The Times - Serving Waitsburg, Dayton and the Touchet Valley

By Michele Smith
The Times 

From Wheat Field to Pulp Plant

Columbia Straw Supply is Gearing Up to Deliver Straw to Columbia Pulp's Lyons Ferry Plant


Michele Smith

More than 60,000 tons of straw from the 2017 harvest are stored at the top of the hill above the Columbia Straw Supply office, on land leased from Tucannon Ag. Each stack approaches 10,000 tons, according to Columbia Straw Supply CEO Phil Farmer.

STARBUCK-Phil Farmer, CEO of Columbia Straw Supply, said he and business partner, CFO Ben Rankin, were brought in on the straw supply side of Columbia Pulp's business by its CEO, John Begley, four years ago.

Farmer said the principals knew, early on, there could be a logistical nightmare for rounding up 500,000 bales of straw each year, having it delivered to the scale, storing it, moving it around, and turning it into a continuous feed for the pulp mill.

"The intent in creating Columbia Straw was to not have the pulp mill get bogged down with [acquiring straw], so they could focus on making pulp and lignin, whereas, we would create a team where we could focus on the logistics and relationships required to get the half million bales a year," said Farmer.

"The team has done a great job of thinking ahead. A massive amount of complex work has gone into it," he added.

Farmer said that the straw is stacked in stack yards by year, species, supplier, and harvest methodology, to give Columbia Pulp the consistent quality recipe they need. Data will be used to optimize yield efficiency and the quality of the product coming from the growers.

The stack yards are in several locations near the Columbia Straw Supply office and scale, which is located on Powers Road, just south of the Columbia Pulp Plant.

"We're pushing the envelope a bit for storage locations. We're storing in places and volumes we won't be in three years," said Farmer.

To date, Columbia Straw Supply has purchased their first straw from the 2015 harvest, leased land from Pat Barker for the 2016 harvest, and is storing the 2017 harvest on land leased from Tucannon Ag. There are 110-120 tons stored at those three sites alone, he said.

Winter wet weather storage is located at the scale house, on land leased from Tucannon Ag. as well.

"We're ramping up now. We just brought in 60,000 tons from the 2017 harvest, and we are bringing in 140,000 tons out of the 2018 harvest. We'll need close to 200,000 tons in the 2019 harvest, and 240,000 tons in the 2020 harvest," said Farmer.

He said Columbia Straw Supply contracts with suppliers, who contract with farmers. Some suppliers are the farmers with large volumes. and are doing business with their neighbors.

Farmer said their largest contracts are with Millhorn Farms, a grower and custom baler in Worley, Ida.; Steve and Kevin Mader, just south of Millhorn Farms; and Blue Mountain Hay; as well as a contract with Dylan Priggee, from Cottonwood, Ida., who is also an agricultural show representative for Columbia Straw Supply.

There are contracts local growers, including Skip and Charlie Mead, John McCaw, Archer Farms, John Klein, Curtis Coombs, Darin Goble, Chris Craiger, Justin Gagnon, Cory Bitten, Drew Mausland, and S&W Biomass.

Farmer said the pricing is the same for everybody. "We pay $40 baled roadside. If you deliver - $55 a ton. If you do 25 tons a year or more, we pay $60 per ton delivered," he said. "If you unload in our stack yard, use your own trucks, and use the app to weigh and scale, and participate in the drop lot, then we add $2 a ton, more."

He said the company is contracted out for now. "We have over 100,000 tons in storage now. In the long term, we don't want to store that much."

Farmer said they have to be very organized and they keep track of processes and procedures on white boards scattered throughout the office, and they have an "awesome" team in place to keep track of all of it.

Team Leader Heidi James handles all the tactical activities and issues, making sure things are headed in the right direction.

Erin Murphy has an accounting degree, and she handles all the operational statistics and makes sure the scale activity is accurate. She knows all the truck drivers, and she is working on the development of a self-performing app so truck drivers can do their own scaling and moisture checks.

Brendan Vance manages the structure of the stack yards, unloading and stacking bales.

Kavin Kuykendall is taking on predictive preventative maintenance of the equipment, and manages a couple of customer relationships, as well as unloading and stacking bales.

Truck Drivers Jimmy Ogden and Fred Menisk have been hired, and Farmer is guessing he will need eight more drivers and a total of five trucks.

Danny Taladay is capturing processes and procedures and turning them into standard operating and safety procedures, and compiling standard work task lists.

"At the end of the day we are trying to be as predictable and consistent as we can, to do everything the same way," said Farmer. "We are doing it congruent with Columbia Pulp, so when we have a task that interfaces, the expectation, safety wise, is the same on both sides, so we don't get crossways with each other."

Farmer said after the Lyons Ferry Straw Mill Pulp Plant is commissioned and starts up, full production of the plant could take as long as three months.

"This is the first commercial application, and there will be some things we are going to learn," said Farmer about the new methodology of converting straw into pulp for paper.

And while that is down the road a ways, Columbia Straw Supply is ready to deliver the first 40-50 bales to the Columbia Pulp Pilot Plant worker training facility in Pomeroy this month, he said.

Farmer said the benefits to the local community from Columbia Straw Supply are many. Straw from the 2015 harvest is on land leased from the Dept. of Natural Resources, and the schools receive funding because of that.

Farmer said that Columbia Pulp and Columbia Straw Supply have spent $10 million on their operations so far and are hiring and contracting with local people.

"Already there has been a lot of cash pumped into the community, which offsets the cyclical nature of agriculture," he said.

He also pointed out the sustainability aspect. "The neat thing about Columbia Pulp is it is paper with no effluent and no environmental issues. It's got a yearly renewable raw material," he said. "Although it's a nightmare of logistics, the reality is, every year you get more, and you can get more from a lot of different kinds of supply."

Farmer said he ran paper mills for 25 years which were a blend of recyclables and some wood. Only one of them was a virgin wood mill.

"I'm excited about being a part of paper manufacturing that is sustainable long term, [provides] more jobs in the U.S., and is benign to the environment," he said. "So let's do more."


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