Given the long history of the Newton flour mill, which has been around for a century now, it's not surprising to learn that it has undergone some transformation through the years. Currently owned by Denver-based Ardent Mills, it may just have found its niche, too.
While the Newton location may not produce the highest volume of flour — generating about 750,000 pounds daily, which Plant Manager Mike Genal said puts it about in the middle of the pack — no one can touch the mill based on units, as it generates 1.3 million bags of flour per day.
Many of the other Ardent Mills locations deal in bulk. In fact, Genal noted the Wichita mill just to the south produces around 2.5 million pounds of flour daily, but Newton has essentially cornered the market in small-packing production that is almost strictly for retail.
"From this facility, almost exclusively, the next customer is a consumer," Genal said. "It will go from our warehouse here, from our pack operation, to a warehouse direct to Wal-Mart, to Kroger, to Dillons."
In fact, the Newton mill produces about 50 percent of the privately-labeled (i.e. not Gold Medal or Pillsbury) small bag consumer products that you will see on grocery store shelves, according to Genal. Nearly 200 different flours are labeled at the facility, including Great Value, Heckers, Kroger, etc. On top of that, Genal noted that Newton is also the largest supplier of breading flour for fast food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Though Genal said most of the flour produced at the mill does not typically end up in Newton stores (as Newton is a big supplier to the East Coast, and its products can also be found in Hawaii and the United Arab Emirates), it keeps business local in another unique way, as Newton is one of just two Ardent Mills locations that buys wheat directly from local farmers.
"We are truly embedded in this community. Farmers come to our door. They know wheat and what the market's doing. We're cutting checks to them. That's a very unique situation," Genal said.
Local wheat purchased by the Newton mill typically comes from farmers in Harvey, McPherson, Reno and Sedgwick counties, according to Genal. A typical day will see the mill receive 19,000 bushels of wheat, with room to store a total of 3.5 million bushels in its three elevators.
Newton then turns that wheat into three base flour products, which can be blended and modified (with additional ingredients) based on customer demand. Currently, Genal noted the mill is producing about a dozen different products based on customer requests.
Refining processes that sift and purify the flour are implemented at the mill — which focuses specifically on white flour — before it is transferred to the warehouse for packaging, which Geneal pointed out is a crucial process to make sure the product meets customer demand.
For instance, Genal noted the breading flour for KFC is meant to be crispy, so the ash test (done along with water and protein tests before transfer) is crucial. High ash content means the flour will be chewier — better for pizza doughs — while low ash is preferred for the KFC product, which is intended to make a crispy coating for its chicken.
"Every day, you have a new and/or different challenge," Genal said, "so it is, from that perspective, never dull."
Genal, a native of Buffalo, New York, has worked at mills all across the country and while he said it is not something you might be born into like farming, you can easily get sucked in like he did by the various opportunities — opportunities the Newton mill encourages within the community to keep the business local.
"What we are also trying is to leave a legacy of career opportunities," Genal said. "We are starting an apprenticeship program. We have met with the FFA and ag council at Newton High School and we are starting a program where individuals coming out of high school, we're trying to capture them and interest them in this industry."
Ardent Mills in Newton is a 24/7 operation that currently employees 70 workers. For more on the multitude of opportunities and products offered by the Newton mill, visit www.ardentmills.com.