A new company has signed a lease with the city to start production at the building that most recently housed Ultra Green, which has been dormant since the company ceased operations here in 2015.

A new company has signed a lease with the city to start production at the building that most recently housed Ultra Green, which has been dormant since the company ceased operations here in 2015.

Bio Fiber plans to use a unique process to transform cow manure - referred to by the company as “agripulp” - into a range of products, including structural materials, flower pots, and pellets used for bedding and heating.

The new lease is welcome news for Devils Lake officials, as the building that once housed Noodles by Leonardo, which shut down in 2012, then Ultra Green, which closed its doors in Devils Lake in 2015, was purchased by the city after wrangling with the struggling company for over a year.

The lease is for five years, after which Bio Fiber will have the option to purchase the building from the city.

Mayor Richard Johnson appeared impressed with the company’s presentation at a joint meeting of the Devils Lake Building Authority and Forward Devils Lake Thursday, and says that this could be a big win for the city.

He described Bio Fiber’s planned product line as “cutting edge.”

“This is going to be the first in the whole country,” Johnson said. “I can see that morphing into something much bigger; there’s already talk about maybe expanding. This is the wave of the future.”

Some skepticism seems warranted, however, as Ultra Green approached the city with a similar plan in 2012: They would use the leavings from harvested wheat - wheat straw - to produce recyclable products such as plates and pizza boxes, in turn creating jobs and raising the city’s profile.

The city responded by offering a $2M incentive package to the company after Ultra Green promised that hundreds of jobs would be created. At its peak, Ultra Green employed about 40 people before shutting down and leaving piles of unused wheat straw at the site that eventually became blighted with mold and drew the attention of the state Department of Health.

This time around, there was no incentive package offered to bring Bio Fiber to Devils Lake. Another difference, according to Johnson, is that Bio Fiber brings with them a sound organizational structure, plenty of capital, and customers that are lined up to purchase the product.

“They have customers now, they just have to get staff and they have to add some equipment,” Johnson said. “There is a company in New Jersey that’s willing to sign a million-dollar contract tomorrow. They have companies lined up - they’re for real.”

Rachel Lindstrom, executive director of Forward Devils Lake and a key player in both the Ultra Green and Bio Fiber negotiations, echoed the mayor’s sentiments.

“It is really exciting knowing that the research is done and they’re ready to put it on the product line,” Lindstrom said. “I think there are a lot of startup businesses that have to work out the tweaks to be able to make it to manufacturing. That process is done - the product is ready to hit the shelves as soon as they turn the machines on.”

Who is Bio Fiber?

Bio Fiber is made up of several entities, and its research is reportedly supported by the University of Wisconsin, among others.

Though not much is known about the company - a Google search of “Bio Fiber LLC” doesn’t bring up a link to their website - general manager Steve Spensley assured those at Thursday’s meeting that both their organization and product is sound.

“It’s a brand new industry,” Spensley said. “We have orders from three pretty large companies."

Gary Bailey of Be Sustainable Technologies, who is involved with the Bio Fiber operation, also  appeared at Thursday’s meeting.

He said that while the company is just getting started, they already have interest in their product across the country and around the world.     

"It's going to go from here to Boston, to Texas, to Florida, overseas to Europe and the Far East. They're already interested,” Bailey said. “We’re not a fly-by-night operation.”

Agripulp: What is it?

Agripulp is manure, plain and simple. The manure is processed to reduce or eliminate moisture and becomes sterilized via a unique process that took years to develop.

John Hunt, a mechanical engineer and researcher for Bio Fiber who patented the process by which the company’s products are rendered, presented a wealth of information about the science behind agripulp.

Other companies have attempted similar plans to transform manure into a range of products, according to Hunt, but he reported that Bio Fiber’s process is unique in that it has successfully created “100 percent manure-based” products, rather than relying on resins and other hybrid-based approaches.

Samples of agripulp were handed out at the meeting, and sterilization makes the material virtually odorless - it smells like dirt and looks somewhat like mulch.

Hunt also brought with him product samples, one of which was a board that those unfamiliar with its origin would likely identify as wood.

What does it mean for Devils Lake?

A successful Bio Fiber operation will bring with it jobs as soon as next month, according to Spensley. As the operation develops, more employees are expected to be added.

“We’re going to be out there doing work in January and February, and I’m going to be hiring four to six people to get that plant back working,” Spensley said. “Once we get each line up and running, it’ll take probably three to four people per line. There are six lines out there, and we might add a couple of machines right away. I wouldn’t be surprised if we got 30 or 40 people in the first year.”

The mayor is thinking about more than just added workforce. He believes that this could be a landmark agreement for Devils Lake.

“Once they get going, this plant is going to roll. Employment, more residents in the city - it’s a snowball effect,” Johnson said. “It’s something that’s not going to be anywhere else in the state, or, as far as I know, the nation. That’s a lot to be proud of. It’s a great day for the city of Devils Lake."