Import shipping costs have skyrocketed around the world – and Montana wheat farmers might eventually benefit via South Dakota.

The COVID pandemic caused Albany Farms, headquartered in Los Angeles, to relocate its large ramen producing facilities from southeast Asia to Belle Fourche, S.D. And noodles only use durum wheat, which Montana produces by the bushel just over the state line.

The company manufactures its products overseas but decided it needed to switch gears.

“With the onset of COVID, importing food became problematic,” said Albany Farms CEO Bill Saller. “Transportation has become a major issue for food companies and certainly for us.”

He said the cost of shipping containers had increased an average of $18,000 each, doubling import costs. So the company decided to move all its manufacturing to the United States.

This move to the Black Hills plant had a touch of serendipity to it, Saller said. The company’s lead engineer happened to be driving through the area, and the company started looking for a site in the Black Hills after that.

Saller said the complex in Belle Fourche will include a flour mill, production factories and packaging areas that will produce more than 100 million packages of ramen and noodles annually and employ up to 900 people.

Durum wheat is high in protein and gluten, making it ideal for pasta; semolina is the flour that’s ground from the endosperm of durum wheat.

Albany Farms sells noodles to Walmart and Target, among others. The specific brand is “Twisted Noodles.”

“It certainly could have an impact on Montana growers,” said Jack Riesselman, professor emeritus in plant science at Montana State University. “We grow the best durum in the world in that northeast corner of Montana.

They do, too, in that corner of North Dakota..”

Riesselman said commodity prices for amber durum usually fluctuate every three or four years, and “growers will put it in the bin and wait and use it like a bank account.

“It’s a limited market, but any increase in the utilization of durum will be good for Montana.”

Some 685,000 acres of durum wheat were harvested in Montana last year, according to Montana statistics from the National Agricultural Statistical Services. That was up 140,000 acres from the year before. Some 26.7 million

bushels made it the second-highest total ever, behind 2016. The 2020 yield was 39.0 bushels per acre, down 4.0 bushels from 2019.

This Belle Fourche plant could become one of the nation’s largest ramen facilities. Operations are planned to begin by the end of the year.

First, though, a former local oil tank manufacturing facility needs to be repurposed to package and produce ramen. The plant encompasses 38 acres and will include a rail spur line.

The backlog of supply chain transportation hiccups became “an absolute nightmare,” Saller said. “Last week, there were 100 vessels in the water (in California and we know a fair number of them had our product. Delays are not good in our business, and uncertainty is not good in our business.”

Saller plans to onshore as much as possible, he said, starting with an onsite flour mill. “Leftovers” from the mill will be used to heat the plant or be offered as livestock feed.

Albany Farms received a $1.35 million “South Dakota Works” loan through the Governor’s Office of Economic Development to support this project. A federal grant is being used to build a rail spur to the plant.

Albany Farms has manufacturing plants in over 27 countries in Europe, Asia, South America and North America.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.