A Grain Above the Rest

Zen-Noh Grain Corporation’s General Manager showcases the company’s origins and continued growth with the Port of South Louisiana.

As he surveys the bustling Zen-Noh Grain Corporation facility at mile 163.8 on the Mississippi River’s east bank in Convent, Louisiana, General Manager Eric Slater describes it as “the Cadillac” of Zen-Noh Group’s vast, global network.

Slater derives such praise not only from the photograph of the plant that adorns the boardroom atop the Tokyo, Japan headquarters of Zen-Noh (which translates into English as “National Federation of Agricultural Co-operative Associations”; or simply: “Unified Agriculture”), but also from the facility’s crucial, decades-long role in connecting American grain and forage growers to Japanese farmers. Proof positive of the vital part that the Convent plays in the Japan-based co-op, which consists of an estimated 8.5 million members, comes in its current capacity campaign that looks to nearly double Zen-Noh Grain Corp.’s capacity by the winter of 2017-18.

“This marks our first major expansion,” Slater explains, noting the massive construction cranes and pilings now seen at the facility. “Construction was started here in 1979. In October of 1982, we shipped our first vessel. Right now, we consume about 12.5 million metric tons of grain—that’s 500 million bushels, roughly—in a year. When the expansion is completed, we look to consume 16-18-million metric tons annually. Currently, we do 24-26 barges a day, and the goal will be 40 barges a day when it’s done.”

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Zen-Noh Grain today has 155 employees, with more than half of that total consisting of residents in St. James, St. Charles, St. John the Baptist and Ascension parishes. After the capacity campaign’s completion, Slater estimates the total number of employees to grow to 200 workers.

Slater says that the Japanese company originally looked to invest in the region in the late 1970s following the grain embargo enacted by then-President Jimmy Carter, which resulted in “pretty tough times” for American grain producers and numerous co-ops in the United States going broke falling upon hard times. Preferring to conduct business and trade on a model of co-op to co-op, Zen-Noh at this point in time realized the opportunity and demand to invest in a facility on the lower Mississippi River.

“Our river system is what makes this country so strong,” says Slater, a native Midwesterner with a degree in agricultural business from Ohio State University who has long called Louisiana home and resides in Prairieville with his wife and three children. “The Mississippi River connects all the way up to Minneapolis with St. Louis in between. The Illinois [River] connects us to Chicago. The Ohio River reaches Pittsburgh. The Gulf [of Mexico] exports 60 percent of the nation’s grain. The Pacific Northwest exports the other 40 percent. This move to expand our capacity was done in anticipation of growth in the global population. While the population numbers in Japan are in decline, you’re seeing major long-term population growth in places like Indonesia and Nigeria. As the world grows, the world requires more to eat. And the United States remains the breadbasket for the world.”

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The work of unloading and loading grain onto vessels is done at Zen-Noh 24-hours a day, seven days a week, with occasional multi-day breaks taken throughout the course of the year to check and maintain its machinery. To expand its capacity, Slater says the first step is to enhance efficiency, namely in the form of bottlenecks. Additionally, the plant will add a second CBU (Cargo Barge Unloader) as part of its capacity campaign. Grain exported from Zen-Noh is of guaranteed quality by the United States Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) through the review process of its on-site Federal Grain Inspection Service.

“Profitability is important,” Slater says, “but that’s not our number-one goal. Safety is our number-one goal. With big, heavy equipment, there’s a risk of people being hurt. Avoiding that will always be our number-one goal.

“The Port of South Louisiana has the benefit of a wide network of other products besides agricultural, such as coal and fertilizer,” Slater explains. “A strong global economy is what works well for the port. Our growth is part of the growth of the Port of South Louisiana.”
By Frank Etheridge

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