Re-purposed to plant-based protein: Feed maker SweetPro finds food market

WALHALLA, N.D. -- North Dakota is known for its livestock industry, but an expanding company in the northeast corner of the state is working on the plant-based protein market.

The SweetPro Feed company at Walhalla, N.D., employs about 40 people, including 14 at its home base. The company specializes in cattle lick tubs but a sister company is expanding into human food products. Photo take Oct. 22, 2018, in Walhalla, N.D. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)
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WALHALLA, N.D. - North Dakota is known for its livestock industry, but an expanding company in the northeast corner of the state is working on the plant-based protein market.

Bob Thornberg, 71, is chief executive officer of SweetPro Feeds. The company expects to finish 2018 with about $14 million in sales. The company employs about 40 people, including 14 people in Walhalla, and the rest in Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa. They may have to add up to five people because of an expansion that is under way.

Bob's son Erick, 37, works on the feed side and Jordan, 29, works on the food products.

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who recently visited, said plant-based proteins will have a place in feeding consumers in the world, in addition to the livestock and meat products. "Whenever we can take what we harvest out of the combine and make this, that's just smart," Heitkamp says.

Two products


SweetPro Feed’s first patents were for its tub lick products, most of which are made with distiller’s grains, an ethanol byproduct. Photo taken Oct. 22, 2018, in Walhalla, N.D. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)

SweetPro has two main products. The first is a 250-pound hard lick tubs, a free-choice supplement that cattle or horses lick to obtain vitamins and minerals with a digestive aid. The company has 125- and 50-pound variations, and several formulas within that.

"That's where we got our first patents and built the company," Thornberg says, noting the company makes 230 tons some days. The company recently licensed Arizona Grain Inc., and its Pinal Energy, a corn ethanol plant at Maricopa, Ariz., near Phoenix. The company will make SweetPro brand lick tubs in Casa Grande, Ariz., for that part of the country.

Second, are meal-type products, delivered in bags, and using distiller's grains as carriers - about 30,000 pounds a week. Most of that is from corn byproducts from ethanol plants.

They add a fermented product called ProBiotein, a brand name for a "prebiotic fiber" that they manufacture. They make it in batches of 10 tons of raw material per batch.

The company is in the process of expanding the plant, within its building, which will quintuple the production in about six months. The drying side is done and the fermenting plant is being completed.

Probiotics and prebiotics have emerged as a new development in both food and feed.

The ProBiotein is fermented wheat, barley, oats and flax. The company doesn't use any corn in producing ProBiotein, but may eventually use pulse crops, including peas. The company uses this product as an additive in the lick tubs and all of SweetPro's products. More will go for export primarily.



Bob Thornberg

SweetPro is truly a repurposing story.

The company benefits from a "ring dryer," inherited from the previous plant. The dryer was part of the former wheat gluten plant and was too expensive to get rid of when the former plant shut down. It probably took millions of dollars to build in the first place, and was available as part of the plant building that the company spent more than $1.2 million on to refurbish it.

"We got a good deal (on buying the plant) but otherwise it was going to be just an extra cost and burden for some other owner," Thornberg says.

The dryer is provided with a "mixing system and disintegrator." It uses a 300 horsepower motor to take the product up five stories, in a "fluidized" air stream. It dries the product slowly and at low temperatures. That was needed for wheat gluten process and for ProBiotein to retain its food value.

"We want to retain all of the enzymatic values and all the high nutritional components," he says.

Fortunately, the ring dryer was too expensive for ADM to tear apart when they sold the plant. It would likely be prohibitively expensive to buy a ProBiotein manufacturing product.


The future

The facility was an ethanol plant that was started in the 1980s. Dawn Enterprises LLC was the first name of the ethanol refinery - at the time the largest barley-to-ethanol plant in the world. It was switched to corn and then Thornberg was one of the plant managers in 1987.

Thornberg is his own repurposing story.

He grew up in Minneapolis and studied broadcast journalism at San Francisco State University. He worked for WCCO radio as a reporter covering energy and agriculture issues.

The emerging ethanol industry combined the two ideas and he became "entranced" by the possibilities. He worked for Solargizer Inc. and Conklin Co. and became familiar with farm-scale wind, solar and ethanol possibilities.

Then he came to Walhalla to manage Dawn Enterprises. Unfortunately, crude oil prices to drop to single-digits per barrel, Thornberg recalls. "The plant was crushed (economically) at that setting," Thornberg said.

Dawn Enterprises sold to Cenex (now CHS) and then they sold to Archer Daniels Midland plant. Walhalla was ADM's smallest ethanol plant and closed in 2014.

For about a year in the 1990s, ADM had co-located a wheat gluten plant in the location. They washed protein from wheat for the gluten and put the remaining starch into the ethanol plant.

But when the wheat gluten market "fell apart," the gluten plant, too, was shut down.

On his own, Thornberg in 1991 had started SweetPro Feeds, specializing in using byproducts of ethanol plants. He started making the lick tubs in 1991. (Formally the company was Harvest Fuel Inc., doing business as SweetPro.)

'We're trying to concentrate the protein, concentrate the fiber and the minerals," he says. "Our focus is creating a 'pre-biotic' component out of the fiber." Pre-biotics are the food that is beneficial "probiotic" bacteria in the digestive tract.

In 2012, Thornberg incorporated a related spin-off company called Food First LLC, which makes similar products for the human market. Food First uses a food-grade version of ProBiotein. Among the products included is the MicroBiome Bar, a health bar, which includes ProBiotein as the main ingredient. A few weeks ago, the product became available through online retailer Amazon.

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