The grain supply chain is working as it should during the COVID-19 pandemic, says the president of the Canadian National Millers Association.
“From the milling industry vantage point, the movement of grain from farm to the producer to the elevator systems to mills is doing extremely well,” Gordon Harrison said Tuesday. “The grain supply chain is working very well so far. I couldn’t emphasize that more.”
Although stores are selling out of flour periodically, there is plenty of supply and no need to hoard, he said.
“The milling industry has been able to maintain normal production schedules,” said Harrison. “Our member companies are experiencing excellent turnout from their workers. Milling operations at all locations operated anywhere by our member companies are so far, pretty much normal.”
Millers are producing sufficient quantities of bulk flour (for large users) and bagged products for consumers.
“We know some store shelves are empty — if the retailers and shoppers themselves can resist hoarding, the supply of flour for retail establishments should catch up with demand,” he said. Housebound consumers are doing a lot more home cooking and baking, and the flour sector is aware of that, he added.
“Our millers expect retail demand in terms of total volume to actually go up, with people doing more at home food preparation,” said Harrison. “They’re quite confident they can meet that demand.”
The milling industry is a seasonal business, and the busiest time is the period between back to school and Christmas. That means there’s additional capacity to ramp up production, as long as the workforce stays healthy and transportation runs efficiently.
There are about 55 commercial wheat and oat mills in Canada, and they grind more than 3.5 million tonnes of wheat, oats and barley annually.
However, Harrison doesn’t see a large bump for wheat producers.
“We don’t expect a huge shift in overall demand,” he said. “We could see a shift in product that would go from smaller food services to demand at the retail level.”
Harrison said it is also easy for milling establishments to follow COVID-19 health guidelines as they have a lot of workspace, and workers don’t work in close quarters.
“It’s a relatively small workforce, overall,” he said.
In general, mills have two shifts daily, and can ramp up to a third shift if necessary. Workers always have access to respiratory equipment, from simple masks to more complicated respirators. All workers are following Health Canada guidelines.
“We have a good news story so far,” said Harrison. “People who work in the food supply chain are deemed essential under federal critical infrastructure.”
— Alexis Kienlen reports for Alberta Farmer from Edmonton.