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Chicory could expand locally Melbeta test farm may prove crop a ripe industry
December 04, 2015 Jerry Purvis   

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Starting with 120 acres of chicory, a potential new line of value-added agriculture might start growing in the area.

Brad Justice with Blue Prairie Brands spoke at the Gering Business Club on Dec. 2 about the past season’s test plot of 120 acres of chicory on the Dan Fitts farm near Melbeta.

“This area is pretty much the only place in North America where you can grow chicory,” Justice said. “We process the chicory roots to extract inulin, a fiber that’s being used in all kinds of food products.”

Some of those products include fiber bars, cereal, snack foods, cookies, pasta, tortillas and frozen bread dough.

Blue Prairie Brands has been the area for about four years, starting with small test sites in conjunction with the University of Nebraska Extension Center. This past year, they expanded to recruit area farmers to grow chicory for them on a custom basis. The company also opened a processing center in the old Lockwood building in Gering to extract inulin from the chicory roots.

Justice said processing also includes developing recipes where inulin can be an ingredient. Most food manufacturers don’t buy fiber as a product in itself, but for what kinds of food products where it can be used.

Because of their similarity to sugar beets, chicory is grown in the same way. However, because a variety of weed resistant plants, such as Roundup Ready sugar beets, hasn’t been developed, chicory requires more weeding. Irrigation needs are also similar.

Justice said the equipment used to harvest chicory this past season was simply modified sugar beet equipment.

“The great part about the fiber market is that it’s a multi-billion dollar market that’s growing at double digits annually,” he said.
“That’s the market we’re entering and we’ve had some good response from venture capital firms.”

He added the company wants to continue with product development, bring more staff on board, expand their inventory and refine their manufacturing process with a strong supply chain.

The benefits of inulin go far beyond value-added agriculture for the area. The fiber offers numerous health benefits the company continues to explore.

Although the human body can’t digest inulin, the fiber is a food source for probiotics, the good bacteria in the body that can help suppress food allergies and provide several other healthful benefits in regulating weight. “Weight gain doesn’t have as much to do with what you eat as with what kinds of bacteria are in your gut because they help determine how food is metabolized,” Justice said. “Those bacteria also determine how your immune system works and how it reacts to inflammation. They play an essential role in our overall health status.”
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