WOLF CREEK COLONY: ADVENTURES IN BATH TISSUE
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JEREMY WALTNER – PUBLISHER
More than two years ago, in September of 2019, the worst flooding in the history of Wolf Creek Colony decimated the Hutterite community. While no human lives were lost, the rising waters of the James River displaced families, destroyed homes and other critical infrastructure and severely impeded the rhythm of communal living at the colony — one of about 450 across the Upper Midwest and throughout Western Canada rooted in Anabaptist traditions.
Among the casualties from the flooding was the turkey operation, which included three barns and about 16,000 birds.
The colony located nine miles straight west of Freeman would eventually rebuild what was lost, but that effort did not include the turkey operation. While Wolf Creek Colony continued with its other traditional industry, like its 1,250- head sow unit and 6,000 acres of farmland, leadership decided to venture into other, more non-traditional areas of manufacturing.
Like bathroom tissue.
That’s the world in which Wolf Creek Colony now finds itself thanks to a decision about a year ago to establish Pasque Paper Products and begin manufacturing toilet paper and, eventually, other related consumables.
“This is brand-new,” says Darius Hofer, who is charged with general sourcing at Wolf Creek Colony and accounting at one of their other big industries — PWAire Technologies, which manufactures products made from plastics ranging from exhaust fans to feed storage bins. “Colonies are looking for more things to manufacture; this idea came up and — boom.”
Pasque Paper Products operates out of a brand-new steel building located just up the hill to the east of the Jim River Valley, where the rest of colony life takes place. Inside is a huge tissue-converting machine manufactured by Maflex, a company based in Lucca, Italy that was imported beginning this past summer and set up over two weeks in October, with a week of intense training that followed.
“It’s a 2021 model system — the newest system in the states,” Hofer said.
Fully automated from start to finish, when running at full capacity the machine can produce 480 rolls a minute. The process starts with 2,500 lb. parent rolls that get fed into the Maflex, unwound, and then rewound into a long roll much smaller in diameter.
The tissue is perforated and embossed with a Pasque flower, “so every time you see a roll,” Hofer says, “you can check to see if it came from us.”
The process also includes the making and insertion of the brown cardboard core that is at the center of toilet paper. The tail of the tissue then gets glued — also an automated process — and the role is lifted into a 148-roll capacity accumulator that allows the glue to dry. They are then pushed two at a time through a circular log saw and cut into a 4½ inch roll, and then packaged in various configurations.
Last week the packaging structure was set to 12 rolls per pack that would eventually be bundled into a larger 48-pack for sale. The machine can be set to produce various configurations of packaging, like 3×4 or 6×3 — “whatever the industry desires,” said Sam Decker, one of two men charged with overseeing the day-to-day operation of the plant.
While the machine’s full production capacity is 10, 48-pack rolls a minute, the colony isn’t there yet.
“We’re running it real slow now; we’re just learning,” Hofer told The Courier last week. “We’re doing it as slow as we can to make sure we understand everything.”
Even so, the result is impressive. Since the operation really got rolling in early November, the colony has manufactured enough bath tissue to fill six semis, with each semi holding approximately 51,000 rolls.
“That’s a lot of satisfied people,” Hofer said.
Technology & marketing
Decker, who operates the machine with Rodney Decker, says the men have been running a single, six- to eight-hour shift per day. And while the Maflex is fully automated, it requires careful attention. The machine needs to be turned on and off, of course, but computer monitors are continuously showing the process, status and if there’s a problem that needs to be addressed.
“It sounds simple, but the amount of technology and planning behind it is unbelievable,” said Decker. “We spent two weeks of full-time training just to learn it, and then we learn as we go.
“There’s so much to these machines; there are so many little things that can happen to make the machines stop working,” he continued. “It seems simple to stand back and watch somebody run it, but it’s actually quite a complicated process. The planning and engineering that went into it is amazing.
“You wouldn’t know there’s so much that goes into a little roll of toilet paper.”
While Sam and Rodney Decker need to pay close attention — and while there has been a steep learning curve — the effort required is much different from the colony’s other operations.
“There’s not real work here,” Hofer says. “When the light turns red you go and see what’s wrong. The company that makes the machine, they’re also watching. They’ll tell us if there’s any issue before we’ll know it.”
To that end, manufacturing of bath tissue is far more efficient than more traditional operations like grains or livestock.
“It’s all automated,” he said. “How do you automate a sowing unit? Every bore has to be castrated; every tooth has to be clipped.”
“You have to be really, really big or you’re not there. And we don’t have the people for that. This turns as much money with two people as a 1,250-head sow unit start to finish that takes 12 people to run.
Furthermore, Hofer said, the risk is much smaller.
“With turkeys you have bird flu; you go to the hogs you have swine flu,” he said. “There are too many ups and downs. You need to focus on something more friendly.
“Bath tissue has no expiration date; it cannot get the virus,” he continued. “When a pandemic hits, the sales actually go up. We like the hoarders who fill up their closets with bathroom tissue. We don’t mind it for a second.”
Hofer says the toilet paper shortage did play a significant factor in the decision to move in this direction.
“Right now you go to Costco, you go to Sam’s Club, you go to Target, there is no bathroom tissue there,” he says. “We’ve got product here, so we’re going to go try to sell it.”
Wolf Creek Colony is waiting on branded packaging to help market the bath tissue, and in the meantime is using generic clear plastic.
“Right now, we have to market it,” Hofer said. “We have too much money invested to sit and wait for printed packaging.”
Wolf Creek continues to be in touch with a variety of distributors to sell their Pasque-branded product. Fensel’s in Freeman currently sells it, other local businesses have expressed interest, and colony leadership is making inroads in Sioux Falls, Yankton and Mitchell, as well.
Hofer is optimistic they will be able to move the product; after all, it’s something everybody needs.
“It’s not like when I produce a plastic fan,” he said. “One out of 5,000 people might need a fan. Everybody needs bathroom tissue, and not just once a day. Sometimes three times a day.”
And the colony tissue is good, Hofer said. Not only is it being made at 500 sheets per roll — not the 250 sheets you often find elsewhere — but it’s comfortable.
“No complaints; just complements from everybody who has been selling it and using it,” he said.
As for Sam Decker, he’s glad he was chosen to take a lead on the operation, even if making toilet tissue was never on his radar.
“That was the last thing I ever thought would happen in my life,” he said. “But it’s exciting. Colonies are used to livestock; they’re not really into manufacturing as much. But it seems like it’s turning toward this. It feels like it will be a good business for us. We hope it is.”
Hofer is excited, too.
“This is the kind of challenge you need to get you out of bed in the morning,” he said. “If you have no reason to go to work, I wonder sometimes about how people do it.”
“Hopefully this will eventually take it over (as our primary industry),” Hofer continued. “I hope so.”