By Toni W. Riley
The word “family” resonates throughout any conversation about Hart AgStrong, an oilseed crushing and refining company that opened a multi-million dollar canola processing plant in Trenton last December.
Robert Davis, the founder and CEO of the company, and Mallory Davis, the project manager, traveled to the Bluegrass from their hometown Bowersville, Ga., with their wives and children in tow for the open house of their new 23,000 square foot facility in March.
Plant manager Mark Dallas led tours of the building for nearly 50 farmers who were curious to learn about canola and its emerging role in the Pennyrile.
What brought the Davis family to Kentucky was Robert’s desire to develop a family-owned startup business. After graduating from University of Georgia with a degree in agriculture engineering, Robert worked as a project engineer for Trus Joist MacMillan, an Eastern Kentucky company that made engineered lumber.
All the while, Robert was hoping to move to Brazil where the Davises had served for many years as agriculture missionaries and where he had grown up. That opportunity never presented itself, and eventually, the family in Brazil returned to Georgia.
With his relatives back in the states, Robert started seriously exploring his business idea. He enlisted the help of his cousin, Mallory, also an ag engineer, to identify a crop that would have a value-added process and serve as a cash crop to strengthen family farms. This philosophy became the mission of AgStrong, “strengthening the family farm … cultivating strong, character-driven families.”
After much research, they focused on finding farmers to raise canola and provide a good market while AgStrong would offer the processing facilities and add value to the crop.
“I felt there was really good potential in the Southeast for canola,” Robert said.
Canola is a winter crop and can be double cropped, like wheat. Robert went on to explain that canola grown in Canada is a summer crop, and after being processed in Canada, 25 percent of it comes back to the U.S. as meal or oil.
AgStrong was able to access a non-genetically modified organism, hybrid canola seed from Rubisco Seeds, whose founder relocated to Kentucky from Ireland.
Between 2007 and 2008, AgStrong contracted 300 acres of canola in Western Kentucky by working with Miles Farm Supply in Owensboro, agri-marketer Jeff Rice and local UK Cooperative Extension Services.
As with any new business venture, Robert said it took a few “early-adopting” farmers to step out and try to grow canola. Once those farmers made a profit, then their neighbors were willing to give canola a chance.
Robert said farmers can expect an average of 55 bushels per acre. The price was $11.50 per bushel two years ago. The price went down to $9, due to the fact that canola and canola oil prices are indexed with soybeans and soybean oil.
Robert hopes that, once there is stronger growth in the retail canola oil market, canola will not be indexed with soybeans, and there will be less fluctuation in the canola prices.
AgStrong markets its retail canola oil under its own up-and-coming brand called Solio canola oil. The oil is also used in Smart Balance spreads. Solio can be found in Whole Foods and Sprouts markets and soon in Publix.
Since 2008, the acreage of canola in Western Kentucky has steadily grown to nearly 12,000, which led to the company’s decision to build a crushing plant in Trenton. W.F. Ware Co. served as a storage facility for the seed until the new facility was built.
Robert explained that Barry Groves, president and general manager of W.F. Ware Co., was an integral part of deciding where to build the plant. W.F. Ware headquarters is now less than a mile away from the AgStrong facility.
“W.F. Ware was the delivery point and storage facility,” Robert said. “It was logical to build the plant here, and Barry’s help was critical in purchasing the acreage for the plant.”
A natural partnership developed, and W.F. Ware Co. invested in the AgStrong plant and shared development of the site, which will eventually have a facility for W.F. Ware’s own food-grade corn business.
The process from the ground up
Project Manager Mallory Davis handled construction of the plant, which began in 2014. The structure is 80 feet by 140 feet and took 10 months to build. The floor space is large enough to double the production once contracted canola reaches 35,000 acres.
Paul Davis, another cousin, relocated to Trenton for five months to write and set up the computer program that monitors the facility operations. AgStrong started processing on Dec. 29.
The plant runs four days a week and has six employees, two for each eight-hour shift. Eventually, the plant will run at full capacity six days a week, closing only on Sundays.
Over the noise of the plant, manager Mark Dallas went into great detail about how the canola seed is processed into a crude oil.
Dallas said the oil is “expelled,” or pressed out, rather than chemically extracted with hexane — which is how canola oil is primarily processed in Canada.
When the farmer brings the seed to the plant, the load is inspected for purity and moisture content, and the seed is unloaded then stored on site until it is ready to be processed.
As the seed is augured into the plant, it falls through three screens with air pulling across each screen to clean the seed before it goes into the plant. Once inside, the seed is heated to 180 degrees Fahrenheit, which cooks the seed, or “flakes it,” and causes the seed to crack, making it easier to expel the oil.
The next step takes the flaked seed through the “first press,” a large screw that pushes the hot seed against metal bars and squeezes out the oil.
The meal and the oil are now separated, but the job is not complete. Both products go through a second expelling. The meal is wet and still has lots of oil in it, and the oil still has meal solids in it. Therefore, the meal goes down an auger screen where the oil is separated from the solids.
The solids go to a dryer where they are heat pressed a second time to remove as much oil as possible. The dried meal is stored at the plant and sold as livestock feed. The oil goes through two more procedures where the impurities are decanted off, and the crude oil is transported by tanker truck to the refinery in Georgia.
Allen Stamey, an AgStrong employee, said working for AgStrong is like working with family.
“We all pitch in and help each other, and no one says, ‘That’s not my job,’” he said.
Stamey went on to add that he feels a great deal of pride in working at AgStrong because of the quality product the company produces.
“People today have no idea where their food comes from,” he said. “It’s important for me to put out a quality product for people to