Jeff Weltzin, ’90 BSB, says sometimes the best opportunities are what other people may find boring. To many, flour could be put in that category. It’s a baking staple and not that enticing. But Weltzin, the vice president of sales for the Stafford County Flour Mills Co. of Hudson, Kansas, doesn’t see it that way. “I’m in the business that puts food on the table,” he says. “It is pretty exciting to be a part of it during a time when increased interest in specialty and high-quality flours for cooking and baking is getting traction in the consumer market.”
Weltzin, who initially came to the University of Minnesota to be a history major, quickly shifted gears when he saw what the Carlson School had to offer. After graduation, he found a position at Cargill. “I graduated from college thinking I’m going to work downtown at the Grain Exchange and wear a suit and tie all day,” he says. “I was told to get in my car, I’m going to western Kansas.” He worked out of Wichita for a few years and was later transferred to Utah when Cargill bought several flour mills from Pillsbury. He was later hired by ConAgra to move into the sales side of things in its flour milling division, pulling up stakes and ending up for a time in both Denver and Omaha.
He left in 1995 to start his own marketing company for Stafford County Flour Mills as well as becoming as investor in the ownership of the mill itself—and ended up back where he started, western Kansas. Since then, he invested in another mill in western Canada, Prairie Flour Mills Ltd. “Each mill is unique, they do different kinds of wheat and different types of products,” he says. They are also independent, two of the last remaining independent flour mills in North America.
“There are little to no competitive advantages of economies of scale in milling,” he says. “So, if you make a quality product, manage your cost structure, you can compete against anyone else out there.”
It also pays to diversify. The explosion of baking and food coverage in print and online has piqued consumer interest to learn about and discover more types of flour to use in what they’re making. Also, demographic changes in the U.S. and Canada are driving a demand for different types of flour.
“By not being as large as some milling companies, it has allowed us to hand-select certain quality wheat varieties right off the field that we know will perform well for the changing food trends and demand both in the kitchen and in the bakeries,” Weltzin says. “So while we all consume roughly 140 pounds of flour every year in all the foods we eat, we appreciate that consumers, food companies, and bakeries are now realizing that all flours are not the same.”
Consumer demand is affecting the flour supply chain. “I think food trend-wise, there are three big things: lifestyle choices, what a consumer’s underlying values are, and health benefits,” he says. “One or all of them are the drivers that make their decisions on the shelves.”
In the past, manufacturers, growers, and farmers were always seeking to maximize their yields. This attitude came out of the depression in the 1930s. The agricultural landscape changed and growers needed to get as much out of their land as possible. “Now the consumer is making the decision,” Weltzin says. “What you are seeing now are food trends that migrate toward desirable benefits that consumers want in the product they are buying. But it also has to taste good.”
For example, much of western Kansas 40 years ago was red wheat. However the red wheats are more bitter and darker in appearance which were pushbacks for children who do not want to eat a whole wheat product, Weltzin says. Now there is a shift to white wheat, which is naturally sweeter in taste, and lighter in appearance. “We produce a lot of white wheat flour that goes to school districts all over the country.”
Weltzin feels flour is anything but boring. “I’ve been in this business for 25 years and I really enjoy it. I get up in the morning and I’m happy to know I’m a part of something that shows up on the table each and every day.”