Anyone dealing with statistics that are central to measuring an industry’s well-being knows the trepidation that may be caused by changes in the compiling source. As this page has declared many times, hardly any number provides more important information reaching through the grain-based foods industry than the single measure of wheat flour production. Assembling reliable wheat flour output data began early in the 20th century as part of the gathering of industry statistics launched by the Bureau of the Census of the Department of Commerce.
Nearly a century of milling data compiled by the federal government closed at mid-2011 when budgetary cuts prompted the Census Bureau to decide to stop its flour reports. Thanks to quick-witted leadership in the North American Millers’ Association, Veris Consulting, Inc. was retained to continue quarterly reporting. That process has continued through 2014 with hardly any hiccups interrupting the flow of information needed to understand both output and utilization of this essential food ingredient.
Now, beginning with the first quarter of this year, the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has taken on this reporting on a quarterly basis in response to the Department’s need to have accurate measures of utilization of wheat, one of this country’s major crops, as well as gauging how flour is consumed in important aspects of food making. Specific responsibility for the data has been placed in the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), the agency that has earned much praise over the years for its handling of crop production, stocks and similar reports. In effect, quarterly flour output reporting could not be in more highly regarded hands.
While no reason existed for questioning the reports issued in the past three and a half years, it is especially good news that the data that NASS assembled for the two last quarters of 2014 closely matched what NAMA had estimated. Based on NASS figures for the last two quarters and NAMA for the first half of the year, total flour production in 2014 was 424,949,000 hundredweights. That compares with 425,156,000 from NAMA estimates alone, after modifications to bring the latter to reflect participation by all of milling. The tiny difference between the two totals provides the basis for expressing earnest thanks to both NAMA and Veris for doing a superb job of compiling these data from a nationwide industry.
Important changes have been made by NASS in the information it is seeking and will publish on a quarterly basis. That NASS has added wheat grind to what NAMA reported was anticipated, considering how important this measure is to analyzing milling’s use of wheat. It needs to be noted that separate data on whole wheat flour and durum semolina production allow a closer examination than previously of wheat use for commercial baking as well as for family flour. These data also allow for an assessment of flour extraction, reflecting the amount of wheat needed to produce a hundredweight of flour, a gauge that is often affected as much by the quality of a crop in one season or in a specific region as by the equipment in a mill. Whole wheat flour production, shown in this report as just 6% of total flour production, also has a boosting effect on extraction.
Without delving into the many other changes adopted by NASS, including the resumption of separate reporting for Kansas and dropping Alabama and Louisiana for confidentiality reasons, it is essential to examine how flour output has begun this year. For the first 2015 quarter, NASS placed production at 103,116,000 hundredweights, compared with 103,924,000 in the same period of last year, a decrease of less than 1%. This is the fifth successive year in which January-March output has been within a fraction of 103 million. Except for that tiny decrease this first-quarter report is deemed a fine change in how milling operations are examined on a quarterly basis.