MANKATO — Cleanup and renovation of a former fiber board plant took a little longer than expected, but Agristrand this week began turning out soy fiber-based particleboard and door cores.
“We produced a full truck load — we’re picking up steam,” said Dan Biller, vice president of sales and marketing. “We’re about three months behind, mainly because of the condition of the mill. There are always things you don’t anticipate, and we found a lot of them.”
The plant was built more than a decade ago by Phenix Biocomposites to make composite board from plant fiber. Phenix went into bankruptcy and was taken over by another group — Environ Biocomposites, which closed its doors in 2010.
Agristrand has raised $10 million from about 60 investors, including farmers, bankers and entrepreneurs to purchase, clean up and retrofit the plant.
“The plant built 12 or 13 years ago was probably a little ahead of its time,” Biller said. “Green building is getting so much bigger and we’re starting when the construction market is starting to turn around.”
He said interest in the product has been strong in the Upper Midwest. The board has several uses, including door cores. “We’ve had a huge response from wholesalers involved in green building. People are taking our core board and putting veneer or other coverings on it.”
He thinks Agristrand’s products are also helped by pressure on the industry making composite boards from wood chips, as wood chips are being burned more for fuel and there is pressure against the formaldehyde resin used in the chip board — something not used at Agristrand.
The company is selling to customers in a 500-mile radius. Biller said contractors who are striving to gain points to build a LEED-certified green building get extra points if the products they use are made and shipped within a shorter distance, further adding to the demand for Agristrand’s products.
Agristrand has 5,000 tons of soy plant fiber stored, enough to get through this fall’s soybean harvest and beyond. The company has been lining up contracts to buy soybean fiber residue — left after soybeans are combined — from farmers in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa. “There are 1.2 million acres of soybeans in the region and we need 45,000 acres, so it won’t be a problem,” Biller said.
The company pays farmers for the soybean residue, which is baled and delivered to warehouses.
The plant has 40 employees but is in need of 15 more — a task that’s been surprisingly hard to complete considering a down economy. “It’s been difficult finding people in the Mankato area. We’ll take them right now if we can find them.”
While transforming the badly dilapidated plant took time, Biller said they’re happy they spent the time to do it right.
“The mill never ran fully automated in the past. The boards we’re making did run full automatic.
“It’s fun to bring people through to see the plant, especially those who’ve seen it before and see how good it looks now.”
And Biller said they have some bragging rights on the product they’re making.
“It’s the only soy fiber-based boards in North America and, we think, in the world.”