BURLINGTON, Wash. (AP) — Skagit Valley Malting founder Wayne Carpenter ducked his head inside one of two sprawling metal silos that are under construction on a 10-acre lot at the Port of Skagit's Bayview Business Park.
His voice echoing inside the silo, Carpenter described how in July the silos will be packed with 850 tons of grain for drying and storage.
"When it's done, computers and stirrers will make sure the grain dries evenly," he said. "It's not a normal way of drying grain in the U.S."
Skagit Valley Malting has been doing things differently since forming five years ago.
Originally conceived in collaboration with the Port of Skagit to increase the value of local grain, Skagit Valley Malting is malting and germinating grains no one else can.
That means brewers and distillers can unlock new flavors, and bakers can produce food with better flavor and more nutrients.
Companies have been lining up to work with Skagit Valley Malting, with representatives from all over the world visiting the plant.
"We have 54 customers already, and we haven't even advertised," Carpenter said. "And this is all happening here in the Skagit Valley."
Expanding capacity and helping farmers
The skeleton of a 14,000-square foot grain sorting and drying facility stands next to the two silos. The building will be completed in January and ready for operation a few months later.
The construction on the 10 acres is a step toward greatly expanding Skagit Valley Malting's production.
The company has been important for local agriculture since it formed.
Farmers have to grow wheat or barley every few years to recondition the soil, but the wheat and barley earn only commodity fee prices.
Carpenter and others came up with the idea to pay farmers a premium price for that rotation crop for malting and germinating purposes. That adds value to agriculture in Skagit County.
Dave Hedlin, owner of Hedlin Family farms, sold about 100 acres of barley to Skagit Valley Malting this year.
"With the land values and import costs, it's difficult to make a margin on grain," he said. "Places where you can add value, like Skagit Valley Malting, are really important. It's worked out well for us."
Skagit Valley Malting is working with two other local farms, including Knutzen Farms and Washington Bulb Co., on producing grains. It's also working with three others outside the county.
As production expands, Carpenter said he'll bring in more farms.
This year, the company harvested 1,700 tons of grain. With the new facility, Carpenter anticipates being able to harvest 2,800 tons this summer and 4,500 tons the following year.
The property has more than enough land to manage grain in the Skagit Valley, Carpenter said.
As many as 28 grain silos will fit on the new property, although Carpenter said the number built will depend on how much grain the valley produces.
"We have to build a facility that doesn't slow down the farmer," Carpenter said.
More expansion planned
Carpenter unrolled a blueprint on a desk in the waiting room of the malting facility, showing another glimpse into the future of Skagit Valley Malting.
The company has plans to build a 40,000-square foot malting facility on the 10-acre lot. It will house up to 30 of the company's custom-engineered malting machines. Construction won't start until next year or even later, Carpenter said.
The current malting facility has two of the company's full-size custom-engineered malting machines running, with a max capacity of six. The machines are capable of malting types of grains others can't.
For instance, brewers use about 10 varieties of grains among the 21,000 available. Skagit Valley Malting's machines can malt thousands of varieties of grains. This allows brewers to unlock flavors previously unknown to the market.
Lead scientist Bob Rock does a lot of work with the machines.
"No one is doing this right now," he said. "It's mind-numbing the number of possibilities we have here."
The company is keeping its machines mostly under wraps until international patents are granted.
Windows that could offer glances into the malting room are covered by cardboard. Guests must sign non-disclosure agreements before stepping inside. No photos are allowed.
Last week, one of the large metallic malting machines spun around as a milling machine shaved one of its openings to exacting measurements.
Each malting machine, which can malt any seed as long as it's not too tiny, can handle up to 22,000 pounds of grain per batch. Similar machines cost about $1 million, but Carpenter said his are much more efficient.
"We are trying to make malting as efficient as possible for prices on par with European imported prices," he said. "But the grain is going to be mechanically better, so they are basically cheaper."
Eyeing the future
Carpenter still has a few secrets up his sleeves. One is hidden inside his current sorting and drying facility.
It's his homemade malting machine, which he and Rock made in his garage about five years ago. The machine, tucked in a dark corner behind sacks of grain, represents the birth of the company, even if Carpenter won't admit it.
"It's too ugly he said," he said. "Someday when we're more established, I'll show it to people."
Other secrets involve further expansion. The company is exploring creating new facilities in a half-dozen cities.
There is also a third phase in construction planned for the 10-acre lot, but Carpenter can't talk about most of that yet because he's still working out details with other companies.
In the meantime, he's getting constant visits from those interested in working with the company.
Former U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary Jim Moseley visited Skagit Valley Malting. Moseley recently committed to investing in the company, Carpenter said.
Many high-profile restaurants have expressed interest in buying grains from Skagit Valley Malting, including ones in New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco. They want specialty grains for baking.
Regional brewers are already experimenting with new flavors, including Pike Brewing Co. and Anacortes Brewery. Breweries are already relocating to Bayview Business Park to be closer to Skagit Valley Malting. Chuckanut Brewing recently broke ground on a brewing facility at Bayview Business Park, and Flyers Brewing and Restaurant recently opened at the site.
"It's flattering and motivating," Carpenter said. "You don't want to screw up. Once you get that publicity, you don't want people to change their minds."
Information from: Skagit Valley Herald, http://www.skagitvalleyherald.com