Firebird Artisan Mills thrives in niche market
Harvey facility sees growth in gluten-free demand
HARVEY – Firebird Artisan Mills has a solid foothold in a niche market that’s generating growth for the company and economic benefit for a North Dakota small town.
An international leader in gluten-free ingredients, Firebird doubled its volume with an expansion last year and is hiring a second shift to continue to increase production.
Firebird does milling and mixing and has the capability to produce finished retail products such as dry flours and baking mixes.
“We are really a one-stop shop from procurement all the way through the process to include milling, blending and packaging in a variety of different bag sizes, from one pound all the way to 2,000 pounds,” said Mike Hallman, vice president of sales for Agspring in Kansas City, Kansas, the parent company of Firebird.
Growth in the gluten-free market has been double-digit over the last five years, said Bradford Warner, vice president of marketing and sustainability for Agspring
“That’s slowed a little bit, but it’s still a growing market base,” he said. “We see a change taking place, where a lot of consumer, packaged goods companies are looking to improve and enhance products that have been on the market. A lot of products that have been released years back were not really of the highest or comparable quality to conventional.”
Consumers desire the same level of quality, taste and nutrition in their gluten-free products, and there’s a huge number of ingredients now available to baked-goods companies to meet that consumer demand, Warner said.
The grains that have been in demand over the last year from companies producing products such as cereals, snacks and baked goods include sorghum, buckwheat, millet, garbanzo, lentils and other pulses.
“I think there’s an opportunity to create more domestic production of these ingredients that, in many cases, we have had to go elsewhere, even overseas,” Warner said.
Hallman said the company wants to source more of its ingredient grains from the local area because it’s important to its customers to know the origin of the product and whether it is U.S. grown.
With the imposition of new tariffs, U.S. grown crops are desirable for financial reasons as well. The pulses and ancient grains that Firebird purchases also lend themselves to sustainable operations. They can be grown with less fertilizer and other inputs compared to many crops.
Brady Eckart, operations director at Firebird, said one of the unique challenges is educating the farming community on industry requirements because Firebird holds to certain standards in supplying its customers.
“The fact that we are a gluten-free facility – that has a lot of ramifications. A lot of our issues with regional or locally grown sources is education of the farming community and their understanding of gluten-free integrity. There cannot be cross-contamination with non-gluten-free crops through equipment and handling on the farm,” Eckart said. “There’s a gap right now, we believe, with a lot of regional and local farmers to get them really up to speed to be able to sell us the quality we are looking for.”
Firebird hopes to eventually close that gap and develop more local sources of grain in supplying both conventional gluten-free and organic gluten-free to the market. Firebird tests all materials coming in and going out to avoid any risk of gluten contamination.
Firebird learned in August, upon completion of its annual Food Safety & Quality Audit, that it had achieved a coveted AA Rating for the fourth consecutive year. An audit rating is sought after by many food processing companies because domestic and overseas food processors and retailers require certification as a part of their individual food processing compliance activities.
“The British Retail Consortium Audit is very rigorously demanding, but it allows us to do what we do best – operate by using the highest standards in milling processes and practices,” Hallman said in a release announcing the achievement. “Our customers should expect and deserve nothing less.”
The double AA rating requires a thorough examination of a company’s manufacturing processes, practices and documentation regarding plant management, site standards such as cleanliness, absence of allergens and other contaminants, and external and internal visual cohesiveness, process control, plans for continuous process and employee improvement and prevention of food fraud.
In the news release, Harvey Mayor Ann Adams cited the value of Firebird to the community.
“Firebird Artisan Mills is our southern anchor for Harvey’s Industrial Park and has emerged as a major agribusiness employer in our economic development area. The firm is a valued partner of our agricultural producers and offers an important outlet for agricultural products produced within the state of North Dakota,” she said.
Founded in 2014, Firebird purchased the assets of a previous milling company, Earth Harvest Mills of Harvey.
Firebird increased its milling capacity in the fall of 2017 to become the largest 100 percent dedicated, certified gluten-free and allergen-free flour mill in North America.
The 32,000-square-foot, integrated plant has capacity to manufacture about seven million pounds of food product each year. Located in Harvey’s new Industrial Park, the plant’s staff numbers fluctuate up to about 25 people, including processing line operators, quality assurance staff, logistics and sales professionals.
“We believe that we have the capacity to use the existing facility to manage our current growth,” Hallman said, “but we also always look for new things that we can be doing that make sense for our business and that has a need in the market place with our customers, and that certainly could offer expansion in the future.”
Given current sales revenue and future projections, Firebird is hiring for a second shift to allow operations seven days a week, Eckart said. The company expects to reach employment of 35 people.
A smaller labor pool is a challenge associated with locating in a smaller community, but it’s offset in Harvey by other factors, including access to two major highways.
“Overall, it’s a great community for this facility to be in,” Eckart said. “Not only is it a great community for us to be in, it’s a vital business for a small community – to have a manufacturing sector to help maintain employment and growth.”