Friday, July 24, 2020

After Craft Beer, Craft Flour Milling

What industries are modeling a more equal, less bureaucratic future? Tim Wu asks us to consider flour milling:
By sheer volume, the flour industry is dominated by firms like Ardent Mills, North America’s largest miller, with annual sales of $3.5 billion. The dominant retail flour brand, Gold Medal Flour, belongs to General Mills, a conglomerate with some $17 billion in annual revenue. Most of the flour sold today is for commercial use and ends up in premade or processed food products.

Yet it is not these huge companies but the smaller sellers of flour that are flourishing. Consider King Arthur, founded in 1790 in Boston and now based in Vermont. It experienced a tripling of sales over the spring, buoyed by legions of new bakers in quarantine. (Sales at Gold Medal also went up, but not nearly as much.) Among consumers, King Arthur is probably best known for connecting with people who are learning to bake. Its website introduces them to new challenges, like building a sourdough starter and folding dough for baguettes, and the company has a hotline for bakers in distress.

But King Arthur is most distinguished by its corporate structure. It is a private company, owned entirely by its employees (it has about 350) and run by two chief executives. It is also a benefit corporation, which means that having a positive social impact is part of its legal corporate mission. Ralph Carlton, one of the company’s chief executives, says that its different structure leads it to act differently from other companies. “Being accountable to our employee-owners means we have to take them into account,” he told me. “We don’t believe in growth for growth’s sake. We are not under external requirements” from stock owners or market analysts. . . . 

The commodity industry takes flour as flour — just an ingredient, the cheaper the better. But baking is also an emotional experience, an act of creation in its beauty and intensity, a longstanding symbol of the home. And it provokes, in some, a yearning to connect with local soil and local land. That’s the appeal of a company like Maine Grains, which operates out of a repurposed jailhouse, and a new generation of regional grain companies, like Cairnspring Mills in Washington State and Castle Valley Mill in Pennsylvania. These mills produce not only whole wheat flours but also distinctive grains, such as yecora rojo, heritage red fife and spelt. Amy Halloran, the author of “The New Bread Basket,” about the local grain industry, told me these companies are making an effort to deliberately ignore the single-minded approach of the commodity market in favor of “best practices” for their regions. . . .

The flour industry might seem an unlikely arena for business innovation. There was once a time, in the 1990s and 2000s, when it was widely thought that Silicon Valley would show us the way to a better, fairer economy, creating entire ecosystems of companies with distinctive offerings. Yet that was before the emergence and eventual dominance of Amazon, Facebook and Google. Instead of high-tech, it is low-tech businesses like craft beer and community supported agriculture that seem to stand at the forefront of economic transformation.
I think this whole essay is important in many ways. First, if we really want to move away from economic dominance by a handful of giant corporations, we must  be willing to pay more for things. But, you know, most of us could; in our world food is so cheap that the choice to support local brewers,  millers, and vegetable growers is within our grasp. Shifting all our low-tech consumption to smaller, more local, more equitably-run firms would require some re-adjustment of our budgets, but we could do it if we cared enough.

Second, to take advantage of this companies have to go for emotional appeal, above all the appeal of caring: of caring about their product, their employees, their communities, the environment. "They don't care" is the universal plaint of the cynic, and to get past that cynicism requires some real work.

Capitalism is better than any other system at giving people what they want. If the world is to be different, that will have to start with people changing what they want, with choosing a less affluent but more connected and less cynical path. Many people on the left know this, of course, which is why they belong to food co-ops and frequent farmer's markets.

We don't need a revolution to create a more caring world. We need to change ourselves.

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