CHICAGO — Impressive year-over-year earnings and sales growth during the first quarter of fiscal 2021 has executives at ADM even more optimistic than they were at the beginning of the year.

That optimism stems from “clear, favorable demand trends” for many of the company’s products as well as the company’s transition into the next phase of its strategic transformation, which will sharpen its focus on the two key pillars of productivity and innovation, said Juan Luciano, chairman and chief executive officer.

Net earnings attributable to ADM in the first quarter ended March 31 totaled $689 million, equal to $1.22 per share on the common stock, up 76% from $391 million, or 69¢ per share, in the same period a year ago.

Revenues for the first quarter surged 26%, climbing to $18.89 billion from $14.97 billion.

“I'm pleased to share with you results that demonstrate an outstanding start to 2021, building on our momentum from a record 2020,” Mr. Luciano said during an April 27 conference call with analysts. “We reported first-quarter adjusted earnings per share of $1.39, more than double the year-ago period. Adjusted segment operating profit was $1.2 billion, 86% higher than the first quarter of 2020 and our sixth consecutive quarter of year-over-year adjusted (operating profit) growth.”

Operating profit in the Ag Services and Oilseeds segment increased 84% in the first quarter of fiscal 2021, climbing to $777 million from $422 million. Ag services profit rose 27% during the quarter to $209 million, while crushing profit soared to $382 million from $70 million.

“Results were driven by a record Q1 for our North American origination team, which executed extremely well to capitalize on strong Chinese demand,” said Ray G. Young, executive vice president and chief financial officer. “As expected, results in South America were significantly lower versus the prior-year period. Farmer selling was lower versus the extremely aggressive pace in the year-ago quarter. Lower margins, including the impacts from the slightly delayed harvest and higher freight costs, also affected South American results.

Mr. Young said results in the quarter were affected by approximately $75 million in negative timing related to ocean freight positions.

Crushing, meanwhile, delivered “its best quarter ever” as the business leveraged its global footprint and diversified capabilities to capture strong execution margins in both soybean and softseed crushing, driven by robust vegetable oil demand and tight soybean stocks, Mr. Young said.

Operating profit in the Carbohydrate Solutions segment increased 280% in the first quarter to $259 million. Starches and sweeteners profit increased 124% during the quarter.

“The business managed risks exceptionally well, capitalizing on rising prices in the ethanol complex and favorable coal product values in an industry environment of improving margins and falling inventories,” Mr. Young said. “Corn oil results were significantly higher than the previous year, which have been impacted by substantial mark-to-market effects. In general, though demand for sweeteners and flour by the foodservice sector remained below the prior year, there were signs of acceleration in the month of March. Starch sales volumes remained solid on demand from industrial applications like packaging materials.”

In the Nutrition segment operating profit increased 8% to $154 million in the first quarter of fiscal 2021, up from $142 million a year ago. Within the segment, human nutrition profit improved to $128 million from $113 million, while animal nutrition decreased to $26 million from $29 million.

Mr. Young said flavors had an “exceptional” quarter, driven by strong sales across various market segments, especially beverages.

“Favorable product mix in North America, improved margins in EMEA and accelerated income from a customer agreement also contributed results, partially offset by certain specific expenses,” he said. “Specialty Ingredients results were lower, primarily driven by demand factors, including the effect of pantry loading in the previous year quarter and shifts in demand for texturants.”

Looking ahead, Mr. Luciano said ADM has its sights set on the next stage of its transformation. What began in 2011 as a commitment to specific strategic goals and financial metrics focused on the 3 Cs (capital discipline, cost reduction and cash generation) will now transition to a sharpening of focus on the two strategic pillars of productivity and innovation.

“Our productivity efforts will take many actions that were part of our optimized and drive focuses and boost them to the next level,” Mr. Luciano explained. “The productivity pillar will include: advancing the roles of our centers of excellence, or COEs, in procurement, supply chain and operations to deliver additional efficiencies across the enterprise; the continued rollout of our One ADM business transformation program and implementation of improved standardized business processes; and increasing our use of technology, analytics and automation at our production facilities in our offices and with our customers.

“Our innovation activities will help us accelerate growth and profitability, not just for the near term, but importantly, for the long term. We'll expand and invest in improving the customer experience, including leveraging our producer relationships and enhancing our use of state-of-the-art digital technology to help our customers grow; sustainability-driven innovation, which encompasses the full range of our products, solutions, capabilities and commitments to serve our customers' needs; and growth initiatives, including organic growth to support additional capacity and meet growing demand, opportunistic M&A and increased leveraging of our very successful venture capital portfolio.”