Boston-based Indigo Ag, which markets its wheat under the Indigo brand, said it is contracting with hundreds of growers and paying them a 43c a bushel premium over commodity wheat. After harvest, the wheat will be delivered to Grain Craft and milled into flour for baking industry, food service and pizza customers.
“At Grain Craft, we care about our flour — the quality, the way it’s produced, and the farmers who produce it,” said Alan Koenig, chief supply chain officer of Chattanooga, Tennessee-based Grain Craft. “We are partnering with Indigo to produce traceable and sustainable flour at scale. This is a new way of doing business that’s responsive to the needs of our customers.”
Koenig noted that in the three years since the creation of Grain Craft through Milner Milling’s acquisition of Cereal Food Processors, the new company has been working with Kansas State University, the Kansas Wheat Alliance and breeders to improve Kansas wheat quality.
“Indigo ag has given us an avenue toward growing approved varieties to help improve milling and baking qualities in Kansas,” he said.
The pairing of Indigo and Grain Craft was serendipitous. Reuben McLean, the company’s senior director of quality and regulatory, happened on an Indigo Ag booth in August while attending Wheat U, a trade show aimed at helping wheat growers enhance their operations.
“The Indigo guys came to our offices and spoke with us,” Koenig said. “The more we talked, the more it made sense.”
“By using sophisticated genomic sequencing and computational bioinformatics, Indigo has assembled an enormous database of genomic information from these microbes,” the company said. “We apply algorithms and machine learning to this database to predict which microbes are most beneficial to the plant’s health, applying these specially selected microbes to crops in the form of a seed coating. The resulting seed treatments complement a plant’s natural processes to improve health and development across each phase of life while boosting crop yields.”
Indigo pre-treatment of wheat seeds with the microbes is aimed at maximizing yields and obviating the needs for fertilizer and other treatment.
The company said it seeks to support a Grain Craft commitment to minimize environmental impact and conserve natural resources.
Koenig said Indigo has been focused principally on sustainability, enhancing yields and improving grower economics. With the Grain Craft partnership, baking and milling quality also are squarely in focus, he said.
“We love high test weight for milling, but this also focuses on stability, absorption and protein quality, not just quantity,” he said.
The companies said that better aligning agricultural practices with consumer preferences will address a number of current challenges, including agricultural profitability, environmental sustainability and consumer health.
“Indigo’s goal is to increase farmer profitability using practices that are consistent with environmental sustainability and consumer health,” said David Perry, president and chief executive officer of Indigo. “Customers are increasingly willing to pay for improved quality, improved environmental sustainability, and traceability back to the farm. This sort of specialization is good for everyone involved: the grower, the consumer, and the environment.”
The program initially will be limited to hard red winter wheat, which will be grown in the Southwest from southern Nebraska to the Texas panhandle. The wheat will be ground in Grain Craft mills in Wichita and Los Angeles. The flour milled from the Indigo wheat will be blended.
“We want to double and then triple production in the years ahead,” Koenig said.
Grain Craft enjoyed success with a somewhat similar program launched several years ago in Idaho, Koenig said. The program there caught on and markedly improved wheat quality in the state.
Ultimately, the Grain Craft/Indigo Ag initiative is part of milling industry-wide efforts to enhance wheat quality, Koenig said.
“The industry is working together to right this quality ship,” he said. “In Idaho, we launched a program and others followed. It was a case of rising tide lifts all boats. We think that will happen here.”
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David Perry, Indigo Ag chief executive officer, sees the grain industry ripe for the kinds of value-add opportunities that have successfully taken hold in many segments of the food and beverage industry.
In a blog offering deeper background on the Grain Craft initiative, Perry suggested the same kind of underlying demand that exists for premium single-origin coffees or certified Angus beef may emerge for identity-preserved grain produced with qualities sought by consumers.
“Through Indigo’s microbial innovations, it is not hard to imagine water friendly, sustainably sourced, chemistry free, and reduced fertilizer crops making their way into the specialty market on a large scale, as well as improved standards of Fair Trade that better ensure that U.S. and international farmers turn a profit,” he said. “This system fundamentally aligns agricultural practices with consumer preferences. Premised on farm-to-fork traceability, specialization gives us the opportunity to dramatically improve the quality and sustainability of our food system — to the benefit of growers and consumers alike.”
Perry is an entrepreneur who has established three companies in the last 18 years. Most recently he was co-founder and CEO of Anacor Pharmaceuticals, a biopharmaceutical company acquired by Pfizer, Inc. in 2016 for $5.2 billion. The other businesses he established were Chemdex and Ventro Corp.
Indigo was founded in 2013 by Flagship Pioneering and has commercial operations in Memphis, Tennessee, U.S. The company has international offices in Sydney, Australia; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Sao Paulo, Brazil. In addition to wheat, Indigo has launched branded corn, soybeans, cotton and rice.
Flagship Pioneering is a venture capital firm established in 2000. The firm said it “conceives, creates, resources and grows first-in-category life sciences companies.”