Green products company, using wheat straw, near production start in Devils Lake
DEVILS LAKE -- Mack Traynor gathered a stack of 14-inch biodegradable take-and-bake pizza pans from a system of conveyors.
"You can put this in the oven, bake your pizza and then recycle the pan," said the chief executive officer of Ultra Green, a manufacturer of environmentally friendly products, from pizza pans and individual condiment containers to tableware and toilet paper.
"Ninety days in a commercial composter, and it's back to dirt," he said, examining a pizza pan in his hand. "These are our best-selling items, and they're going to be one of the first things we're going to make out here."
Ultra Green, based in Plymouth, Minn., expects to start full production in Devils Lake, its first facility in the United States, later this year.
The company will have an estimated 100 employees by year's end. Employment is expected to increase to between 300 and 350 within three to five years, according to Traynor, who grew up in Fargo and has family in Devils Lake.
Ultra Green, which started in 2007, has been making the products from sugar cane fiber in China, shipping them back to the U.S. for distribution to companies all over the country, including Whole Foods, Safeway and Sam's Club.
However, it announced last year it was moving all production back to the U.S., with its initial plant in Devils Lake. It also is switching the raw product from sugar cane to wheat straw, the stubble left in wheat fields after farmers harvest their crop.
"We can make them cheaper than they can in China," he said. "The cost of raw materials is cheaper in North Dakota and we're making the product here, so we don't have to ship it overseas."
The company bought the former Pasta by Leonardo's plant, which closed in the spring of 2012.
Ultra Green chose Devils Lake as its first U.S. production plant not because of Traynor's local connections.
Rather, it conducted a national search. Of the 243 cities that responded, the two that rose to the top were Devils Lake and Amarillo, Texas.
Devils Lake won, he said, because the city and Forward Devils Lake, the city's economic development group, offered an attractive financial incentive package and because of the availability of the former pasta plant, he said.
Essentially, the package amounts to Devils Lake paying Ultra Green $1,000 per job created -- above the initial 100 jobs -- annually for 10 years, according to Mayor Dick Johnson.
An early estimate put the city's contribution at $3.5 million, plus $500,000 from the state, but the total amount could change depending on job numbers.
"It's a wise investment for the community," the mayor said.
Traynor says it's environmentally friendly to the community, too.
Paper mills, for example, normally use a chemical process to create pulp, which produces odors that can permeate throughout entire communities.
Because Ultra Green uses a nonchemical mechanical process of converting wheat straw fiber into pulp, odors should not be a problem.
"Here, there will be no stink," he said.
Made in Devils Lake
Ultra Green recently received a $75,000 grant from the North Dakota Agricultural Product Utilization Commission, which Traynor said will be used to create new labels for the company's products, changing "Made in China" to "Made in Devils Lake, N.D., U.S.A."
"Whole Foods wants our pizza pans in all of their 400 stores," Traynor said. Currently the products can be found in about half of the natural food chain's stores.
While Ultra Green officials initially expected to be in full production in Devils Lake by this past spring, the process has been delayed as they wait for new equipment to be manufactured and delivered, according to Traynor.
A new mechanical pulping machine, for example, recently arrived from a manufacturer in France. It uses pressure to convert wheat straw and water into wet pulp that will be molded into containers.
These days, only about a dozen employees, mostly engineers, are working in the cavernous plant, testing different formulas.
One day recently, Fernando Marin, pulping operations director, used a convection oven to bake chocolate chip cookies in individual containers, freezing and thawing them, then freezing and thawing them again.
"Will the freeze-thaw cycle have any influence on the product? We want it to be leak-proof," Traynor said.
The factory also is beginning to produce 2-ounce condiment cups, with lids made from recycled plastic. The company has a deadline to be in production on the cups and lids by October.
"We'll turn 19 bales of straw into 3.6 million of these cups," Traynor said.
As Ultra Green's Devils Lake plant gears up toward maximum production, it will process six to nine large rectangle bales of wheat straw an hour, going through 25,000 to 40,000 bales annually.
Ramsey County and the neighboring counties of Nelson and Benson each grow roughly 100,000 acres of wheat. The company also can draw from Towner and Cavalier counties.
"We won't have any problem finding the raw materials," Traynor said. The company harvests the stubble left over after farmers harvest the wheat.
"They're harvesting the north end of the wheat plant, and we're doing the same thing with the south end of the plant," he said.
Down the road
Once Ultra Green reaches full capacity in Devils Lake, officials expect to create a duplicate processing plant somewhere else in the United States, Traynor said.
While no announcements are expected to be made anytime soon, he said Texas likely would be the first place to consider, given Amarillo's level of interest.
"We expect to grow," Traynor said. "The demand already is there. We're a green company, and there are no environmental impacts for communities."