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2:36 PM   April 20, 2014
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Natural Before Natural was Cool

The Minnesota-based manufacturer still uses only one key ingredient in its litter products: wheat.
By Michael Ventre

Who knew that separating the wheat from the chaff could also result in separating cat odor from cat litter?

Mark Hughes, general manager of Swheat Scoop/Pet Care Systems Inc.
Mark Hughes and his mom and dad discovered that fact about 17 years ago, when they realized that wheat in a pail did a better job of eliminating Tabby’s foul fragrance than conventional litters. Not long after, Swheat Scoop was born.

 “We grew up with cats,” Hughes said, who still serves as general manager of Swheat Scoop/Pet Care Systems Inc., even though Farmers Union Industries bought the company in 2005. “I knew what a cat litterbox smelled like.”

Hughes and his parents worked to create the brand that at the time was, well, before its time.

"It was natural before natural was cool,” he said.

The company originally started in Grand Ledge, Mich., but moved back to the family’s home in Detroit Lakes, Minn., where the facility operates today. Mom and dad retired in 2006, but Mark Hughes runs the show for a group of wheat farmers who found a kindred spirit in the Swheat Scoop litterbox.

Why wheat?

The Swheat Scoop factory in Detroit Lakes, Minn.
“What we discovered is that the wheat kernel itself has properties that make a great cat litter,” Hughes said. “We’re the only cat litter in the business that is made from a single ingredient. We don’t add chemicals. Nothing is added. It’s 100 percent wheat.”

Hughes estimated that the cat litter industry does about $1.3 billion worth of business a year, and 75 percent of that involves clay-based litter, which is not biodegradable. That’s why wheat is such an attractive alternative to eco-conscious consumers, whose numbers continue to grow.

“Wheat is 100 percent biodegradable,” Hughes said, who had worked for an ad agency in Fargo, N.D., before he got involved in Swheat Scoop.

“Consumers have choices about how to get rid of it. You can flush it in sewer and septic systems. You can compost it. You can put it in flower gardens and it will dissolve and return back to the earth. Or if you do throw it out, it will disintegrate and it won’t take up landfill space.”

For the first 15 years or so Swheat Scoop offered only a regular formula of wheat-based cat litter. However, a year and a half ago the company created a multi-cat formula.

Part of the process of turning wheat into cat litter.
“Today’s cat owner has 2.3 cats,” Hughes said, who reported that the new product now represents 30 to 35 percent of his company’s sales.

“We came up with a multi-cat formula. It has really caught on, again because a lot of people have more than one cat. We get letters from consumers. One lady said, ‘I never thought you could make your product better, but this is much better.’”

As with many natural products on the market, Hughes said Swheat Scoop gets a boost from advocates who use it and then spread the word, but the company also gets out there and pushes.

“Back in the beginning, the biggest method was word of mouth,” he said. “Once somebody tried our litter, usually they were convinced it was the best thing they ever used. Then they told their friends, who told their friends, and so on.

“Nowadays we also have a variety of print campaigns, and also radio advertising in major markets. We have a series of radio ads that are basically educational-based. They just talk about how Swheat Scoop is better for the environment and your cat. We leave it up to the consumer to find it wherever they normally shop.”

AT A GLANCE


Swheat Scoop

Location: Plant and Office, Detroit Lakes, Minn.

Owner: Farmers Union Industries LLC

Employees: 26

Years in Business: 17

Areas of Distribution/Business: North America and exporting to six countries

Company Mission: To produce the best wheat cat litter benefiting the cat, people and the planet.

Product/Business Categories: clumping cat litter, natural litters

Product/Business Lines: Swheat Scoop, Swheat Stall

Website: www.swheatscoop.com

The company also advertises the product in industry magazines, print consumer magazines, even organic gardening magazines. The two varieties of Swheat Scoop come in 14-, 25- and 40-pound bags. In addition, there is a Swheat Scoop disposable litterbox that comes in a 5-pound box, and a litter for small animals, which comes in a 10-pound bag.

Hughes said Swheat Scoop is readily available on shelves everywhere, save for much of Texas. The product is in independent and local stores, as well as in national pet chains, such as Petsmart and Petco, and Target stores and grocery chains. There is also a presence in natural food stores. Hughes said the company works through United Natural Foods Inc., one of the biggest distributors of natural, organic and specialty foods in the U.S.

Swheat Scoop offers some incentives, including a frequent bag program--buy 12, get the 13th free--that can be redeemed directly by the customer to the company through a coupon that is inside the bag.

“The stores like it because they don’t have to keep track,” Hughes said.

On the company’s website (www.swheatscoop.com), there is a link to the company’s Breeder Partner Program, which offers rewards for customers who make Swheat Scoop their exclusive litter brand.

Swheat Scoop also gets out and works with retailers.

“I’ve had a great time dealing with them,” said Lon Eikren, manager of Becker Pet and Garden in Hughes’ hometown of Detroit Lakes, Minn.

Eikren has been in business for about 13 years, he said, and has sold Swheat Scoop most of that time.

“We’ve worked together on a number of projects, promotions, in-store things,” he said. “They always help me when I have an event going on.”

Hughes lives about nine miles from Swheat Scoop’s manufacturing plant. The company has 20 employees working in two 10-hour shifts.

“We’re running 20 hours a day, five days a week,” he said. “I live on a lake. I drive 55 miles per hour to work. It’s a good life.” <HOME>


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