Little or no pain should be experienced by grain-based foods, and flour milling specifically, in considering the many implications of preliminary data issued by the Census Bureau on U.S. flour production in 2008. Yes, there’s no denying the disappointment that may be accorded the basic finding that output of wheat flour dipped from the previous year. That the reduction of 0.6 per cent ended four years of increases may not be brushed aside. Yet, even that casts a positive aspect when it is viewed against the performance of the overall economy in 2008. When compared with the way other industries fared in response to the severe business declines, grain-based foods should be pleased by this performance. Production and consumption increases in the prior four years made the industry stand out, and 2008, still without final data, appears to signal more a moderation of previous gains than a reversal.

That is especially the case when 2008 flour production data are analyzed beyond raw numbers. Yes, flour output was down, placed at 416,264,000 hundredweights, against 418,836,000 in 2007. A major part of that decrease, nearly three-quarters, was accounted for by a reduction in output of durum semolina. The latter drop, of nearly 6 per cent, is probably explained by the drop in food service business that has been hard hit by the economic slowdown. As a result, production of wheat flour other than semolina in 2008 was practically the same as in the prior year, which is good news for wholesale baking and other grain-based foods segments that use wheat flour as the basic ingredient.

Detailed data are still awaited to allow measurement of domestic disappearance. Early numbers show that exports fell by 2 million hundredweights from 2007 while imports were unchanged. This indicates little or no change in domestic use. Considering the rapid consumption gains of recent years, maintaining the level reached in 2007 — total disappearance of 418.8 million hundredweights and per capita consumption of 138 pounds — would be remarkable in light of how consumers are reacting to the economy’s downturn. It hardly seems possible that per capita will be maintained.

As is almost always the case with the annual flour production data, milling industry developments are revealed that reflect changes across grain-based foods. Most interesting was California passing Kansas as the leading flour producing state in the fourth quarter of 2008. But for the entire year, Kansas maintained its lead, even with a decrease of 5.2 per cent in the year’s output. Each of the three leading milling states showed reductions as well, with Kansas followed by decreases of 3.3 per cent in California and 4.3 per cent in Minnesota. Among the main milling states, Ohio once again stood out with an increase in 2008 production of 5 per cent. The state groupings that were unveiled for the first time last year showed relatively small shifts among regions in flour production, leading to the conclusion that the homogenization of flour milling, once an industry with distinct regional differences, has nearly run its course.

The one record showing up in 2008, the new peak in flour extraction, may be credited to a variety of factors that combine to make this single number a portrait of the many elements that combine to make milling such a unique industry. Four different factors may be credited for average extraction rising to 76.5 per cent of the weight of wheat ground, up from 75.6 per cent in 2007 and 73.8 per cent as recently as 2001. They are, in no particular order, the continued growth, albeit at a reduced rate, of whole wheat flour production, advances in milling know-how and technology, shifts in the varieties of wheat being grown and Mother Nature. And while milling and grain-based foods are impacted by numerous other forces, this list is enough to emphasize the complexity of the industry and the skills required to be a successful milling executive.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Milling and Baking News, March 10, 2009, starting on Page 7. Click

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