SCOTT CITY – Farming on the High Plains of Kansas, Earl Roemer sees change as opportunity.
Sure, he has followed in his ancestors’ footsteps – the fourth generation to farm the land in Scott and neighboring counties. In addition, just like his father and grandfather, Roemer’s fields include sorghum.
However, over the years, Roemer saw a business venture from the crop generally associated with feeding cattle.
As a growing number of consumers change their dietary habits, Roemer has been capitalizing on the gluten-free movement. From a large, unassuming building on the outskirts of Scott City, Roemer is turning his sorghum crop – or milo, as it is commonly called in the Midwest – into flour. He sells it to big food companies and also produces his own, gluten-free retail products that will begin hitting grocery-store shelves in January.
That’s quite a change from a decade or two ago. While roughly 100 million people around the world were eating grain sorghum every day, few were consuming it in the United States.
Yet, in the last three years, said Roemer, his sales have augmented by 150 percent.
It is estimated that one in 133 Americans have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects digestion, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. Those afflicted have to avoid gluten in their diet, which is found in wheat, rye and barley. Another growing segment say they just feel better without gluten in their diet.
Sorghum, said Roemer, is one of the gluten-free alternatives available in the soaring marketplace.
“I didn’t have a clue it would grow like this,” Roemer said of when he began doing research in 2004. “But we definitely saw an opportunity.
“The position of the industry is for huge growth for dedicated non-GMO products and also gluten-free. Sorghum fits that. That is why we are having such a huge demand.”
A growing market
These days, from the Scott City business Roemer calls Nu Life Market, he and his staff are shipping out flour across the nation and even to other countries. Sometimes a truck leaves with 40,000 pounds at a time, heading to well-known companies that Roemer can’t divulge.
However, because of demand from Americans, these companies continue to add sorghum products to their business lineups. There are cereals, cake mixes, pancake batter and countless others. Roemer estimates that more than 100 products on grocery-store shelves have sorghum in them, and 90 percent contain flour milled at Nu Life.
Efforts to add sorghum to consumers’ diets started about a decade ago, with Kansas State University leading the charge to better develop sorghum flour and food products.
Early products “tasted like cardboard and the texture was like sand,” Roemer said.
”Through K-State, they were able to develop something that makes a better baked product,” Roemer said, adding that he works closely with university scientists. That includes Fadi Aramouni, a food science professor who has been with K-State for 25 years.
Early research determined that a specific particle size of sorghum flour has the best effect on flour characteristics. Then Aramouni and his students began developing products, including award-winners. The American Association of Cereal Chemists honored students with top prizes for a popped sorghum with raspberry and jalapeno flavoring, along with an orange and pineapple tea.
In 2009, K-State students won first prize for a gluten-free sorghum waffle cone at an international product development competition. This past November, Call Hall’s Dairy Bar on the university campus began serving the sorghum cone, which comes in chocolate and cinnamon.
”I love them,” Aramouni said. “Some people like them better.”
Roemer, too, has a test kitchen at Scott City where an employee does recipe and product development, sometimes for large food companies that buy Nu Life flour. The university also continues to do product development with milo and is currently working with three bakeries on about 40 different sorghum-based products.
Aramouni expects the market for sorghum as food to continue to grow.
“I’m excited because Kansas produces so much sorghum,” he said, later adding of diet trends, “Some things have come and gone away fast, but this one seems to be around for a while. And if we eventually get to the point that it goes away, sorghum will be positioned to stay around, not because it is gluten-free but because it is a good product.”
Finding a market on the High Plains
Take a drive down K-96 toward Scott City, and it is evident that agriculture dominates the landscape.
It is the perfect place to start a value-added agriculture company, said Roemer as he stood in one of his fields of milo. Moreover, it is helping boost the area’s economy.
”We’re vertically integrated,” he said. “We take a raw agricultural product from the very beginning and add value to that grain.”
In turn, it helps bring population to dwindling rural Kansas, as well as jobs for the young people who venture to college and want to come back home and use their degrees.
“One thing that has given me a lot of satisfaction is being able to provide opportunity to young college graduates – primarily from K-State – giving them the opportunity to utilize their degrees, to come back here to a small community and do their job,” Roemer said.
He admits it hasn’t been easy. He incorporated Nu Life Market in 2004, largely doing research and development. The growth really started about three to four years ago, he said.
He credits his ability to tap into the marketplace because of his business model. It incorporates young talent, along with high-tech systems and stringent quality-control measures.
Roemer compares it to manufacturing medicine. Everything is precise, from design to sterilization. For instance, the flooring at Nu Life is similar to other big food companies. It has a silver ion in it, which has a negative effect on pathogens like E. coli and salmonella.
Meanwhile, each production room has isolated heating and air-conditioning systems to prevent cross-contamination.
Employees also go through a high level of food safety training, said food safety director Asha Prasad. She said the company received its FSSC 22000 certification for food safety – a stringent program that typically takes three years for a company to achieve. Prasad, who has a doctorate in food safety, had Nu Life certified in eight months.
”It is the highest level of food safety,” Roemer said. “It is very difficult for any commercial food manufacturing company to achieve this high-level audited food safety certification, and we are very proud of this accomplishment.”
Besides processing the grain, the farming side also is very strict, he said. Equipment must be free of gluten. There also aren’t any crop production products applied to the plant after it flowers. Milo is binned in a facility used only for milo.
All products are sampled, as well, for gluten, said Roemer. That includes when it is binned and before it is shipped to customers. The company also touts being dairy-free and peanut-free, and thus it tests for those as well. Nu Life is also audited by major companies that bring in their own quality-control teams to the production line.
Roemer’s company continues to grow in employees. Recently, he added more office and production space. New equipment has helped speed things up. By December, Roemer expected to go from milling 1,000 pounds of flour an hour to milling about 20,000 pounds an hour. The company also added new grain-cleaning equipment that can clean 20,000 pounds of grain an hour. He also expanded into the popped-sorghum market, adding equipment in the fall.
As growth continues, Roemer expects his employee base to double to nearly 50 by next year.
He’s still a lifelong farmer. However, he admits he doesn’t sit on a tractor much anymore. His son-in-law, Chance Bezona, and daughter, Katie, are operating the farm.
It has been an exciting experience, he said.
”It’s been a progression,” Roemer said. “A lot I have to attribute to luck. Timing is everything in a business, and without consumer demand we wouldn’t be able to do these things.”
Kansas Agland Editor Amy Bickel's agriculture roots started in Gypsum. She has been covering Kansas agriculture for more than 15 years. Email her with news, photos and other information at email@example.com or by calling (800) 766-3311, ext. 320.
Other stories in the series:
Milo brings "Nu Life" on the High Plains for fourth generation farmer
Milo posed to help water woes in western Kansas
Food-grade sorghum catches on with south-central Kansas farmers
Crop has international appeal
Nu Life products