Benson, Minn. — Don Lenz wants to put a shirt on the back of every corn farmer in America — a shirt that may have origins in the farmer’s back 40.

Lenz owns Future Products, Inc. a custom textile-manufacturing plant in west central Minnesota that has started making casual shirts from Ingeo™, a patented fiber made from corn polylactic acid.

“Most people don’t believe these shirts are made from corn,” says Dan Lemke, AURI communications director. In early August, Lenz displayed his Ingeo shirts in AURI’s exhibit tent at FarmFest near Redwood Falls. (see story) Visitors told the shirts were corn-based “would have this look of disbelief on their faces,” Lemke says. “Then Don would tell them the story.”

Revolutionary fiber

“In my opinion, this is a new generation of material in the marketplace,” the only exciting new fabric since tensel, Lenz says. “It looks like cotton — but it doesn’t shrink, pill, stain or wrinkle … and it’s more comfortable than polyester. You cold wash it, spin it out, and you don’t have to put it in the dryer.”

Lenz says the fabric absorbs moisture then allows it to migrate. “Cotton absorbs, but it’s like a sponge; it holds moisture. The body’s way of cooling itself is to sweat. If it stays on the body, it’s not releasing heat.”

U.S. Representative Collin Peterson of Detroit Lakes can testify to Ingeo’s performance, Lenz says. “He put our shirt on in Montevideo and he said at the end of a day in the sun, he was still dry and comfortable. Then he put on his own cotton shirt the next day and said at the end of the day, ‘I was smelly and sweaty and exhausted.’ ”

Ingeo is produced by converting corn into sugars that are fermented and converted to a polylactic acid called PLA. The PLA is then extruded into Ingeo fibers. The fiber’s patent is held by Cargill and manufactured at its NatureWorks division’s new $320 million Nebraska plant, Lenz say.

“We’ve not had any complaints about this fabric. I credit Cargill because they’ve done a tremendous job putting this together — it took them 10 years.”

Right for the times

“This is the right time to launch (Ingeo), Lenz says. “Ten years ago, we didn’t want for anything — we had plenty of resources, plenty of oil. But now we have the Iraq war and high oil prices … It’s a new biodegradable fabric that doesn’t use an oil base.”

Since Future Products makes some military gear, Lenz says he sat army officials down and said, “This should be in your training program because it will produce a higher quality soldier at the end of the day. This will move moisture out and they’ll stay cooler.”

“This also belongs on the backs of firemen who do a lot of sweating and carry heavy gear … and on policemen with all their vests and gear.”

Ingeo intrigue

In early 2004, a Minneapolis Star-Tribune article about Faribault Mills blankets made with Ingeo piqued Lenz’s interest. He visited the plant and was impressed that the fiber did not have to be washed, like wool does, before it’s spun.

His next stop was the Cargill headquarters in Minnetonka, where he gathered more information and made arrangements to purchase Ingeo fibers. He then contracted with a North Carolina yarn maker and a Connecticut company to knit sample goods and was pleased with the results.

“We decided to launch a program,” to make Ingeo products but moved carefully in selecting fibers and end products. “There are lots of things involved (in manufacturing a new product), and it can get expensive.” Each product line requires “a different yarn size, and each time you change a yarn size, you have to buy a certain amount of yarn.”

Lenz selected a white lacrosse knit for golf shirts and a jersey knit for t-shirts — both 6.4 ounce (per square yard). “We narrowed it down to what we could manage and still have something that looked good without a lot of investment in the early stages.”

Fortunately, the Ingeo fiber didn’t require purchasing special equipment. “It is like every other fabric we work with. We didn’t have to adjust the machines … same needle, same thread.”

Agri-marketing

Future Products has been marketing the shirts to corn-grower groups in Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa, the Dakotas, Nevada, Tennessee and Kentucky. “We’ve had a good response — maybe I expected a little more support right away, but they are getting the word out,” Lenz says.

He is also negotiating with major agribusiness companies, such Pioneer Seed in Ames, Iowa, about manufacturing the shirts for employees.

An added bonus has been the interest of the environmental community, Lenz says. Last March, at a biotech conference in Orlando, he sold t-shirts with the silk-screened emblem, ‘This shirt is made from corn’ for $14.50 each and “they moved in two days.” He also had success selling t-shirts at the recent dedication of the University of Minnesota-Morris biomass plant.

Cost wise, an Ingeo shirt wholesaling for $14.50 is a bigger investment than a $7 heavyweight cotton shirt of the same style. But it is considerably less “than the $39 you’re going to pay for a high-performance fabric like Aquatech. Ours has all the same wicking properties — plus we have the softness and feel of cotton. … It’s got the best of both worlds.”

Service-driven success

Future Products has been in the textile business since 1985 as a contract manufacturer. “Anything people want, we make to order,” Lenz says. “We learned early on that you can’t compete with China, so we don’t try.”

“I can beat the Chinese on delivery any day of the week, and on small production runs I’m pretty competitive.” Because it can’t compete with cheap labor overseas, Future Products stays away from high-labor garments, those that have snaps, zippers and other embellishments.

“I can’t always buy high-run equipment, like an automatic pocket machine, because I don’t do as much volume.” Rather, the company customizes special runs with embroidery and silk-screen designs.

“We design everything from the bottom up — everything on the computer.” Shirt pieces can even be cut by computer, he says.

“We do products for the auto industry, uniform companies, Pittsburg Transit Authority, toll booth people. We make reflective ware — for MnDOT’s construction people” and some tactical gear for the military, city police and early response teams.

Because the clothing is made in the USA, it’s popular with unions, Lenz says. Future Products has also started doing some global business, splitting production between Benson and overseas plants.

“If a customer says, ‘Don, I need 10,000 uniforms for Dunkin Donuts, and I’m working with a company in China, but I never have enough of one size,’ I’ll buy all the material at once — some of it here — design it here, and produce 9,000 in China.”

Then when the company runs out of a particular size, Future Products will fill in, making the final 1,000 in Benson. However, only products manufactured here with U.S. fabric can be labeled “made in USA.” By the hour Future Products employees 80 people — 60 of them machine operators. “We look at the number of hours we can generate with every operator working 40 hours a week — 2400 hours of production — at 100 percent. If a jacket requires one hour of labor, we can make 2400 a week — or 4800 if it only requires a half hour.” Price is determined by labor hours.

The minimum-order requirement is set by how much fabric has to be purchased in one lot to make a custom line. “We can produce as little as 150 pieces — if we can buy a small amount of material. But if a customer needs a certain color and fiber and we have to buy 1200 yards of it,” the customer must guarantee purchase of the entire amount, even if all the shirts are not manufactured at once.

For small runs, the per-piece price is impacted by the pattern cost, which may run $600 to $700. “If they want 100 pieces, but the design cost is $700, it may not be worth it.” From spinning to stitching Future Product’s next major step may be bringing all the PLA and Ingeo production to the Benson facility, rather than contracting with East Coast companies to spin, dye and knit the fabric. Lenz determined that outstate contracting adds “81 cents per item for freight” to a garment’s cost.

AURI helped sponsor a study on the economic feasibility of vertically integrating all the production in Benson. “The feasibility study says we need to consume 100,000 yards of Ingeo per year to make it feasible. … I do foresee that in the future. It sounds like a lot of fabric but it’s not.”

“We’re pretty tuned in to what we’re doing here.”

For more information on Future Products and Ingeo shirts, call 320-843-4614, or visit www.renewapparel.com