KANSAS CITY — From triggering increased wheat plantings near its newest flour mill to helping baking customers navigate a completely transformed product innovation landscape, team members of the ADM Milling and Baking Solutions team said its business has come together over the past three years in a way to effect meaningful change all along the wheat foods chain.

Thirteen members of the team, nearly all with extensive experience in their respective areas of expertise and all new in the last three years to flour milling, participated in a roundtable interview recently with Milling & Baking News.

Over the course of the interview, the milling team shared progress the company has made toward its strategic objectives and how milling is enhanced by tapping into ADM’s broader resources. They also expressed their aspirations to further elevate the company’s position among its customers. All members of the team became part of the milling business at the time or after the business was moved to ADM’s corporate offices in Decatur, Ill.,  from Overland Park, Kan.

About the same time the move occurred in 2019, ADM started up its new flour mill in Mendota, Ill. In opening a large new mill, ADM was doing more than replacing aging facilities sub-optimally located in the cities of Chicago and Minneapolis, said Joseph Greene, commercial director, ADM Milling and Baking Solutions. In addition to dramatically enhancing the efficiency of its milling operations in the area, the company sought to elevate its position with its area wheat suppliers and its customers.

“We have been leveraging that investment to provide our customers with better pricing power and to be able to continue to provide the farmer in the area with a better outlet for their wheat,” he said.

In making the determination to build in Mendota, ADM concluded that wheat plantings in that area of Illinois would increase.

“When we came in, we said, look when we build this mill, we expect increased wheat acres in the area,” he said. “Three years later, I can tell you we have seen increased wheat acres in the area. The farmer has actually grown wheat to put back in their rotation to help profitability.”

Cady J. Roberts, commercial director, highlighted work ADM continues to do to upgrade its production asset base. Over the course of 2022, the company “completely gutted and modernized” the B mill at its Camp Hill, Pa., location, she said.

The project was completed in eight months in what she described as an extraordinarily challenging supply chain environment. The B mill specializes in the milling of soft wheat for pretzel and other snack manufacturers in the town just southwest of Harrisburg, Pa.

“It’s an example of our reinvesting in the business and bringing up the technology and automation to state-of-the-art,” she said. “We had almost 100-year-old technology that was outdated. The project helps our efficiencies, decreases our operational complexities and raises the uptime on the mill to better service our customers.”

The Camp Hill project exemplifies the different ways the milling business is tapping into its parent company’s resources, said Michael Means, vice president of operations for milling and ag services. He said the company operates numerous centers of excellence (COE), including a wheat milling COE comprising a “team fully dedicated to our group, actively involved in the design and scope of that (Camp Hill) project.”

ADM’s capital expenditures COE was responsible for taking the fully designed project from the technology team and secured the bids for vendors that executed the project.

“I came in at the tail end of the project, but what makes me so proud is that there were 20,000 hours of work, multiple contractors that the team was trying to manage, and there were zero safety incidents,” he said.

In some cases, customers have found working with ADM Milling and Baking Solutions has streamlined/simplified the ingredient purchasing function while strengthening confidence in the supply chain, said Chris Gillmar, director of sales.

“For mid-sized, smaller buyers, they’re already buying a lot of other ingredients, whether that be high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, starch, etc.,” he said. “So being able to have those complementary products in our portfolio where they have one person that they’re talking to from ADM is very beneficial for them.”

Resonating with customers perhaps more than in the past, Mr. Gillmar said, are the strategic locations of ADM’s mills together with what he touted as a “world class logistics and transportation network.”

“A lot of the challenges the market has experienced lately are supply chain challenges,” he said. “There’s no one better in this industry at supply chain than ADM. We’re as integrated as you possibly can be. We don’t grow the wheat, but we’re able to bring that wheat on an ADM rail car into an ADM elevator into an ADM truck into an ADM mill and back out, potentially on an ADM truck as well. That’s pretty special.”

He said the company is working to deliver more combined value from its 20 mills by moving from what he called a singular mindset of individual mills to a network in which the mills complement one another. The shift helps give the company and its customers the peace of mind to know if a single mill has production challenges, another mill is qualified to fill in and cover for the mill that is down.

Another change ADM’s resources leave it well positioned to address is what Tim McHenry, vice president of origination and risk management – corn and wheat, described as grower connectivity. From encouraging growers to adopt regenerative agricultural practices to procuring and milling identity preserved wheat, ADM benefits from a legacy of strong relationships with its grower suppliers, he said.

Mr. McHenry said his focus for the past 12 to 18 months has been on better leveraging grain storage assets that are adjacent to the company’s flour mills. He said those grain elevators offer an opportunity for more direct farmer relationships aligning with the company’s regenerative agriculture corporate goals. As milling moves forward in its grain procurement/farmer connectivity objectives, the company collaborates with its Agricultural Services and Oilseeds (AS&O) division, he added.

Milling and Baking Solutions is energized in its efforts by signals from customers demonstrating an appreciation for the ability to purchase wheat directly from growers rather than other grain companies, Mr. McHenry said. Coordination with AS&O is facilitated by the ag services group’s physical proximity to milling on the Decatur trading floor.

“I think our team is the first link in that chain that gets us those farm direct touch points that the consumers are asking for,” he said. “So, we are asking how will we build on our existing program toward a potential identity preserved program? More immediately, we are committed to getting quality wheat into the mills. We want to source it the right way, but we certainly see value in sourcing that directly from the farmer. It’s that type of thing we’re working on with AS&O quite a bit.”

The origination and risk management group also helps bakers and other customers with risk management.

“All the things that have gone on overseas — geopolitical conflict, tough, tough markets to trade, the need for helping navigate some of those things — our team has certainly been trying to put our best foot forward the last year and a half in providing customer risk management tools for flour customers,” Mr. McHenry said.

James Scher, director of sales – specialty solutions, for Milling and Baking Solutions, offered an example of how the company’s standing with the grower community is furthering ADM’s objectives around connectivity. In early December he spoke at a conference attended by a few thousand growers, discussing the opportunities to sell a full complement of commodities to ADM, including soybeans and corn. Several dozen ADM origination team members were present as well.

“While we spent an afternoon talking to these growers, we signed up another 24,000 acres into the milling regenerative agriculture program, was just milling,” he said. “These are growers who are already selling to ADM’s elevator system, signing up for regen ag.”

He said the signups demonstrated the relationship its origination team members, spread across the United States, have with the grower community and make him confident ADM will continue to progress in expanding regenerative agriculture partnerships.

“Right now ADM as a whole has just over 1 million acres in North America under contract in its regenerative program,” Mr. Scher said. “In milling, we’ve got about 170,000 acres and look to expand that to about 300,000 in 2023.”

He said many growers who supply ADM have not yet looked at the program but are likely to participate. Growers who sign up commit to collecting and reporting data about cultivation practices and also give ADM a first right of refusal on grain purchases. The regenerative agriculture program continues taking shape, Mr. Scher said.

“What we are asking them to do is to continue on their journey on regenerative agriculture practices,” he said. “What more can you do over the coming years? We’ll help incentivize them to make those changes. Whether it’s nutrient management, complex crop rotation, cover crops, no till, how do we move them along that continuum in the future? And really what we ask for is their commitment to the project, their commitment to soil health, their commitment to improving the environment.”

A focus on soil health tends to resonate more powerfully with growers, he said.

Even as the company rallies its internal resources to build its grower connectivity, ADM also taps local connections and markets where it operates to advance its goals, said Paula LaBine, marketing director at ADM.

“One area where we’ve really set ourselves apart, is our use of conservation agronomist groups like Ducks Unlimited, Practical Famers of Iowa and others to bring expertise and provide education in addition to financial incentives to ensure growers have success with implementing new practices,” Ms. LaBine said. “Those folks are really close to the local producers as well, and so our ability to increase our acreage and influence practices to be implemented faster is enhanced by those local relationships.”

Ms. LaBine said the combination of ADM’s origination team together with the conservation agronomy partners elevate the company’s confidence it will reach its sustainability objectives.

Customers are taking note, Mr. Scher said. A major baking company aggressively pursuing a regenerative agriculture program was at the growers’ conference where the 24,000 acres were enrolled. The baker was impressed, he said.

“And we have another 8 to 10 partners, with a lot of very large customers for projects that we’ll bring in next year in that regen space,” he said.

ADM as a corporation in recent years, with acquisitions like the Wild Flavors business, has been shedding its identity as strictly a low-cost producer of commodity processed grains and instead has sought to build its business of value-added ingredients. Since its move to Decatur, the milling business has accelerated its pursuit of value-added opportunities, Mr. Scher said. Such opportunities already have been on hand thanks to the range of specialty ingredients ADM procures or processes, he added, noting that the company is exploring with customers a range of possibilities.

“We bolt on our (flour milling to the) wholesome ingredients group that sells ancient grains and seeds, pulse beans, etc., and derivatives,” Mr. Scher said. “How do we innovate and how do we roll those products into our portfolio specialty offerings up to the customer to really deliver more of a bakery solution rather than just selling commodity flour? How do we become more value added to those customers and a better partner for them in their business and through that connection, collaborate with the rest of ADM — whether it’s our BioSolutions group doing flour or product blend that includes probiotics and prebiotics or something or reduced-carb flour or something like that? We are committed to answering those challenges and opportunities that our customers have that perhaps we weren’t looking at as carefully before when we were more of a commodity flour mentality organization.”

ADM is expanding in specialty milled products from a strong base, said Mark Gergen, commercial director. He described the company’s exploration of new avenues in mixes and other products as “renewed interest in our specialty assets over the last couple of years.”

Currently, the company offers bakery mix, corn meal products like grits and meal, baker mix, dried cornmeal products, wheat starch protein products, sorghum flour, malted barley flour and bulgur.

Expanding its bakery mix products by introducing blending in innovative ingredients developed in ADM research facilities may be one path the company pursues, Mr. Scher said.

“None of our competition really has that capability to bring this full portfolio of offerings and the full resources of ADM to bear as effectively as we are,” he said.

He said traditional bakery mix manufacturers have been successful in establishing and preserving market share over an extended period of time but have tended to “not be as innovative and flexible and as responsive as ADM.”

As ADM probes the opportunities for value-added bakery mix, the market has seemed receptive, Mr. Scher said. He said several of the largest mix manufacturers have the traditional mix market “somewhat locked up.”

“We’re seeing a lot of positive response to that where we’re helping solve problems that maybe they weren’t getting that answer from others,” he said. “So it’s still early, but we’re very bullish on it and really feeling like we’ve got a sweet spot in the marketplace that we’re hitting.”

Part of bringing together ADM’s various mills into closer coordination has been a rationalization of the company’s flour brands to be more manageable both for the company and its customers, Ms. Roberts said. Having been aggregated through the acquisition of numerous milling companies, ADM has accumulated a large number of brands Ms. Roberts said were not carefully enough managed over the years.

“We had what we called a mismatched portfolio,” she said. “There were a lot of legacy names, but maybe one location what they are calling a certain flour wasn’t the exact same name and specification at another location.”

Certain brands are being retired, but more importantly the company earlier this year introduced the Harvest Edge brand, developing brand messaging around it.

Moving away from a hodgepodge of different brands with different specs, Ms. Roberts said the company is focusing on core and premium patent flours, organizing them to characteristics sought by consumers and consolidating brands.

“So now, when you get us to Harvest Edge standard bakers flour from Mendota, maybe you’re going to go to Camp Hill as a national customer, you’re going to get the same branding the same look the same feel, the same bag sizing, pallet configuration uniformity across our network,” Ms. Roberts said.

For much of its business, the company offers standard bakers flour, premium bakers flour, high gluten bakers flour and a whole wheat category. Specifications like protein and ash are presented more clearly to customers.

For many years, customers have been increasingly relying on ingredient suppliers for help with innovation, prompting many processors to invest in innovation centers to facilitate collaboration. Fundamental changes in innovation make such collaborations more important than ever, said Todd Jensen, vice president of innovation for Milling and Baking Solutions.

“In the past, innovation was a very proactive type of endeavor,” Mr. Jensen said. “Food companies would invest in technical capabilities, and they would go after a certain space, develop products, create IP (intellectual property), get themselves some insulation in the marketplace and then talk to consumers about ‘Hey, here’s dot, dot, dot — our new product.’ That’s completely flipped. It’s really the consumers that are pushing for the innovation, and they’re pushing companies to say, ‘This is what we want. This is what we need,’ and you can’t follow that same technical model or you won’t be fast enough. They need to have a solution a lot faster, and that’s where we can come in. We can invest in the technical capabilities. So as an example, you know if the customer wants to develop a better-for-you bread with pre- and probiotics, you know they can hire technical experts and train them and be able to develop that and maybe three or four years from now they’ll have a solution. Or they can give that project to us, and I can pull in resources from our nutrition team, our technical experts who support the nutrition group. I can pull in our microbiome technical experts that can pair with our baking experts and come up with a product for them and show them those prototypes. So we can be an extension of their R&D team, an extension of their product development team. I’ve never seen another organization that has the technical depth and breadth in the food area that ADM has, and I think we can bring that together, bring it to our customers differently.”

The value of ADM’s research work has been enhanced both by the sunsetting of research departments and because of a broadening in the kinds of foods incorporating functional ingredients, Ms. LaBine said.

“Once upon a time leading food companies had those principal scientists who did that kind of work, and we’re not seeing that anymore,” she said. “But ADM has invested. The power of these ingredients — they’re starting to show up in all manner of products. It was really beverage for the longest time, but you’re seeing that kind of crossover into specialized nutrition and things like that, in products that didn’t historically have that kind of halo. So I think it’s by virtue of the technology and the fact that you’re seeing that show up in other places that it isn’t as much of a stretch for the consumer anymore. Take a look at low carb, keto friendly breads and just how far that’s come in such a short period of time and how excellent they are. Consumers are buying those types of products in droves. Consumers buying a low-carb product today — they’re doing it for like metabolic health purposes, as in, ‘I want to change my microbiome.’ Those ingredients would also make a lot of sense, are credible in those products. We’re excited about that.”

Increasingly, ADM is configured to offer complete solutions to customers seeking to innovate, Mr. Jensen said. Aspects of what the company is pursuing remain aspirational, he said.

The ultimate objective, he said, is to translate its capabilities into “something that’s more turnkey for the customer.”

Practically speaking, this may be done with custom blending that incorporates “next level ingredients,” he said.

“That’s the plug in with that nutrition group, and our job is to really make that easy,” he said. “So yes, we have the nutrition team and you can buy those ingredients directly from them, but for the baking industry in particular, it’s a matter not only that these ingredients are really on point for the consumer, but how do we make products that taste great and have the right texture. We are determined to bring all of those capabilities to bear.”