The Denver, Colorado-based milling and ingredient company introduced The Annex last year to focus solely on the specialty space, especially heirloom grains and pulses.
“We had a lot of people who were working on small parts of it, but we found that [by] having focus, we can make more progress,” Don Trouba, senior director of go-to market for specialty products at Ardent Mills, told BakeryandSnacks at the International Food and Technologists show held in New Orleans, Louisiana, at the beginning of June.
Trouba said the year-old specialty unit has the same resources – bins, elevators, mills – as Ardent Mills, which itself is only five years old. (In 2013, the milling units of ConAgra, Cargill and CHS merged to form Ardent Mills as a standalone entity with its headquarters in Denver.)
Today, the company runs 40-plus mills and mix facilities in the US, Canada and Puerto Rico, including a full-service bakery in Portland, Oregon.
“Year one is really about securing our base, and now we’re making investments in our plants and facilities,” said Trouba.
In year two, The Annex will focus on R&D, market insights, sustainability stories and crop data by “starting to really build out and solidify that supply chain from the grower all the way to our customer, who is then making something or cooking something for an end consumer,” he added.
New year, new crops
Ardent Mills has nurtured an extensive’ grower network through its industry-leading efforts in organic flours.
“We started to get a reputation as the company that supports growers, so we have a lot of people come to us,” said Trouba.
“Those growers come back to us and say, ‘What else can we do? What else can we grow?’”
Last month, The Annex became the exclusive supplier of Colorado Quinoa, a co-op of family farms in south-central Colorado that grows a crop similar to its South American brethren but with far less water. The partnership aims to make this domestic varietal more available to bakers and food manufacturers, as well as foodservice and chefs looking for a US-grown alternative.
According to Shrene White, GM of The Annex, quinoa’s low water requirements give “regional growers a profitable crop rotation option that promotes water conservation, soil biodiversity and sustainability.” This reality pushes more water into the Rio Grande Aquifer: 366m gallons for every 1k acres of quinoa.
Next on the company’s docket is farro, Trouba told us.
“You think of farro: You’re seeing that trend on restaurant menus; you’re seeing more grain bowls and things like that in the retail space. From a food safety [standpoint], the scale, the quality, the consistency that Ardent Mills has – we can now do that with berries, so it’s helping to shore up the supply in that space.”
Quinoa & Consumers
Research by Ardent Mills has found that consumers are quite familiar with quinoa’s health benefits, which include 4g of protein and 3g of fiber. The grain also provides a host of minerals, such as calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium and zinc.
Future crops will likely include other grain berries, such as rye or barley, and pulses, especially chickpeas. “How do grains and pulses play together from a nutrient perspective? They have a symbiotic relationship,” said Trouba.
He added a big part of what allows The Annex to bring these kinds of ‘wild’ grains into the wider market is Ardent Mills’ ‘SafeGuard’ technology: a microbial reduction process that diminishes the risk of pathogens.
“We’re now applying that to ancient grains, gluten-free grains, heirloom grains and flours,” he said, noting these “raw agricultural ingredients that come from the field don’t typically go through a kill step.”
Prepping for the next big thing
The Annex is working from a unique place in that it serves both small bakers and major manufacturers. As the world’s largest CPG companies explore offshoots – think tanks, innovation centers or incubators – Ardent Mills is “a little bit of that all mixed in,” said Trouba.
“When it comes to innovative startup companies, it can be a challenge to think through the supply chain. We have relatively manageable minimums on a lot of our unique ingredients, but even then, we figure out ways to send a bag, if we need to send a bag. And certainly long-term, we want that to grow, but we’re relatively flexible when it comes to that.”
For instance, an independent pizza shop might be interested in the company’s White Sonora Wheat: The 18th century wheat berry offers a slightly sweeter flavor than typical wheat and a buttery yellow color.
“That’s part of the reason we created the Annex. It’s a smaller group, and we can relate to the needs of those who want to build things from a smaller volume or a smaller starting point. It’s about earning their trust; it’s about supporting them and helping them.”
In December, Ardent Mills committed to bolstering the organic wheat crop two-fold within five years. It will learn of the goal's viability once USDA data is made available after the 2019 harvest.
“I think we’re pretty encouraged by it. At the end of the day, we’ll need to see where the goals net out, but for us as a company and personally, we wanted to support the market – and we’ve done that. We’ve helped stabilize the market,” Trouba told us.
In 2015, the company ran two organic mills and sold a couple of flour SKUs. By the end of 2019, it will have 14 facilities, including the Portland bakery and a mix plant in Puerto Rico, as well as several new products. Today, organic is the ‘fastest growing part of Ardent Mills’ overall portfolio,’ according to Trouba.
“Organic has always been a part of Ardent Mills – and the companies that came together to form Ardent Mills five years ago – but we saw a market need to leverage our expertise and skills and supply chain to help make sure there was a consistent quality supply of organic flour,” he said.
“For us and for our customers, it’s been a success. The other part is building that awareness and bringing farmers on the journey.”