I grew up working on the Huso farm south of Aneta. We raised several different crops, but I remember wheat. I planted it, I sprayed it, I swathed it, I combined it. I knew it. And after several years away from the farm, I still knew wheat when I returned. At least I thought I did.
In February of 2009 I was elected as the Steele County representative to the North Dakota Wheat Commission. The purpose of the NDWC is to "sustain and expand use of wheat grown by North Dakota farmers by creating worldwide market opportunities through efforts including opening overseas markets, reinforcing consumption of grain foods, developing new wheat varieties and influencing international import and export policies." Each county in the state has a representative. There are six districts in North Dakota from which the county reps elect a Commissioner. In addition to the six elected commissioners, there is a seventh commissioner who is appointed by the governor. The board of commissioners develop policy and programs, oversee their implementation and approve budget expenditures.
In March of 2021, I was elected by the county reps for District 5 to be the Commissioner. I was very proud and still am. In addition to my knowledge of wheat from when I was a "young farmer", I wrote a thesis in the Ag Economics graduate program at NDSU that focused on the economic impact from a potential release of genetically modified wheat. For my thesis I researched many companies that were involved with the wheat industry. I felt that I had the inside scoop. In addition to that, I have raised both Hard Red Spring and Hard Red Winter wheats on our farm. Who could have more knowledge than me???
Enter the International Grains Program (IGP) at Kansas State University. Another NDWC Commissioner and I had the opportunity to attend a Flour Milling Short Course in Manhattan, KS. The purpose of this course is to help participants understand the basic principles of flour milling and the relationship between wheat quality and performance. Our schedule for the Tuesday through Thursday was classroom time in the mornings and laboratory time in the afternoon. I was looking forward to learning some more about wheat, so I was ready for this course. At least I thought I was.
The course started Tuesday morning at 8 a.m. There were 12 attendees from wheat commissions across the central and western US. The leader of the course was Shawn Thiele, a graduate of Kansas State in Milling Science and Management. In addition to working in the milling industry for 11 years, Shawn has been the associate director of IGP and the curriculum manager for flour milling and grain processing. After introductions, we dove into the course material. Almost instantly, I realized that this was going to be more intense than I had anticipated.
The presentation started off with an overview of global wheat economics. Then we jumped right into why we were there: to learn about flour milling. Mr. Thiele gave us education on cleaning wheat prior to milling. The main reason for cleaning is safety for employees, food safety, and the processing equipment. Also, dust and chaff control along with overall quality are key factors of why cleaning is so important. The types of cleaners used to separate unwanted material are numerous - and I mean numerous. But Shawn made it clear that clean wheat coming into the mill means higher quality flour leaving the mill. We then learned about conditioning, tempering, and the systems used to optimize those critical components to help maximize high quality flour production.
Then we moved on to the basics of milling. Before attending this course, I would've told you that milling is grinding the wheat, sifting it to obtain flour, then bagging the flour and selling it. Easy, right? In theory it is easy, but in functionality it is much more intricate. We were shown a milling flow diagram of what we were going to be doing in the afternoon - actually milling some tempered wheat.
We continued to learn about milling systems and terminology. Little did we know that we were preparing ourselves to become the people who ultimately purchase the wheat grain we produce: millers.
After lunch we went to Schellenberger Hall to practice what we had just learned that morning. On a small scale we learned more of the practical side of the milling process.
My fellow commissioner from ND, Jim Bahm, and I worked together to mill Hard Red Spring Wheat into flour. And it wasn't the process I initially had in my head of "grind, sift, bag, sell." We went through several iterations with the roller machines to grind the kernel and we had several different sizes of screens to use to sift the products that come from the milling machines.
There were six two person teams that each had a different variety of wheat. In mills, millers try to extract as much flour as possible and still meet customer specifications. Sometimes that might be low to mid 70’s and sometimes that could be in the low 80’s as well. Generally speaking though, when making a refined white flour, the extraction rate is typically in the mid to upper 70’s. The average extraction rate for U.S. mills in 2020 was 77.3%. The below picture shows the six different classes of wheat after the milling process was completed. For your information, our milling process follows the milling flow diagram that I posted just a few pictures earlier.
Without trying to brag, Jim and I finished the milling process with the highest extraction rate in the group: 69%!!!
We had free tickets to a Kansas State men's basketball game on Tuesday night, but dare I say that my energy level was near depleted after the milling process. No game, but supper and sleep suited me just fine.
Wednesday morning we all arrived back at the IGP Institute and started learning about more details in the milling process. Specifically, Shawn Thiele was covering the importance of quality of flour. It was very interesting to learn the demands of bakers for the detailed specifications they require in the flour they've contracted. We had learned a great deal about milling on Tuesday, but today's lessons were more on a practical approach in regards to the size of an actually milling facility.
We learned about roll grinding and roller systems, the use of airflow and screens for purification, using sieving motion and sifters to separate different products within the overall milling system. Finally, that morning we learned about calculating extraction rates and using the dry matter ratio to adjust attributes to a specific moisture basis. I hate to say this, but some of the math went in one ear and out the other. But the coffee was delicious!
That afternoon, our class went to the Hal Ross Flour Mill to watch full-scale milling in process. What a learning experience!
After arriving at the mill, we were given a quick overview of the mill. It is a state-of-the-art pilot scale mill that uses the same full-scale equipment and control systems as a commercial mill. The Hal Ross Flour Mill is used for teaching, research, and industry training. The mill includes grain receiving, different cleaning systems, conditioning and tempering systems. The milling system which included grinding rolls, purifiers, and sifters, all controlled in a high-tech control room. Here are a few pictures from the mill:
Two days complete and one more to go. I'm starting to think I don't know as much as I thought I did.
On Thursday, the session was more focused on flour and baking. Mr. Thiele gave a great presentation on the impact of wheat grade and quality on milling performance. Following that, Fran Churchill gave a presentation on wheat and flour blending. As farmers, we know that elevators consistently blend wheat to meet the contract specifications of who they are delivering to. Likewise, millers consistently blend wheat AND/OR flour to meet the contract specifications required by the purchaser. And to wrap up the morning discussion, Dr. Debi Rogers discussed flour functionality and flour and dough testing. Dr. Rogers is an adjunct assistant professor at KSU and knows the composition of wheat flour like the back of her hand.
Dr. Rogers then discussed the differences in flour from the different varieties of wheat. That is where idea of blending flours came back into my head. In order to meet exactly what the purchaser is looking for, flour blending seems like an ideal solution. All of this discussion about flour made us hungry. Thankfully, our lab for the afternoon was at the baking lab to bring the whole course to its final stop: food!
Again, we were in teams of two for this lab. Thankfully, my teammate was Tyllor who works for US Wheat Associates out of Portland, OR. We received training from Aaron Clanton, Bakers National Education Foundation (BNEF) Instructor. He did a great job talking about the importance of the flour characteristics to make different products. For this practical portion of the day, we needed to make a loaf of bread, cookies, and a cake. All of the dry ingredients were pre-mixed for us, but we had specific instructions for the rest of the process to arrive at the final products. The trick to this is that we used different types of flour to make the baked items.
After we all finished our three delicacies, the breads, the cookies, and the cakes were each evaluated in their own category to display the differences in quality which was a direct result of the type of flour that was used to make them. Very interesting to see the differences by wheat class. And as a reminder, what wheat classes do we raise in the United States?
And in the break room at the IGP Institute, I saw empty flour bags hanging on the wall. Interesting enough, I noticed a very special one to me; one that we haul our own hard red spring wheat to: The North Dakota Mill.
I'll zoom in.....
After our baking was finished, Shawn and several of the IGP and Kansas Wheat Commission board members treated us course takers to a fantastic steak supper.
I must say that I was humbled by this experience. In one sense, this course taught me that I do know quite a bit about wheat production. However, I was made aware that the process of milling our wheat is much more intricate and detailed than I imagined. End users have high demands for the flour that they use. Do you know where your wheat goes? Do you know where it is being milled? Do you know what products are being made with your wheat? It would be interesting to learn these answers.
I am very thankful to Shawn Thiele for his involvement in this course. His knowledge and experience with wheat milling helped connect us a step closer to our wheat users. Also for the other members of IGP who showed us the wonderful tools and information that are used to help educate wheat commissioners, government leaders, and international wheat and flour purchasers.