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Thumb Oilseed Producers' Cooperative: Extracting the Best from Beginnings to End User
As consumers across the U.S. look for more increasing supply chain tracking and accountability when it comes to food sources, the Thumb Soilseed Producers' Cooperative is benefiting from the public's interest in how and where produce is grown and processed. Thumb Oilseed started in 1999 as a cooperative of 180 soy bean growers across Michigan who decided to band together. Led by COO Joann Rutkowski, the company has expanded from a simple organization that produces soy beans primarily for livestock feed products into a diverse firm that produces Soy Beginnings – a range of gluten-free soy flour, grits (or sprinkles) and trans-fat/cholesterol-free oils used in the manufacturing of food products all over the world.
Chemicals Vs. Heat and Steam
The growers, who are all located in 10 mid-Michigan counties, deliver their soy beans to the cooperative’s state-of-the-art crush facility and oil refinery in Ubly, Mich. There the soy beans, which are all non-genetically modified organisms (non-GMO) and identity preserved (IP), are processed using a non-Hexane extraction method. Hexane extraction is the most commonly used, but not preferable procedure to process soybeans, and Rutkowski explains why Thumb Oilseed is dedicated to using an all-natural extruder/expeller process (sourced from India) for its trait-specific raw materials:
“Hexane extraction uses chemicals and that goes against what we believe in. We want our products to be chemical-free and certifiably safe. Our products don’t contain any additives or preservatives, just the bean that has been processed with heat and steam. We also contract out to a third-party IP certifier who walks each soy bean field before each harvest to ensure that our soy beans are grown to the highest standards.”
Rutkowski is proud that Thumb Oilseed instituted its IP program long before it became popular to do so in the organic industry. “We started our IP program in 2001, when few companies were able to trace their product back to grower and seed.”
The company maintains Quality Assurance programs to meet the customer's needs, and holds certifications from the AIB, the Council of Orthodox Rabbis of Greater Detroit and the Global Organic Alliance.
Flexibility - Key to Success
Another benefit to Thumb Oilseed’s extraction process is that more fat is retained in the final product, which is ideal for certain livestock feeds. “Our steam and heat process leaves about fix to six percent of the bean’s fat, and while that’s not good for dairy or beef cows, it’s ideal for chickens and hogs,” notes Rutkowski. While the firm's immediate surroundings are more traditionally dairy farms, the company has found a strong market for these fattier feeds in the traditional poultry and hog states located in the Southeast.
All of this is possible because of an incident that could have been a disaster, but turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Identifying that its livestock feed market would be widespread, Thumb Oilseed situated itself near the major highway system, and factored in higher freight costs, etc. when it launched. However, the company did not foresee that the refinery with which it initially contracted for processing crude extracted oil would cease operations. Because of this the company was forced to store its initial oil until it could built its own refinery on-site.
Since it entered the wider food market in 2004, much of Thumb Oilseed’s products are primarily marketed to private label firms as the foundation for bakery, beverage, vegetarian and other food products. Not having its own brand on the shelf has not harmed the company's market, however. Though the company has marketed itself in the past, Rutkowski notes that the majority of its new clients seek the firm out because of its reputation in the industry for its high-quality products. “We’re not an Archer Daniels Midland [a behemoth processor of food, feed, and agriculturally derived fuels and chemicals], but if you’re in the organic non-GMO industry, chances are you’ve heard of us.”
And there are benefits to putting quality over quantity. An independent study performed by a local university on Thumb Oilseed’s products seems to substantial that because the company doesn’t use chemicals in its extraction process its soy bean oils have a longer shelf life and are more stable.
“You can fry a fish in our oil and then immediately fry some fries, and there’s no transfer of taste,” claims Rutkowski proudly. “Our oil lasts up to two weeks in deep fryers. Because our extraction process is more complicated, our products cost more, but it’s worth it in the end. We know that our products are not for everyone, but for some people eating non-GMO organic products is worth the expense.”
Consumers who are concerned about the number of chemicals used in the food production process may belong to a niche market today, but an interest in understanding and improving the process of food production continues. With this in mind, Joanne Rutkowski and Thumb Oilseed Producers' Cooperative are laying the ground work to expand the place of Michigan's soy bean farmers within the global marketplace.