Millers in Washington reflect great change

by Morton Sosland
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When an industry association meets in Washington, even though the capital might be its home, it is customary for the program to focus on issues related to the federal government. This is especially the case this year with the new Obama administration and its initiatives on a number of fronts that promise and, yes, threaten intrusions into ways an industry operates. That the recent convention of the North American Millers’ Association in Washington devoted its attention almost exclusively to White House and congressional undertakings is in line with these expectations. Yet, this NAMA meeting also ranks on a couple of other counts — that the state of the milling industry, either wheat, oats or other grains, hardly was mentioned, and that the convention itself and especially the remarks by the NAMA chairman signified a break from a distant past when milling operated independently of other industries and associations.

So far as the state of milling itself is concerned, the absence of attention to a subject that seems central to any association is more positive for the industry and NAMA than might be initially thought. At this convention, the focus was on dealing with governmental actions that could negatively or positively affect milling. Unlike the industries and the financial businesses that have pressed Washington for multi-billion-dollar bail-outs, millers reflected a strikingly positive view of themselves and of their companies. If that had been understood or appreciated in the halls of power, it would have given the most worrying members of Congress or bureaucrats a look at how a business succeeds, even prospers, in the face of an economic downturn.

Satisfaction with milling’s current condition stems in large part from the way millers have exercised great skill in dealing with the very same wildly fluctuating markets that did in some of America’s largest industrial and financial companies. Rather than reflecting satisfaction with how the industry performs in these harsh times, millers look to NAMA to help provide leadership in areas where industry-wide efforts promise results. Presentations were made and steps are being undertaken in such widely diverse arenas as assuring continued U.S.-made food’s participation in foreign aid and assuring that new laws regarding food safety and traceability do not cause problems more severe than the ailments they are meant to cure.

In considering the disappearance of milling’s once highly vaunted independence, it is the focus on collaboration with allies in related industries that proves striking. Depending on one’s length of attendance at milling conventions, it’s not going too far back to remember the shock created by a leading baker just attending a millers’ meeting. Now, great pride is expressed in the many collaborations undertaken with organizations of bakers, of wheat producers, of the grain industry, of food manufacturers, and much else.

Indeed, the current NAMA chairman, John Miller, voiced well-deserved pride in his role in fostering these undertakings. He cited efforts where NAMA joined with one, two or more other organizations to achieve favorable outcomes. Mr. Miller called on members of the association to join in helping to make these collaborations a success. His schedule makes it clear that collaboration requires intense efforts by NAMA leadership. This direction also owes much to the staff of NAMA, especially the retiring president, Elizabeth (Betsy) Faga. This convention was her last in that position, and typical of her and of the way the association operates, hardly any mention was made of this important change during convention sessions.

Understatement has been the way of milling and its leadership for a long time. As different as this convention might have been, and as effective as NAMA has been in representing the industry, it is also apparent that milling and NAMA are in the process of great change. Assuring that milling in the future reflects a strongly positive viewpoint, while adapting to changes in the grain-based world, continue at the head of milling’s agenda.

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