For anyone wishing to educate themselves on the opportunities presented in a kernel-to-table view of the wheat industry, the International Grains Program – Kansas State University (KSU) Milling Short Course is about as comprehensive as it gets. I had the chance to take part in this course in January as a representative of the Idaho Wheat Commission. Alongside Cory Kress (District 5) and Clark Hamilton (District 3), commissioners and industry professionals from around the country got a firsthand look at the challenges of maintaining quality throughout the entire milling process. From grain sourcing to tasting the final product cooked up by participants, the IGP-KSU course highlighted the versatility of wheat and its importance in our food supply.
Program Director Shawn Theile is a miller by choice and his passion for the art of milling permeated the course. As the program’s organizer, presenter, and main educator, Shawn left no stone unturned in his 3-day program. Theile’s teaching at the IGP-KSU Grains Complex has set the standard for industry training; over the last five years IGP has taught 374 courses and counting to participants representing 116 countries. In 2021 alone, a total of 65 courses across 59 countries to more than 1,400 participants were taught through the IGP-KSU program, a testament to Theile’s energy and commitment to milling education.
Our training started off with a birds-eye view of markets and the wheat trade with a presentation by KSU economist Guy Allen. After building a career in the industry as a buyer for Louis Dreyfus Company, Allen expanded his grain trading experience to touch three continents. As Senior Economist, Allen now manages grain marketing and risk management curriculum at KSU. With active ownership on farms in Australia and Iowa, Allen has an intimate understanding of global markets and the history of international trade, as well as the importance of maintaining market share of U.S. wheat exports. Key to this market share is quality, and he set the stage for a focus on quality wheat in the supply chain from day one.
After a classroom preview of the gradual reduction system, the process by which wheat becomes flour, along with a safety briefing, the 14 class participants followed Theile to the milling lab where we began our work. Using experimental table-top mills, we progressed as teams of two through the entire milling process, gradually refining our wheat into flour. First, the wheat moves through rollers that break the wheat kernels, separating the outside layer of bran from the endosperm and germ inside. Endosperm is what we know as flour. Using sifters to separate the different sizes of particles results in any different products, some that are considered final and some that start back at the beginning to yield more usable flour. Not only did we create our own final products on these mini hammermills, but our class size allowed us to mill every class of wheat. Our flour slick, pictured below, was the final task for our group and is meant as a visual representation of milled flour from different stages of the process.
On our second day, we took these experimental milling concepts and applied them to the commercial mill. Part of the IGP-KSU Grain Complex, the Hal Ross Flour Mill is a pilot scale flour mill used for teaching, research, and training the next generation of professional millers. Crucial to our instruction in the mill was Fran Churchill, Milling Professor of Practice, who has spent 10 years teaching at the Hal Ross Mill and another 25 years as a professional miller. Fran assisted as we put soft white on the mill. Each class of wheat requires slightly different settings in the mill to achieve optimal flour yield, so Fran helped us adjust as necessary to begin producing flour. The Buhler roller mills started to tie our training to actual practice – here we could see how the roller gap adjustments and roller speeds resulted in different outcomes even at the very start of our reduction system.
Fran demonstrated how crucial moisture, protein, shrunken and broken levels, test weight, and overall wheat cleanliness is to the final outcome. Wheat quality and profitable flour production go hand-in-hand. We followed the entire reduction process through to the sifters, where we collected fresh samples for a visual representation of the internal flow of the mill. Everything from beginning moisture to sieve fabric comes into play here as a miller attempts to maximize his or her flour production. Not enough first break flour being produced? Better doublecheck your tempering process! Too much red dog flour? Might want to take a look at the middling reduction settings. Since much of wheat’s “millability” is determined from seeding to harvest, quality changes can drastically affect the gradual reduction process as the miller is challenged to consistently achieve the maximum quality extraction possible.
On the final day of our course at the IGP-KSU training, we focused on flour functionality and final product outcomes. Here we learned how different classes of wheat can have vast differences in flour composition – and how those differences can translate to functionality for the baker. Starch, protein, and arabinoxylans (cellulose fibers) all have different functions in flour; more or less of these components can make certain flours more appropriate for different types of end products. For instance, higher levels of protein in flour increase the gliadin and glutenin content – that’s what causes the stretchiness and elastic qualities in flour dough. If you’ve ever seen a pizzamaker throw a thin crust pizza in the air, you’ve seen first-hand how crucial protein is to wheat quality. Without the protein content of the wheat flour and its associated gluten strength, those thin and crispy crusts would lose their shape and collapse.
The final process is where the art of farming and milling merges with the art of baking. Our group proceeded to the bake lab where we tried our hand at standard recipes of breads, cakes, and cookies. Interestingly, we drew straws for which flours to use for each recipe, regardless of whether the ideal flour was matched with the appropriate final product. My group inauspiciously tried a bread recipe with a pastry flour. Disastrous! Not a loaf I’d try to sell, that’s for sure!
In all, the IGP-KSU milling course is an invaluable resource for growers, aspiring millers, and passionate bakers. Milling and baking companies specifically seek graduates of the four-year program; most have multiple job offers prior to graduation. For anyone wanting to understand the wheat supply chain from start to finish, along with the role that quality plays in that kernel-to-table process, the IGP-KSU course is the industry standard training. And for Idaho growers who are blessed to grow five classes of wheat – this course highlights that without them - without that grain production expertise – those perfectly crispy breads and flaky pastries would not be possible!