Milling in Eastern Europe

by Meyer Sosland
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Hampered by the politics of the region for many years, millers have relied on their resourcefulness to remain viable

by Jonathan Bradshaw

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of six articles that describes the different approaches to investment in milling technology in the various environments around the world, the varying application of technology, and the skills base of those who operate mills in these often complex and diverse environments.

Having examined the milling industry in Western Europe, Africa, the Americas and Australasia, we now examine a region — made up primarily of countries from the former Soviet Union — that is somewhat different from the others.

Much of this region is just emerging from a situation in which industrial development and technical advancement were repressed for many years, due to the political environment in which they lived. These countries are certainly making up for lost time and are using their vast natural resources, such as coal, iron ore and other minerals, to accelerate industry growth at a rapid pace.

I spent time in Mongolia, which borders Russia to the south, about 18 months ago resurrecting an old mill in the western part of the country. Not only was the travel quite arduous and the distances between communities vast, the infrastructure was virtually non-existent and the population sparse.

With only 5 million people in the entire country — 2 million of them live in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar — the population density per square mile hardly registers. Forty percent of the population is nomadic, tending to their few sheep and goats as they move from pasture to pasture, highland to lowland and back again as seasons dictate.

Yet the mill I visited was still producing flour. The wheat quality was terrible, with shriveled grains making for a meager yield. The roller mills and sifters were 100 and 85 years old, respectively, spouts were held together with tape and string and the cleaning house consisted of a single deck separator.

The millers had limited skills, since they had not been exposed to anything other than this one mill, which is where they had worked since leaving school in their early teens. They were, however, extremely resourceful and quickly adopted the lessons I taught them. They were soon able to improve the quality of flour, and the bakery was soon producing some very edible and marketable products.

Although Mongolia is an Asian country, the resourcefulness of that milling community typifies the entire Eastern European region. The mills in this area will develop because the operators have a desire to improve and a willingness to learn. This development will be slow, yet purposeful. Already engineers have picked up on new designs, not just copying those of European and American engineers but designing machines that utilize their raw materials and allow their engineering skills to come to the fore.

Heavy engineering that we saw in the western hemisphere in the mid-20th century and which has stood the test of time is what we can expect to see from this region in years to come. We are not that likely to see sophisticated automation techniques and solutions, although that too is coming where the quality of raw materials allows it. Mainly you will see solid machinery much more akin to the American type of fabrication, with heavy roller mills, solid wooden sifters, etc.

Further west, in Turkey, a plethora of flour and feed milling engineering companies are now offering their products on to the world stage.

Much of it is copied from the more well-established milling engineers and very few companies have research or technical facilities to back up their machinery. But their engineering skills are good and they are beginning to learn techniques that are responsible for better paint finishes and more durable internal machined surfaces.

Motorized power is becoming more reliable as electric motor manufacturers gain valuable experience from being a part of Europe. The two-way flow of labor and technicians is beginning to pay dividends as these companies attract well-qualified and experienced engineers to what is fast becoming a cosmopolitan region.

So what can the rest of the milling industry learn from this region? At this point, not a great deal, as they are far too busy learning from regions where the milling industry is more modernized. As was mentioned in the previous articles, the political climate of a given region has a great impact on the type and style of investment decisions. In some cases, it leads to choosing the cheaper capital option when longevity of investment is at risk.

Machinery is now being made that is relatively inexpensive and perhaps does not have the backup of vast technical resources. Nevertheless, it is proving to be reliable and is definitely an alternative to be considered.

Progress is also being made from an agricultural standpoint. While the former Soviet region suffered for many years from a lack of technology and agricultural science, it is beginning to produce greater quantities of cereals. The region is again showing signs of becoming a major exporter to the four corners of the world.

These countries generally have high levels of carbohydrates in their diet, which westerners are now moving away from. The per-capita consumption of flour is high and the consumption of pasta and noodles is on the rise. What is missing is a good supply of wheat, and yet many of the wheat varieties grown in the U.S. emanate in some form or another from wheat grown on the steppes of Russia. As the agronomy improves and wheat becomes plentiful in this part of the world, you will see a change in the fortune in this region.

Some of the world’s finest cereal technicians and millers have come from Russia. These are people who have known the structure of wheat so well and have, with very few resources, milled flour at remarkably consistent rates of extraction and quality.

In the days when mills in Europe were known by names such as "Baltic Flour Mills," because they were built to mill wheat from a specific region, millers often came over with the wheat boats to demonstrate their milling techniques.

Historically, it is important to note that the first roller mills came from Hungary and several of the most innovative flow diagrams have emanated from this region as well.

The ability to mill and bake a much wider range of cereals than most other parts of the world also enables new techniques to be developed and put into practice. Millers who mill rye and barley as well as wheat often understand the structure of grain better than those who watch machinery churn out flour from a single variety of wheat.

The lack of financial resources has meant bakers have not had a wide range of bakery additives at their disposal, and the millers have had to adapt granularity and level of starch damage and use a combination of other cereals, malted and otherwise, to assist in producing quality bread.

Such resourcefulness enabled millers in this region to survive in a less-thanideal political environment in past years and will serve them well in the future.

Jonathan Bradshaw is a consultant to the agribusiness and food processing industries, specializing in project management and bespoke training programs through his company, J B Bradshaw Ltd. He has extensive experience in flour and feed milling in Africa, the Americas, Europe and the Caribbean. He may be contacted at: