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Saturday, July 13, 2024

Green shoots: Flour mill expansion highlights Johnston County’s diverse economic landscape

A recent $28 million expansion at the state’s largest flour mill will help wheat farmers get their crop to commercial bakers who turn the commodity into bread, cookies, tortillas and
many other edibles.

The almost two-year project completed in April underlines the path food travels from farms to dinner tables, says Andrew Rutter, a commercial manager for Kansas City-based Bartlett, which owns the mill in the Johnston County hamlet of Wilson’s Mills.

“This enables us to deliver on our goal to help feed the world,” says Rutter. “We’re the supply chain link between the farmers and the producers.”

The Bartlett grain milling facility also represents the dichotomy of Johnston County’s economic landscape. The Bartlett mill sits 25 miles southwest of the State Capitol, a short distance from U.S. 70, and not far from Interstates 40 and 95, which crisscross in the southern part of the county.

On the west side of Johnston County, closest to Raleigh, two pharma-ceutical giants, Denmark-based Novo Nordisk and Grifols, headquartered in Spain, employ a combined 3,400 workers.

For centuries, though, Johnston County has been an agricultural center. It still ranks fifth in the state in active farms, and is one of just eight counties in North Carolina to have more than 1,000 farms, according to the county’s Cooperative Extension Office.

“Johnston County is sort of two counties in one,” says Chris Johnson, director of its economic development group. “We have seen tremendous growth and investment in the pharmaceutical industry, but agri-
business and food processing continues to be a central part of Johnston County’s economy.” 

The county’s population has soared 34% since 2010 to about 227,000, nearly triple the state’s 12% growth rate in that period. About 2,500 live in Wilson’s Mills. Johnston is often viewed as an affordable alternative to Wake County, which grew by more than 25% during that period, becoming the state’s most-populated county with more than 1.1 million residents.

“It has a lot to do with the growing population and where customers are growing,” Rutter says of Bartlett’s decision to expand in Wilson’s Mills. It also has mills in Statesville and Coffeyville, Kansas. The N.C. site serves mostly commercial bakers in the Carolinas and Virginia.

Started in July 2021, the expansion added a fourth milling unit and increased storage capacity by around 80% for wheat, 50% for flour and 50% for millfeed. The plant can store 1.1 million bushels of wheat, equivalent to 66 million pounds. The four milling units can mill a maximum of 2 million pounds of wheat.

The company added about eight workers at the highly automated operation, bringing the total number of employees to about 60.  

North Carolina farmers grow 400,000 to 500,000 acres of wheat per year, according to a 2021 report from N.C. State University. Most goes to feed livestock, although roughly 7 million bushels (420 million pounds) is used for grain-based goodies. A bushel of wheat (60 pounds) can make about 45 loaves of bread.

Of the six types of wheat varieties, North Carolina produces mostly soft red winter wheat, which is planted in the fall and harvested in late spring. Bartlett uses flour from this type of wheat to supply mostly cookie and cracker manufacturers.

Bartlett also receives by rail hard red winter and hard red spring wheat varieties from the Midwest, says Rutter. These types of grain go into breads, pizza crusts, tortillas and more.  Wheat bran, a byproduct of the milling process, is sold for animal feed.

The Wilson’s Mills grain mill was built in 2000 and acquired by Bartlett in 2007 for $17 million. Bartlett expanded the site in 2012. 

Bartlett has been in the grain business since 1907. It was acquired by Salt Lake City, Utah-based Savage Company in 2018. Founded in 1946, brothers Kenneth, Neal and Luke Savage built the diversified private company that today has about 4,000 employees in North America, Mexico and Saudi Arabia, providing engineering, transportation and other services.

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