grain handling
Even though consumer demand for organic food has grown over the years, supply of organic crops has not been able to keep up.
Demand for organic products has been growing by double digits since the 1990s, according to the Organic Trade Association. Mintel considers non-GMO to be one of the fastest-growing claims with 44% of new food products between 2013 and 2016 claiming to be non-GMO.

Despite this, farmers haven’t kept up the supply of USDA-certified organic wheat or Non-GMO Project verified corn and other grains. (Wheat is not a genetically modified crop.)

“The biggest challenge around sourcing organic flours and seeds is overall supply,” said Harold Ward, director of technical service and product applications at Bay State Milling Co. “A good example of this would be organic wheat. Of the wheat planted in the U.S., less than 1% is organic. Much smaller supply means less choice from the standpoint of functionality and other target characteristics.”

Offsetting supply issues

Organic and non-GMO certifications are expensive and time consuming to achieve even though those ingredients sell at a premium. Growers must make a significant commitment to and investment in the transition from conventional farming to organic and non-GMO crops, not to mention the transition period before farmers can see a return on their investment. These barriers to entry mean that the supply of organic wheat and non-GMO grains is slim compared to conventional.

Demand for organic bakery products has been growing since the 1990's.
Additionally, if there is a tough year for crops, flour suppliers have less organic supply to offset undesirable characteristics.

“Because we’re talking about working with a much smaller supply of wheat, in a given crop year, you could see lower or higher protein levels or ­possibly substantial changes in functional characteristics such as absorption or mixing tolerance,” Ward explained.

These issues still happen with conventional crops, but because of the vastness of that supply, millers can overcome those issues with blending to provide bakers consistent flour. The smaller the supply, the more difficult it becomes to meet these bakers’ needs.

Ward doesn’t believe this will be a permanent issue for organic bakers. Consumer demand and support from millers will push farmers to grow more fields organically. In the meantime, however, he encouraged bakers to be mindful when formulating for organic ingredients.

A troublesome growing season may lead to a smaller supply of organic flour.
“Build formulas that are adaptable and robust enough to cope with possible changes,” he said. “Keeping an open mind when it comes to process adjustments and using ingredients that will enhance functionality or provide needed protein is very important. I also suggest partnering with your supplier so you have a clear line of sight to current crop characteristics as well as what is on the horizon.”

Bay State Milling’s product applications and R&D teams work with bakers to develop products using these organic ingredients and are available to help address these potential issues.

Ardent Mills anticipates that its organic program will expand to support an organic supply chain for the baking industry.

“Our extensive organic grower network, milling and storage locations allow us to provide a consistent reliable and quality organic flour that bakers can count on,” said Shrene White, ­general manager, The Annex by Ardent Mills. “It’s a good time to come into organic.”

||| READ MORE: Weakening barriers to entry |||

grain harvest
Working closely with farmers, flour suppliers can offer support and guidance in making the transition from conventional farming to organic. 

Weakening barriers to entry

Solving the issue of supply largely rests in the hands of farmers. They need to make the commitment to become certified organic growers. However, the certification process and transition from conventional farming to organic can be intimidating and expensive.

Many flour millers see it as their responsibility to support farmers in their transition to organic as it improves the supply and quality of organic wheat, corn and other grains. Ardent Mills, for example, created the Organic Initiative 2019. Launched in 2015, the program’s goal is to double the amount of organic wheat acreage in the United States by next year.

“As a part of the strategy, we launched a series of farmer meetings in North Dakota, Colorado and Idaho to identify producer concerns about converting to organic and to help shape our initiative,” White said.

Through those meetings, the company gauged farmers’ greatest concerns, including education, changing practices, disease and pest control, as well as rotational and cover crops.

Transitioning to an organic growing operation for farmers is expensive and time consuming.
“We all need to be aware that the transition is not going to happen overnight, and Ardent Mills wants to help farmers and manufacturers meet the demand for organic foods,” White said.

The three-year transition period to organic remains one of the biggest barriers to entry for many farmers. A field that was previously farmed conventionally needs three years being farmed organically before any crops grown can carry the USDA-organic certification. During that time a farmer will invest all the time, energy and money necessary to farm organically without getting the payoff of that premium price.

“It has been an ongoing issue in the organic industry for supply to keep up with growing demand,” said Jennifer Tesch, chief marketing officer, Heathy Food Ingredients (HFI). “We believe through continued education to growers about the opportunities within the organic and non-GMO markets, more producers will transition from conventional to organic.”

To ease that transition cost, some Accredited Organic Certifying Agencies (ACAs) such as Quality Assurance International offer transitional organic certification. In fact, HFI became the first certified transitional ingredient supplier with a hard red winter wheat processed by its brand Hesco/Dakota Organic Products. Tesch said that the company’s relationship with growers allowed the company to guide them in the certification process.

“The transitional certification is beneficial to growers because we now have a market for these growers’ crops during the three transitional years, and they can be compensated with a premium during the costly conversion to organic,” she said.

Bunge North America also recently began offering certified transitional ingredients; in this case, dry milled corn ingredients. The company pays farmers a premium for this corn during that three-year period.

“The certified transitional market gives farmers an opportunity to sell this corn at a premium during their shift to certified organic, incentivizing them to make the move into organic farming,” said Gregg Christensen, vice-president of sales for Bunge Milling. “Bunge is taking the lead in corn by connecting farmers who are interested in certified transitional products as a way of building a more scalable and reliable future ­supply of organic products.”

While many ACAs offer their own certified transitional organic programs, the Organic Trade Association is working with the USDA to unify these standards into a nationwide program — the National Certified Transitional Program.