and local, regional and state partnerships that allow southern Idaho to work at the speed of business,” says Jan Rogers, executive director, Southern Idaho Development Organization.
Chobani’s officials worked closely with the College of Southern Idaho to create a job training program. The company is already giving back to the community; its Shepherd’s Gift Foundation has supported the Southern Idaho Children’s Learning Center and the Twin Falls Rapids Soccer Club, among others.
Southern Idaho is home to a prosperous food processing cluster, where companies conduct a variety of value-added agricultural processes, ranging from firms such as dairies, meat and cheese companies, to a sugar company. The region is home to operations for Glanbia Foods, ConAgra Foods-Lamb Weston, Idaho Milk Producers, Seneca Foods and many more companies.
Value-added ag initiatives have also picked up in Levelland in regard to its sorghum crop production now that the local biofuels production facility is back in operation. The facility came online five years ago, and has recently emerged from bankruptcy, purchased by Conestoga Energy Partners LLC from Liberal, Kan. The company began production a few months ago at the newly named Diamond Ethanol plant.
Other value-added activities tie into Levelland’s primary crop, cotton. Hockley County is the state of Texas’ fifth-leading county for cotton production. Farmers Compress in Levelland has added two warehouses to store cotton. “We continue to see refining operations taking bales of cotton to [create] yarn and linen,” Kirkpatrick says. “In the next couple of years the Levelland area will see an increase in agricultural finished goods.”
Moving to our neighbors to the north, the Ontario, Canada, food processing cluster is a significant driver in the province’s economy, and is its leading employer. A $39 billion industry, food processing is Ontario’s largest sector and North America’s second-largest food processing cluster. What’s more, Ontario is home to 3,200 food processing companies, spanning the entire value chain of agri foods, from processors to packagers to equipment manufacturers to emerging product development such as bioplastics.
“More than 200 commodities are produced in Ontario,” says Barbara Maly, business development consultant, city of Guelph, Ont., and the chair of the Ontario Food Cluster initiative. “Ontario is more focused on food processing activities, although we are certainly hearing of companies that are looking at avenues such as taking bio waste and looking at ways to convert it to energy.”
Guelph is home to more than 150 agricultural-related companies, as well as numerous research institutes dedicated to innovations in the agriculture sector. Research areas include food safety, and research into soybeans, wheat, corn and canola. “We are a strong research hub for the province and Canada; the University of Guelph is the center of this activity,” Maly notes.
What’s more, located 15 minutes from Guelph is the Institute of Food Processing Technology, which prepares workers in mechanical, electrical and quality control procedures to support food processing companies.
Industrial Parks Figure into Accomplishments
Food processing companies and their suppliers also require acreage to support expansion plans, at favorable rates for real estate development.
The uptick in value-added production in Levelland is supported by the community’s rail served industrial park. The community invested $8.6 million to support the development of the Levelland Industrial Rail Park, which opened in 2009. “Companies looking for rail served sites in ag production and ag technologies have found our park is well suited for their industry,” Kirkpatrick adds.
Agriculture-related industries are also attracted to a regional technology industrial park opened in the winter of 2012 in Cambridge and Dorchester County, Md. The industrial park features complete infrastructure development, with available lots of 4 acres to 5 acres. The park is located adjacent to the Cambridge-Dorchester Regional Airport, and is one mile from U.S. Route 50.
“I believe the tech park is an opportunity for more food processing and agribusiness companies to locate here to Dorchester County,” says Keasha Haythe, director, Dorchester County Economic Development Department.
Haythe says Dorchester County, located on the eastern shore of Maryland, 75 miles from Baltimore and 80 miles from Washington, D.C., has a history in food processing activities. Its niche is in aquaculture, with companies processing tilapia, shrimp and oysters. “We used to have canneries, including Bumble Bee tuna,” Haythe says. “We continue to be an ideal location for food processing and advanced manufacturing.”
Haythe says the county’s food processing cluster has begun to capitalize on the integration of science, technology and research to create clusters of innovation. For example, Interstate Container LLC has created a biodegradable wax-free food container, particularly well-suited for the poultry industry.
A recent food industry expansion announcement in Dorchester County came from Protenergy Natural Foods, a Canadian company, which purchased the 200,000-square-foot building it had been leasing in the county, as well as a 67-acre site. The company expects to invest $20.3 million, and plans to create 100 additional jobs, employing 200 people within the year, Haythe says. The company, a manufacturer of natural food and beverage products, has commissioned two additional production lines to meet demand, supplying to 17 of the largest U.S. grocery retailers.
“Protenergy demonstrates the importance of public and private partnerships to build a strong economy and create private sector jobs,” Haythe says. The company was awarded a state-backed loan guarantee on a $.36 million bank loan, and was approved for a $250,000 conditional loan.
Guelph’s Maly also points out the importance of private and public partnership efforts. “Guelph is built on the willingness to collaborate and figure out how one business can work with another,” she says. “We strive to make those connections through the tools we provide, the networking opportunities we provide through our events, and in meeting with investment prospects.”
Maly says economic developers will also connect companies to supplier, joint venture or co-manufacturing opportunities with existing companies. “Sometimes companies may not be ready to invest and are looking for partnerships, which is something our office can do; link to global opportunities,” Maly adds.
Illustration by Evgeni Dinev at Free Digital Photos.net