Photo by David Grinnell
Owensboro Grain, founded in 1906, has grown and evolved since the time when the main companies in town included buggy makers, wagon manufacturers and blacksmiths. In the past 115 years, the family-founded business has expanded from primarily processing corn and wheat to offering USP Pharmaceutical grade refined glycerin in a biodiesel facility.
The O’Bryan family, who founded Owensboro Grain, has experienced much success in the community and beyond, increasing manufacturing based largely on the demands of consumers and the current market. While they used to primarily provide white corn, yellow corn, and wheat to local distillers and mills, today they are shipping nationwide.
Executive Vice President John Wright started at Owensboro Grain in 1984, joining his family business after graduating from college.
“I always knew I wanted to be part of the company,” Wright said. “Quite a bit has changed in the industry since then. We are able to produce different products that benefit the company, which in turn benefits and majorly impacts people’s lives.”
Wright can remember when a shift occurred in the primary diet of Americans in the late 1980’s, causing a shift in production for this company in response.
Around the world, people were starting to change their diets and eat chicken in greater quantities than beef.
“People began eating more poultry in their diet,” Wright said. “It became more economical to raise chickens. What we were producing was not geared to enable them to grow very efficiently. We switched production to make a feed that was more conducive to the poultry diet.”
Wright says they built a plant that produced feed for chickens, responding to the current needs of that time, something they have continued to do over the past few decades.
“My great grandfather started Owensboro Grain in 1906—mainly buying corn and selling it. I worked for my father at a feed mill that we had. We are always developing and working on plans. We are always thinking of what we could do next,” Wright said.
The progression in recent years is quite extensive, with several updates to the company before the pandemic hit. In 2007, Owensboro Grain built an oil refinery to finish oil and sell it to food companies.
According to their website, “In January 2014, the fourth generation continued this tradition by first commissioning a Prime Power CHO (Combined Heat and Power) CoGen facility to produce 100 percent of the power needs for our plant.”
By 2019, they opened a plant to produce soy-based wax used to make candles. This gave them an opportunity to market soy-based lubricants, solvents and waxes produced at Owensboro Grain.
This new plant could produce 150 million pounds of wax a year, using 10 million bushels of soybeans, which in turn protects those bushels of soybeans from tariffs in other countries. Soybean wax is safer for the environment than paraffin wax, which is made from petroleum.
As far as their impact locally, Wright feels that offering jobs within the community is something they can be proud of.
“As we have diversified to make more products, we have been able to employ more people,” Wright said.
During the pandemic, Owensboro Grain continued to produce and sell.
“We are an essential business, so we continued to operate. The impact we had was substantial, but it never shut us down. It slowed us down but did not shut us down,” Wright said.
As far as what fuels his passion, Wright says he is an industrialist, something he continues to enjoy.
“I like to build plants. If you want to stay in business, you have to constantly think of new ideas and things to do,” Wright said. And after 125 years of operations, that’s exactly what Owensboro Grains continues to do.