By Anna Jauhola
DRAYTON, N.D. — Driving over the Red River at Drayton in recent months, one could not help but notice a large crane on the horizon. There is an expansion five years in the making at the American Crystal Sugar beet processing plant. And it is far from complete, yet well on its way to making the plant even more efficient than it already is.
When the plant was first built in 1965, it sliced 5,400 tons of beets a day. While some of that same equipment is still in place, American Crystal has increased efficiency many times over the years and with this expansion so far, is slicing nearly 9,000 tons per day.
“It’s a tremendous amount,” said Andy Mckay, Drayton factory manager. The eventual goal is to process more than 11,000 tons per day.
The entire goal of expanding the Drayton plant is to ensure any sugar beets grown north of the factor are not shipped to other factories. During many campaigns, the company has to ship beets to the East Grand Forks or Hillsboro, N.D., plants because Drayton simply can’t handle the volume. With more than 30 percent of American Crystal Sugar’s beets being raised in the Drayton district, that’s a lot of beets having to be shipped out of the area for processing.
“It’s an investment,” said Paul Eslinger, maintenance superintendent. “That’s what impresses me about this company. That’s an investment paid by the farmers. It’s coming out of their pockets — $50-60 million per year. They believe in the future.”
In 2017, American Crystal announced the expansion of the Drayton plant during its annual meeting. The 10-year project has thus far increased the plant’s efficiency by about three times.
Most recently, the company has added a new evaporator.
“This will help boil off more water,” said Paul Boen, production superintendent, referring to the beet pulp. “We boil off 13,000 gallons a minute. With this evaporator, we’ll get up to 2,000 more gallons boiled off.”
Boen said it will be a learning experience, but it will definitely be even more efficient. He is especially looking forward to 2023 when they install yet another evaporator.
The entire expansion is taking place almost entirely within the current footprint of the plant.
“So we are truly packing 10 pounds into a 5 pound bag. It’s kind of remarkable how all it’s happened,” Mckay said. “We built the lime kiln just behind the factory out here, so there was one addition for area. But now we’re going to recapture where the old lime kiln was to use for more expansion we’re doing.”
While this expansion does not add any jobs — the factory struggles to fill all its positions already — it does reduce the required labor to operate the factory.
Despite that, the expansion is bringing tremendous opportunity to the plant and has shifted the labor requirements and wages to be more desirable, Mckay said.
Motorists will continue to see evidence of progress next summer when the huge crane returns, at which time they will install another evaporator of the same size and a smaller one.
“At the end is when the biggest, most impressive stuff will happen,” Eslinger said. “There’ll be a new tower and a new mixer.”
By Anna Jauhola