BISMARCK - It wasn't built as a fertilizer plant but, as of this year, Dakota Gasification Co.'s Great Plains Synfuels Plant is one.
Negotiating its new role as regional fertilizer tycoon in its inaugural season was something of a trial by fire - but one the company aims to learn from and improve upon as it takes on the task of supplying farmers in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana with the nitrogen source they need.
With the addition of a new urea plant, half of Basin Electric Power Cooperative subsidiary DGC's business is now fertilizer, said Trinity Turnbow, operations manager. It also produces sulfate and anhydrous ammonia.
To prepare for the spring planting season, DGC made more than 40,000 tons of urea, filling its large storage facility and thinking it was ready. Little did the manufacturer know a late spring would send farmers from across the upper Midwest clamoring for its product all at the same time.
"From May 1 through May 12, 85,000 tons of urea was loaded and left the plant," Turnbow said.
More than 100 trucks lined up each day for several days, with the busiest day bringing in 119 rigs.
"We had expected a slow ramp up," said Nathan Johnson, senior logistics administrator.
But when wait times began spanning as much as five hours, despite only taking an average of nine minutes to do the actual loading, plant managers knew they needed to react.
There was a second loading bay designed to load both rail and truck traffic. They hadn't thought they would need it right away because train traffic wouldn't pick up until a later date, so they had put off the necessary third-party certifications.
"We thought we'd get to try it out and make adjustments, but we didn't get the opportunity to do it; it just hit," Johnson said.
But Johnson and Turnbow are both confident the lessons learned from this first year will make for improved future operations.
Johnson said they know the truckers who load at their facility are the "backbone of the American economy and their office is the cab of their truck," so they did what they could to make things run smoothly. DGC offered a Youtube training course to educate the drivers on the facility before they ever arrived on site.
And the company held an open house with drivers early in the year to take into account their needs when it came to designing and running the loading facility. That's why there is a staging area parking lot that drivers can pull into as they wait to enter the plant grounds.
With the addition of urea, Johnson said they signed 100 new agreements with trucking companies, bringing their total to 530.
Despite its freshman year difficulties, Steven Liebelt, DGC's vice president of marketing and sales, said the plant comes with major benefits, the main one being that the distance to a urea production facility has been shortened substantially, allowing producers to get their product locally rather than having to import it from elsewhere.
"Demand in this area is so great," said Liebelt, indicating that DGC's production only touches a small portion of that.
Things are also moving a lot faster, Liebelt said. With technology such as 80-foot seeders, the planting season has shortened from two months to two weeks. And the fertilizer production and transportation infrastructure has not kept up with demand.
Another measure taken by DGC is it has signed a definitive agreement with OCI N.V. on a joint venture, marketing and distributing more than 4.5 million metric tons of fertilizer product from DGC and two OCI facilities.
This secures more available product for DGC customers but also helps DGC market its product.
"We have a large customer base in the 250-mile radius around the Synfuels Plant, and achieving transportation and selling cost synergies through N-7 enables us to more efficiently serve the local farming community and be a dependable local source of fertilizer for area farmers," CEO Paul Sukut said.
Nassef Sawiris, Chief Executive Officer of OCI N.V., said the company is delighted to join forces with Dakota Gasification Company.
"The joint venture allows us to extend our reach throughout North America, expand our product offering and customer base, and better serve our existing customers," he said.