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From farming to exotic pet foods, Barretts convert operation to successful global business

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If you have purchased treats lately for a pet monkey or iguana, or splurged on high-end dog food, chances are pretty good the product came from a young, fast-growing business south of Brainerd.

Barrett Petfood Innovations has been producing pet food for four years and is enjoying significant growth. Production has doubled every year. Its workforce grew by 50 percent this year and they’re shipping product all over the world. Barrett continues to expand its product line, and now its dry pet food is found domestically in most of the big box stores, including Wal-Mart, Target and PetSmart. Its products are also exported to five continents, with about 40 percent of total production going to Asian markets.

Last year, Barrett Petfood Innovations, formerly known as Barrett Ag Service, produced 2 million pounds of pet food. This year, the company is on pace to produce 5 million pounds, and next year’s projections show nearly 10 million.

With the increase in production comes new jobs — Barrett has added 10 jobs so far this year, bringing the total to 30 workers. That number will continue to grow as Barrett invests in new equipment and increases its capacity.

At the helm of this operation is a young brother-sister duo: Sarah, 27, and Tom, 31, Barrett. Much of their success is the result of taking on challenging orders from their customers, where production levels might be relatively low but they can charge a premium price. Rarely do they turn down work, regardless of how crazy the order sounds. They rely heavily on trial and error and aren’t afraid to ask their counterparts in the industry for advice.

“We learn something with every new customer that comes through the door,” said Sarah Barrett, the company’s production manager. “We’re on a pretty steep learning curve and we’re flying by the seat of our pants sometimes.”

The Barretts use nearly 400 different ingredients to produce hundreds of different pet food products. A significant percentage of their ingredients are raised or purchased locally. For example, some of the corn they use is grown on surrounding fields by the Barretts’ father, Mike. Their sugar is purchased from Costco and the chicken and turkey they use is locally grown as well.

At the center of the Barrett’s operation — and a major reason why they’re in the business to begin with — is a rare twin-screw extruder that Mike Barrett bought used from a company in Norway. There are only five such machines in existence, and new ones cost about $2 million each. The extruder works like this: Think of how kids stuff Play-Doh into a mini plastic extruder, press down on the handle and watch the Play-Doh come out in the shape of a star, triangle or square. It’s basically the same principle.

The Barretts pour their mixture into the extruder, which uses pressure to force the mixture through a plate in specific shapes and sizes. Rotating blades slice off the pieces as they come out. The mixture is heated before it comes out of the holes, which eliminates bacteria and cooks the product, thereby creating dry food. The same process is used to make most cereals, pasta and candy. The Barretts will triple the capacity of the extruder next year when a new dryer goes online. That will allow the company to take on new business and add additional jobs next year.

Mike Barrett bought the extruder about 10 years ago when ConAgra Foods shut down his feed, fertilizer and farm chemicals business after leasing it for four years. A non-compete agreement left Mike with an expansive farming and retail facility and few uses for it, so he bought the extruder to produce organic fertilizer for golf courses. The market couldn’t support that operation, so Sarah got involved and started producing high-fertility pig food for Asian swine farms. That worked well for a few years until the swine market dried up.

Refusing to give up, Sarah found a market for pet bird food in 2009, about the same time that Tom joined the operation as vice president of business development. He started working with companies all over the world that contracted with the company to make premium and specialty pet foods for their brands and for pets that range from reptiles to fish to rodents to turtles – you name it.

“We’re starting to make new products with ingredients that haven’t been used before,” Tom Barrett said. “We get the formula from our customer and then try to get it to work. It’s a lot of trial and error.”

Rapid growth doesn’t come without its challenges, though. One of the biggest issues they face is adding equipment to maintain increased productivity and making it all fit in a facility that was designed for agricultural retail — not pet food production and packaging. For example, the addition of a new dryer this spring may require the Barretts to shut down their operation for two weeks as the dryer is installed, a process that may require the Barretts to raise the building’s roof.

The Barretts have also been investing in packaging machines that allow them to fill customer-supplied bags up to 50 pounds. The packaging operation is where most of the new jobs are being added, Sarah Barrett said.

The rapid growth that Barrett Petfood Innovations has been experiencing, along with the need for equipment and facilities upgrades, has required help from sources such as the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corporation (BLAEDC).

“BLAEDC has been instrumental in our success and growth,” Tom Barrett said. “During our initial startup, BLAEDC helped us become a JOBZ business, allowing for tax breaks to promote new jobs. They also helped us with some of the initial financing through the Small Business Administration.”

BLAEDC will continue to support Barrett and the company’s success. Pet monkeys all over the world thank them for that.

Denton (Denny) Newman Jr.
I've worked at the Brainerd Dispatch with various duties since Dec. 7, 1983. Starting off as an Ad Designer and currently Director of Audience Development. The Dispatch has been an interesting and challenging place to work. I'm fortunate to have made many friends, both co-workers and customers.
(218) 855-5889
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