Mill manager Collaborates with Farmers to add value to Grain

For Oklahomans who want to buy local, Shawnee Milling Company offers diverse flours and product mixes that are affordable and readily available at most grocery stores around the state.

Of the roughly 4 million bushels of wheat the company mills each year, at least 80 percent of it —  sometimes even more in good growing years — comes from within the state’s borders.

“Oklahoma agriculture has always been important to us,” said Caleb Winsett, who heads the grain division at the family-owned company. “We are very aware that without local farmers, we could not do what we do.”

Started in 1906 when J. Lloyd Ford bought a mill in Shawnee, the company today makes flour from both wheat and corn, which is then incorporated into a wide range of bake-ready mixes. It also operates a commercial mill in Okeene producing bulk whole wheat flour, six country elevators and two stand-alone retail stores.

Bill Ford, the family’s fourth generation, is chairman of the board. His son Joe is president, and his brother Bob is executive vice president and runs the mill at Okeene.

Winsett often attends field days and industry meetings, where he represents the interests of the milling industry in interactions with wheat producers, researchers and other industry partners.

Keeping it local

Winsett grew up in Shawnee, where the local mill was a prominent fixture in the community. He was active in 4-H and worked for local farmers doing jobs like hauling hay.

After earning a degree in agricultural economics from Oklahoma State University, he went to work for one of the country’s largest agribusinesses, ADM, handling feed ingredient purchasing and logistics in the Texas panhandle.

In 2007, with his mother in poor health, he accepted an offer from Shawnee Milling to move back home and take a position as an ingredient buyer. He’s been there ever since.

“It’s a great family and a great company to work for,” he said.

Winsett recognizes the rarity of working for a family-owned company with such a long history and strong ties to the local community.

“We are a smaller fish in a big pond,” he said. “But there’s advantages to that. We don’t have to jump through the extra hoops that come with a big corporate structure. We all work together as a tight-knit team.”

Winsett’s primary responsibility is procurement of all ingredients and packaging supplies. He also assists with retail operations.

“Pet food is an area where we continue to grow,” he noted. “We’ve historically been a livestock feed business, but over the last ten years we’ve grown as a pet food company. That’s actually one of the biggest changes to our business over time.”

Company headquarters in Shawnee feature a feed mill and flour mill on the same premises. The two are connected by a grain elevator in between. Receiving grain is the beginning of a process that leads to shelf-ready products like Shawnee Mill’s popular biscuit and muffin mixes, while also producing by-products such as highly nutritious wheat cleanings.

This diversity — the combination of grain handling, livestock feed, pet food, flour and flour mixes — is a source of long-term growth and stability.

“While our business is firmly rooted in Oklahoma, our customers extend across the U.S. and even overseas,” Winsett said. “Our mix business is probably the majority of our volume, and a lot of it goes into the restaurant market nationally as well as statewide.”

Since he went to work for Shawnee Milling 17 years ago, the landscape has changed as agriculture consolidates.

“Farms that have been in families for literally a century are moving away from that, even in our area around Shawnee,” he said. “Where there might have been 50 to 100 producers 30 years ago, now when you count it up there might be 20 producers. Maybe they’re farming the same acreage, but there’s just fewer of them out there.”

Likewise, elevators and mills are consolidating too.

What does it mean for the Oklahoma wheat industry?

Winsett believes agribusinesses need to work closely with farmers who supply the raw materials and do as much as possible to support their long-term profitability.

“There are some farmers who are really interested in trying new things. But that’s been a challenge over the years. Producers are paid on yield, so there’s a lack of incentive for the producer to do something different if they don’t get paid for it,” he 


“A lot of my own focus in the last few years is on the fact that we can’t do what we do without farmers,” he said. “We have to have wheat and corn to make the products we make. If our industry cannot provide a profitable market for the producer, eventually they won’t be there. We have to find ways to maximize value throughout the entire food channel.”

Adding value

Winsett is working on that through collaboration with grower organizations, Oklahoma State University’s public breeding program and industry groups such as the Wheat Quality Council.

“I’m excited about the things OSU’s working on and how we as an industry can find new uses for wheat,” he said. “We might have some specialty production of vital wheat gluten, but, basically, we still just make flour. In the corn and soybean industry, they have all kinds of value-added products that fill various needs in the food industry.”

There’s also an opportunity to bring compelling new attributes to wheat, with OSU’s wheat breeding program taking on new directions under the leadership of Dr. Brett Carver.

“I want to know where the milling and baking industry is going,” Carver said during the joint annual meeting of the Oklahoma Crop Improvement Association and Oklahoma Genetics Inc. “I want to know what the medical profession thinks about our food. I really believe connecting with the consumer is crucial right now.”

Through his involvement in industry initiatives such as the Coalition for Grain Fiber, run by the Foundation for Innovation in Healthy Food, Carver is on the leading edge of introducing consumer-focused traits.

“In the corporate food world, it’s all about how to make the product cheaper and the margin bigger,” Winsett observed. “Dr. Carver is focused on how can we make food better.”

Over the last five years, Winsett has seen significant improvement in the end-use qualities of the top varieties planted statewide.

“That’s exciting to see and be a part of,” he said.

On the horizon, OSU is setting the bar even higher, with wheat in the pipeline that offers stronger protein, higher fiber and antioxidant-rich bran.

Farmers will play a key role in any industry transformation, Winsett points out.

“As we develop varieties that are adding to milling efficiency or baking efficiency, or some other special functionality, what is the market for those things and how do we bring that back from the market to the producer? I think it’s important to consider that,” he said. “I think that’s the optimal direction we need to go.”

New innovations will only add value if they offset high production costs, he pointed out.

To explain how breeding advances involve give-and-take, he offers the example of an OSU variety called Ruby Lee.

“It was a great milling wheat for us, with a large kernel size and thousand-kernel weight,” Winsett explained. “While it was great yielding as well, it had a propensity to lodge and require more agronomic care than some of the other varieties.”

“We recognize the wheat that works for the mill may not be what works for the producer, and that’s okay,” he said. “We’re all in this together, and we’re in it for the long haul.” 

Doublestop and Green Hammer are examples of varieties that work well for the mill and equally well for producers, he said.

Winsett appreciates Carver’s role in ensuring that every new variety released by OSU meets a high quality standard.

“My opinion is that we can breed wheat that has tremendous yield, but if it cannot be marketed, that yield is useless,” Winsett said. “The reality is that wheat is grown to produce flour, and it needs to be functional in its application.”

“As we have witnessed recently, the U.S. has become less significant as a supplier to the global marketplace,” he added. “But we have sustained our reputation as the world’s leading supplier of quality wheat. It’s important we maintain that.”

Article courtesy of Candace Krebs

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