Volume 19 | Issue 4 | Year 2016

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The future of the U.S. cotton industry is in Lubbock, Texas, whose nickname of “Hub City” and position as the largest contiguous cotton-growing region in the world, makes it the perfect location for an operation whose roots in cotton have migrated across the South and continue to dig deep into the economic soil.

That company, global agricultural giant Monsanto, was expected to break ground in March 2016 on a new, state-of-the-art cottonseed processing facility in Lubbock, representing a $140 million capital investment. It is envisioned to be the hub of the company’s cotton manufacturing operations and will be set to open in the second half of 2017.

The decision to build the Lubbock facility followed intense analysis by the company into its current operations. “What we looked at was how we were currently processing and manufacturing our cotton seed for our customers. Some of our current manufacturing and processing facilities are older than 50 years. Our thoughts were how to invest in those facilities and how to run an efficient and effective operation and provide the best product, with a need to move to where the cotton concentration was greatest,” explains Dave Penn, Monsanto’s cotton and specialty crop manufacturing lead. The end result, he adds, was to combine three existing processing facilities, in Arizona, Texas and Mississippi, into one.

In cooperation with the Lubbock Economic Development Alliance, the new plant will be Monsanto’s primary U.S. hub for all commercial cottonseed processing operations – to include cleaning, treating and bagging of cotton seed – while existing processing facilities will transition to support storage and warehousing, pre-commercial operations and research in various parts of the Cotton Belt.

“We decided on the hub and spoke model,” Penn says, “with the idea to combine the three processing facilities into one and make that the hub, where we would use best technologies and processes for processing cotton, and use the other facilities in Arizona, Texas and Mississippi as the spokes, where the grower material comes in and is funneled to the hub. The hub then funnels the material back to the spokes. Those facilities will see more distribution, warehousing and storage.”

At the time of the new plant’s announcement, Penn said that “bringing people, processes and technology together at a new, state-of-the-art cotton facility in Lubbock will boost collaboration and efficiency within our manufacturing organization. Furthermore, its geographic location in Lubbock, will allow for better alignment with the cotton industry and help us better serve customers across the Cotton Belt.”

The move to Lubbock follows a number of strategic actions Monsanto began in October 2015, to help drive greater scale in its business and further enhance its overall operations. Location of the new hub facility, Monsanto’s established relationship with the Lubbock Economic Development Alliance and the opportunity to leverage new production technology factored into the decision to consolidate and optimize its U.S. commercial cottonseed processing operations.

A New Way to Harvest

The facility in Lubbock is expected to push the boundaries on how cotton is processed, taking what traditionally have been manual operations and making them solely automated.

“Cotton seed used to be harvested in a method that manually pulled lint off the seed,” explains Penn. Farmers soon found it more effective to take off the fuzzy part, which allowed the seed to germinate better, but the problem was, how to get rid of the fuzzy? “They used to try and burn it off,” he explains, but other techniques soon emerged, including the use of acids, and one that was popularized some 50 years ago and still used is hydrochloric acid in gaseous form. The problem: It is highly toxic and hazardous, so facilities started using sulfuric acid. “Today they use a mix of both,” Penn says.

The goal for tomorrow is to eliminate altogether the use of hazardous materials.

And that respect for the employee and penchant for safety comes into play in Monsanto’s planned Lubbock facility.

“When we started on the design of new the facility our goal was to focus on seed quality, and employee safety – that’s a big one,” explains Dustin Cole, manufacturer representative, adding that Monsanto’s current processing of seeds is to dilute the sulfur to create more of a safe environment for employees as well as the community. “Because of that we analyzed our facility design, and asked ourselves questions like, is this equipment right? The end result was significant process changes in this facility.”

For one, he notes, the state-of-the-art plant will be highly automated, using sensors to assess each and every piece leaving the plant, whereas before, it all was judged visually.

Indeed, the opportunity to leverage new production technology factored greatly into the decision to consolidate and optimize its U.S. commercial cotton seed processing operations, according to the company. Technology in place at this new hub facility will allow for better data capture, and automating processes are expected to improve both manufacturing effectiveness and the safety of personnel, in the end, bringing greater value to customers.

Existing cotton seed processing facilities in Arizona, Mississippi and Texas will continue to support manufacturing operations until summer 2017, at which point these will transition to support storage and warehousing, pre-commercial operations or research.

And how much cotton seed will be processed? Monsanto measures its production volume in terms of units of seed, with one unit equaling a 48-pound bag. The Lubbock plant is expected to handle two million units annually, and will employ 250 people.

“Sustainability and environmental awareness is our main goal,” Cole says. “We try to minimize waste leaving facility, reuse all processed water and recapture all rinsing water. We shoot for a complete sustainable process, to minimize the amount of wastewater.” The project team, he adds, “Paid close attention to sustainability and water conservation efforts throughout the design phase. This included high efficiency fixtures throughout the facility and significant process changes that enable us to re-capture and re-use almost four million gallons of water annually.”

In this way, Monsanto continues its commitment to bring a broad range of solutions to help nourish a growing world. The company that produces seeds for fruits, vegetables and key crops – such as corn, soybeans, and cotton – will continue to aid farmers to have better harvests while using water and other important resources more efficiently.

According to the company: “We work to find sustainable solutions for soil health, help farmers use data to improve farming practices and conserve natural resources, and provide crop protection products to minimize damage from pests and disease. Through programs and partnerships, we collaborate with farmers, researchers, nonprofit organizations, universities and others to help tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges.”

That is a hefty mission for a company – to extend a philosophy and a mission on a global scale – but Monsanto, through its new Lubbock cotton seed processing facility, will no doubt be able to achieve these goals – and then some.

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