Flour output differences by states

by Morton Sosland
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In analyzing data covering wheat flour production by U.S. mills in the 2015 calendar year, the February 16 issue of this magazine calls attention to obstacles that arise in comparing state-by-state information with prior years. These problems do not stem from the compilations released by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture agency that has won only praise for its first effort in taking over this series. The new NASS data differ substantially from the prior four years compiled by the North American Millers’ Association and also to a lesser degree from earlier Census Bureau compilations. The NAMA data were assembled differently, while Census statistics reflect different state groupings.

Yet, having acknowledged these discrepancies, there is still great merit in examining milling operations among various states and regions. Not only is such information of value to individual milling companies in analyzing plant and regional operations and locations, but it is significant for the guidance provided about area demand trends for wheat and, yes, for flour and the many consumer products that utilize flour as a key ingredient.

Kansas presents one of the important problems in making comparisons. NAMA, in compiling the data between 2011 and 2014, grouped Kansas with other states. In effect, this means that there is no output number for Kansas mills for four years. Yet, even the limited information reveals that Kansas, once the national leader among states in flour production, has fallen to third place behind California and Minnesota. Kansas turned out 10 per cent of national output in 2000, the turning point in centuries, but fell to 6.4 per cent in 2015, a finding from the NASS report. The latter output fall did not improve Kansas’ operating rates, which averaged 76.6 per cent of daily capacity last year, compared with 85.1 per cent in 2000. All U.S. mills ran at 85.5 per cent of capacity in 2015, against 89.6 per cent in 2000.

California probably became the state leader in producing flour several years before 2015, but it is the NASS report that definitely affirms this standing. It was not until 2007 that flour output data were issued for California, and its running time in that year averaged 94.3 per cent, contrasted with 81.1 per cent in 2015, while its share of national output, at 7.1 per cent in 2015, is unchanged from eight years earlier. Among findings these numbers emphasize is that California mills did not add to their capacity but gained the leadership because of cutbacks in Kansas. The same may be said of Minnesota, which moved to second.

Using state data to examine what occurred in U.S. flour milling during the first 15 years of the 21st century describes an industry undergoing changes in specific areas that appear greater compared with a rather steady national assessment. U.S. flour output in 2015 was 424,894,000 hundredweights, against 421,270,000 in 2000; daily capacity totaled 1,617,829 hundredweights in 2015, against 1,530,670 at the century’s start, and running time averaged 85.5 per cent of daily capacity, against 89.6 per cent earlier. Those changes are best described as minimal. A different picture emerges in looking at state shifts. As reflected by shares of national data, substantial daily capacity decreases occurred in Missouri and Pennsylvania, while increases of at least half a percentage point occurred in Ohio, North Dakota, Texas, North Carolina and Michigan. As compared with earlier periods when capacity expansion focused along the West and East coasts, it is noteworthy how more of this period’s additions were in central parts. Relatively small gains appeared in wheat-producing regions.

Many more observations, particularly in comparisons of running time as well as differences among states in running time compared with the national average are possible with these output numbers. Emerging is a picture of a key American food industry undergoing dynamic change on a state and regional level even while national numbers seem to portray a different flour milling industry.

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