The first in-person meeting in two years convened by the North American Millers’ Association was a study in contrasts. Joy was palpable among those able to gather at the lovely Boca Raton Beach Club hotel. Similarly, millers in attendance appeared gratified by the financial health of the industry, particularly given all the economic disruptions of the past two years.
Amid these positives, the millers confronted an overflowing checklist of challenges, both in the meeting’s thoughtfully curated general session and at the group’s annual meeting. Jane DeMarchi, NAMA’s energetic and upbeat president, said the objective in putting the program together was to address issues that are top of mind for millers now and as the industry tries to foresee the post-COVID world.
Not all the topics related directly to milling. For example, a fascinating presentation addressed the growing problem of cybersecurity breaches in manufacturing. Brian Johnson, an executive with AGH in Wichita, Kan., warned the millers of the pitfalls of thinking their businesses were too small to hit the radar of would-be hackers. He emphasized that while technological protections are vital to cybersecurity, between 90% and 95% of attacks are through employees rather than through systems. He cited other data showing business leaders identify cybersecurity as their top governance concern and yet many have not stepped up their investment in cybersecurity defenses. Key to success, Mr. Johnson said, is for senior management to be involved to ensure processes and investments are commensurate with the risks companies face.
In another “macro” presentation, Scott Colbert, who heads fixed income for Commerce Bank in Kansas City, warned the group that expectations inflation will be short-lived is wishful thinking. Noting that about a third of the Consumer Price Index is housing costs (about 40% of core CPI), Mr. Colbert said rents are going up and will continue rising for the next couple of years, making it unlikely inflation will return to pre-pandemic levels soon.
In terms of industry issues, participation on the program by the leaders of the American Bakers Association and the National Association of Wheat Growers was a move rich with symbolic importance. Robb MacKie of the ABA said the partnership between the ABA and NAMA was “stronger than ever.” As an example of the importance of such partnerships right now, Mr. MacKie described the work of a coalition of 65 food and beverage groups that have worked together for years and since March 2020 have consulted with federal authorities to remove obstacles to the food industry in efforts to keep supermarket shelves stocked with products like bread. He offered a hopeful view of the baking business, predicting that pent up innovation would be evident in a wave of new products from the baking industry.
At the other end of the wheat-based foods chain, Chandler Goule discussed a threat NAWG sees to wheat acreage if the government develops programs to encourage sustainable agriculture. Mr. Goule said most wheat growers already have adopted sustainable/regenerative practices and described several environmental benefits of wheat production. These include the durable crop residue that protects soil from erosion, improves soil quality and lowers weed pressure. Winter wheat offers living cover to protect soil in the winter. Because wheat already has a smaller carbon footprint than other sources, it could be thought such programs would encourage wheat plantings. Perversely, government programs in the past have paid growers only for incremental improvements. Were such a system applied to regenerative agriculture, growers would be faced with incentives to plow up their fields (releasing carbon into the atmosphere) and to sustainably plant crops that almost certainly would have a higher carbon footprint than wheat.
Whether because of moves in Washington to combat climate change or to find the best path forward on a checkoff program for flour-based foods, the need for the grain, milling and baking sectors to work collaboratively has never been greater. While finding common ground on every issue of concern across the grain chain is, of course, not possible, the cooperative spirit on display at the NAMA annual meeting was an auspicious sign