COVID-19 shifts flour sales

Flour mills are running full out in response to surging demand from consumers suddenly forced to rely on home baking.

“The demand for flour is extremely high as it always is in a crisis,” said Jim McCarthy, president of the North American Millers’ Association.

“Talking to some of our members, it’s almost like the holiday season for flour.”

Flour demand usually doubles in the September through January period as people bake more for the holiday season.

Millers typically go from two shifts a day to three shifts to meet the holiday demand and that’s what is happening today at many operations.

Gordon Harrison, president of the Canadian National Millers Association, said mills dedicated to making bagged flour for grocery stores are experiencing heightened demand for their products.

“The percentage of meals prepared and consumed at home is surely at an all-time high in recent decades,” he said.

However, mills that produce flour that is shipped in bulk tankers to major bakeries and food processors are experiencing a contraction in demand.

“Foodservice chains whose menus almost universally include bakery products and other wheat-based foods of some kind are not in operation,” said Harrison.

He thinks the overall change in milling wheat demand from Canadian millers is likely a modest net positive. They typically buy about three million tonnes of milling wheat annually.

Cam Dahl, president of Cereals Canada, said McCarthy’s holiday analogy is a good one. There has definitely been a large, albeit temporary, uptick in demand.

“My grocery stores don’t have flour, which is kind of annoying. But that’s not something that is permanent,” he said.

Dahl said people have expressed concern about dwindling wheat supplies and the inability to restock those store shelves, but that is not the case.

“We have strong supplies of high quality wheat available and the supply chains are working well,” he said.

Harrison echoed that sentiment.

“We’re really fortunate. We’ve got ample supplies and we’ve got a supply chain that really works well and at this particular time it continues to work really well,” he said.

McCarthy thinks the COVID-19 scare may lead to sustained, revitalized interest in home baking that could result in continued strong demand for flour products.

He encouraged North American wheat farmers to consider planting more acres in 2020.

“I just say, ‘bring it on,’ ” said McCarthy.

Harrison said there is a different dynamic between the United States and Canadian milling sectors when it comes to promoting wheat acres.

The U.S. is always encouraging growers to plant more wheat because they are continually losing acres to corn and soybeans in the Northern Plains.

Canada, on the other hand, has steady wheat production that vastly outstrips demand.

Dahl doesn’t believe the COVID-19 run on flour products will have a significant impact on 2019-20 wheat ending stocks in North America.

“I’m not seeing a shift in demand because of the pandemic,” he said.

“Once everybody has got their bag of flour they’re not going to go back and buy another one.”

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