By David Hotle
Most entrepreneurs say that getting a business off the ground requires a lot of hard work and no shortage of ingenuity and the ability to turn one thing into another. As the Strait family is opening a wood pellet manufacturing plant in the industrial park, ingenuity is the cornerstone.
Having recently purchased the former ADM feed mill, the father and two sons are determined to use the bits and pieces left behind to produce wood pellets, which can be used in stoves. Operations Manager Lee Strait said the goal of the family is to aid the local economy and to use the area's resources to their greatest potential. The name of the plant will be Practical Environmental Resources,
"Our main goal is to make a difference in the community," Lee Strait, a University of Iowa graduate in environmental engineering, said. He says once the plant is up and running he expects there to be six full-time positions at the plant, including the positions held by him and his brother. The plant is expected to produce about 20 tons of pellets per day, five days per week. Once the plant is up and running, the family hopes to make deals with local businesses to acquire sawdust which will be compressed into pellets.
For over three years it looked as though the building on West 12th Street would remain closed. When ADM left, the company refused to sell the former mill to any business that was similar in scope to them. Washington Economic Development Group Executive Director Ed Raber said finding a business that could fit into the building was hard. He credits a discussion between now President Mike Strait and Washington pork producer Jerome Vittetoe, who knew the building was for sale, with the habitation of the former mill.
"It takes a team effort of people who are on the lookout and who know what is going on to make stuff like this happen," Raber said.
Lee Strait said the entire project embodied the saying 'necessity is the mother of invention.' After graduating, he remembers, the job market for environmental engineers was slow. Deciding the best thing to do would be to start a business as a family, the Straits began looking for something, with the stipulation it be environmentally friendly. After a year of research, wood pellets were decided on.
After taking possession of the building in September, the family spent the first month going through the plant to see what they had. Much of the production material was left behind by ADM. When the mill closed, Lee Strait said, the mill owners told workers they could take anything they wanted with them. As a result, many of the smaller items are missing, but the big mill and conveyers, which will be used to make the pellets, are intact.
Also going through the mill, the family discovered among the items taken were sump pumps for the basement, which was then flooded by about six feet of water. Only within the last week has the basement totally dried out.
"The plant looks better than it has in years," Raber said.
The projected start-up date was actually about two weeks ago, but the family doesn't anticipate being able to go into production for at least another month. With the biomass field growing by leaps and bounds, Lee Strait said he is confident the plant will make a go. He also said the family is looking into the future if the plant is successful.
"There are plenty of these old mills around which were forced out of business by bigger companies," he said. "If this works, we will start looking for other feed mills in the area."
But that is in the future. Today the family is working to get the first one up and running.
"It is fun," Mike Strait, who expresses an interest in building and modifying things, said, quickly halting work. "It is a challenge."