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Two farmers walking in a field of developing grains and pulses
Grower Blake Wolf, left, and Rodney Rupp of Ardent Mills inspect developing crops.
C magazine

Ardent Mills brings new opportunities to growers

This innovative CHS joint venture offers strengths in wheat milling and ancient grains.
Cynthia Clanton
Aug 31, 2022

The rail lines in northeastern North Dakota are humming. Every day, in tiny Drayton (population 803) and two hours west in Devils Lake, grain pours from cooperative elevators into six shuttle trains hauling up to 115 cars each — 420,000 bushels per train. About half the cars are filled with hard red spring wheat, much of it destined for Ardent Mills flour-milling facilities across the U.S. 

“We run about 34 million bushels of hard red spring wheat out of Drayton and Devils Lake every year,” says Brian Devine, grain department manager for the CHS locations. “That’s the wheat used in high-quality breads and pizza dough.”

Applying sustainable farming insights

Sustainability is a key element of the Ardent Mills corporate responsibility program. That includes supporting farmers who employ practices to strengthen the soil ecosystem. The company met its 2021 goal of enrolling 250,000 wheat acres in its regenerative ag program and plans to enroll 750,000 acres by 2025.

"We're always looking for ways to increase efficiency at our own facilities,” says Phoenix Dugger, Ardent Mills corporate social responsibility manager, “and now we’re working on the growing side to adapt methods like reduced tillage and cover cropping that we can couple with new ideas to find the best way to improve soil health.

Many of these ideas have been around for decades, but what’s being added is auditing and certification around things like quantifying greenhouse gas emissions. We can help simplify those new elements for growers. It’s important that we take the data growers share and provide actionable, meaningful results for them.”

Compiling data from all farms in the program provides insights on practices that other farms can adopt, Dugger adds. “At grower workshops, we talk about impacts of weather and wheat variety performance, plus results of pilot projects like a new seed application or cover crop and how they affected yield or greenhouse gas emissions. Then growers can decide if they want to try it themselves.”

Devine explains the high protein content of hard red spring wheat produces flour that gives dough good elasticity for a reliable rise and dependable results. “You get a good bake.”

The largest wheat miller in North America, Ardent Mills is jointly owned by Conagra Brands, Cargill and CHS. Nearly three dozen Ardent Mills plants process traditional and organic grains from Washington to Massachusetts and Saskatchewan to Puerto Rico.

Partnering with Ardent Mills puts cooperative farmer-owners in a sweet spot, giving them the benefits of huge demand and a finger on the pulse of consumer wishes, says Ryan Caffrey, who heads up global wheat trading and risk management for CHS.

“The relationship with Ardent Mills is key for CHS and our ability to find demand for our owners’ grain,” Caffrey says. “The sheer volume helps us manage risk, but just as important is the information we get on where, when and how much wheat is needed with which quality characteristics. Then we work with member cooperatives and CHS facilities to meet that demand.”

It’s a win-win for Ardent Mills, too, Caffrey says. “Ardent Mills can leverage the size and scope of the cooperative system and can offer its customers direct access to growers through the system.”

Wheat grower Brad Schuster is one of nearly 400 producers who deliver wheat to CHS at Drayton and Devils Lake. He raises wheat in rotation with sugarbeets, corn and soybeans on about 3,000 acres. Managing through volatile weather — drought in 2021, spring flooding in 2022 — is a challenge, but Schuster says being connected to the cooperative system brings stability.

“Knowing the people you deal with firsthand gives you personal relationships with the team. They take pride in what they do and they work for me as a producer-owner.”

With the late start due to flooding and the potential for a later harvest, Schuster adds he’s glad to know the updated Drayton CHS facility can dry wet wheat if needed, so he can move on to sugarbeet harvest.

Keeping up with evolving consumer preferences

In an industry nearly as old as time, Ardent Mills is a leader in efficient, quality-driven wheat milling and is forging new ground by partnering with growers to raise specialty crops that meet consumer demand, help protect fragile soils and preserve moisture.

“Wheat flour will always be the core of our business,” says Angie Goldberg, chief growth officer for Ardent Mills. “We absolutely plan to continue investing in that space to produce the highest-quality products we can. At the same time, our efforts in emerging nutrition help insulate our flour business and make us a one-stop shop for our customers.”

Consumer preferences drive both sides of the business. “Continuing to be a leader in the flour space is paving the way for the future,” she says. “The Sunday night pizza routine and birthday cake will always be part of our everyday lives, but we are seeing growing preference for dietary requests like gluten-free foods. Consumers are looking for greater variety and balance in the foods they choose.”

Ardent Mills products feed approximately 100 million people every day by supplying flour and other grain-based ingredients to many large bread and bakery companies in the country, Goldberg says, plus major consumer packaged goods, retail and foodservice companies including Bimbo Bakeries, Dawn Foods and Domino’s.

Dryland farming

Holyoke, Colo., wheat grower Joe Krogmeier raises dryland hard white winter wheat for Ardent Mills on the border of Colorado and Nebraska using a four-year rotation of wheat, corn, proso millet and fallow. The characteristics and reduced pigmentation of hard white wheat make it ideal for certain breads and foods like Asian noodles and earn Krogmeier a premium as high as 60 cents per bushel.

“We’re drought-stricken this year and that affected the wheat crop,” says Krogmeier. “Yields were down, but quality and protein level were extremely good, so we should max out the premium.” To meet his contract with Ardent Mills, he trucks his wheat to CHS facilities at Amherst or Holyoke, Colo.

“The relationships we have with CHS managers and grain originators are important — they become our partners,” he says.

Those partners help Krogmeier make the most of what Mother Nature sends. “Our challenge is conserving rainfall and using it in our cropping program the best way we can. We still need that fallow period, even though it’s an expensive proposition to leave a piece of ground idle for six months.”

Farmer inspecting harvested organic wheat in a bin
Ron Rabou says the organic wheat he raises for Ardent Mills averages 30 to 35 bushels per acre — half the yield of conventional wheat but it uses fewer inputs and garners about twice the market price.

Organic grains drive growth

While wheat is the core of the Ardent Mills business, the company sees vast opportunity in what it calls emerging nutrition, finding new uses for ancient grains like lentils, chickpeas and quinoa and helping growers who want to move into organic production.

“At the beginning, it was very transactional,” says Shrene White, general manager of emerging nutrition at Ardent Mills. “We were buying organic wheat for a couple of mills and we’d get inquiries from customers about sorghum or millet, for example, and we would do some research. If a customer wanted organic flour, we’d find the wheat, or if we found organic wheat, we’d offer the flour.”

Committing to organic grains in 2016 meant Ardent Mills doubled down on efforts to certify mills for organic production, growing from two mills to more than a dozen. It also added an organic-certified bakery and the Ardent Mills Innovation Center in Denver, Colo., which tests grain and flour samples and partners with customers to find new uses for all types of grain.

Recent additions have brought even more capabilities to the Ardent Mills roster, says White. “We purchased an organic elevator in Klamath Falls, Ore., and a gluten-free seed-cleaning facility for quinoa and other grains in Yuba City, Calif. In June 2021, we acquired Hinrichs Trading Company in Washington state, which focuses on grower relationships and supplying the chickpea market, and late in 2021, we completed acquisition of a gluten-free flour mill in Harvey, N.D.”

Most recent is a state-of-the-art mill near Tampa, Fla., that produces 1.8 million pounds of flour a day, sourcing wheat from the Midwest and southeastern U.S.

“Farmers are looking for new technologies and new crop rotations to ensure they’re doing what’s right for the soil and to provide return on investment for the farm,” says White. “Growers tell us, ‘I plant wheat or corn or soybeans because I know I can find a market for those crops. If I put something new in my crop rotation, I want to be sure there’s a market.’ We can help with that transition as they add crop diversity.”

Fertility focus

Organic grower Ron Rabou sought out White several years ago as he searched for a market for his wheat. The Albin, Wyo., grower was working to bring new life to acres that were routinely pummeled by heat, drought and high winds.

“We’re at 5,300 feet elevation and we get just 14 to 16 inches of precipitation a year, much of it coming as snow,” says Rabou.

Sandy soils and dry, windy conditions often lead to wind erosion, regardless of cropping practices. Stripcropping with advice from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) helps conserve moisture while allowing some tillage to manage weeds.

“I was scared of the organic market at the beginning because I didn’t understand how it worked,” he says. “We had to build the operation over time, investing in equipment, land, buildings and storage. If it weren’t for Ardent Mills, this farm wouldn’t be here, because I didn’t know where to sell organic wheat.”

Since then, Rabou has permanently added chickpeas (garbanzo beans or “garbs”), flax for flaxseed, buckwheat and proso millet to his rotation and has tried mustard, sorghum and grain hemp. “We developed a business model that is based on consumer demand. I’ll find a market for something and work with buyers to come up with a price, then run a cash flow analysis. If I think I can make money with it, I’ll give it a shot.”

Maintaining soil fertility is paramount, Rabou says. “Chickpeas and other legumes naturally help with that. If you get the chickpea seed inoculated properly and it develops the nodes it needs, it fixes nitrogen in the soil.”

Rabou credits Phil Hinrichs of Ardent Mills and formerly an owner of Hinrichs Trading Company with showing him how to successfully grow organic chickpeas, including minimum soil temperature for planting, plant populations and weed control techniques. Rabou Farms is now the largest grower of organic chickpeas in Wyoming and the state’s only or largest organic grower of several other crops.

“We haven’t focused on getting big, but on doing a good job,” Rabou says. “How can we do a better job with the land we have? How can we make it more productive? I’ve tried to mitigate as much risk as possible by diversifying our rotation. Over the last 15 years, we have developed the philosophy of moisture conservation while keeping plant residue on the surface, which helps hold our soil.”

farmer checks progress of organic chickpeas (garbanzo beans) in his field
Blake Wolf, left, a grower in southeastern Washington, checks chickpea crop progress with Rodney Rupp from Ardent Mills.

High on garbanzo beans

At the other end of the moisture spectrum for 2022 is Blake Wolf, an Ardent Mills chickpea grower in the Palouse region of southeastern Washington.

“We got a lot of early spring rains, which set us up nicely for this year,” says Wolf. His dryland operation also includes winter and spring wheat, barley and glyphosate-tolerant canola.

“The canola has become a tool to control weeds. We have to rotate crops to help with disease control, but Italian ryegrass and other herbicide-resistant weeds mean we need to use every tool at our disposal.”

Most available herbicides for chickpeas must be used preemergence, Wolf says. “It can be touch and go, because we need water to push the herbicide into the first quarter- to half-inch of the soil profile. The garbanzo bean seed is an inch to inch and a half below that, so if we get a downpour and the chemical moves too deep, it can wreak havoc on the seed and damage the emerging garb.

“Garbs have given us the opportunity to diversify our rotation, control weeds, change things up and, we hope, make us more profitable overall.”

Still, the past few years have been a roller coaster ride for garb prices, Wolf says. “When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down restaurants, consumption at salad bars went by the wayside. Our price dropped to 18 or 20 cents a pound. Now that demand is back up, we’re back to being at breakeven or a little above that.”

Rewarding connections

Meeting and exceeding consumer expectations is the answer to staying relevant and maintaining a market for U.S. wheat and emerging crops, says White of Ardent Mills. “Consumers want to know they’re making a difference in these uncertain times. They are asking, ‘What can I control?’ One answer is what they feed their children and their own diet.

“Our research shows consumers are willing to pay a premium for products they can trace back through the supply chain. That transparency and connection to the grower and the community is becoming more important to consumers.

“I have a lot of passion for helping farmers tell their story about how they are stewards of the land and making continuous improvements on the farm,” she adds. “At Ardent Mills, we want to build connections between our customers and the farmers who grow their food.” 

Check out the full issue of C magazine with this article and more.

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