Mill the spark for 'a lot of opportunites'

The story of Timaru's new flour mill is on of parchialism, staunchly based on leveraging off local expertise and resources, and seed and grain varieties developed for New Zealand's highly variable environment.

Farmers Mill Ltd chairman Murray Turley - a local arable farmer - is confident the new mill will open up a whole lot of opportunities for growers, for South Canterbury, and for the South Island. Turley says the $10-million mill is the result of arable farmers wanting to secure their future after milling-industry control moved overseas and the number of cropping farms within Canterbury shrank as many converted to dairy. Bringing back milling production in South Canterbury was the obvious step, he says. "We knew there was no better way to do this than to get 12 South Canterbury arble farmers to team up, mill their own grain, and work closely with our customers and the New Zealand public."

He is proud so much has been achieved by a farmer-owner company and, with prospects looking positive, is hopeful stall numbers will swell beyond the present nine. The mill, which began commerical production in April, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Grainstor Ltd, which has the South Island's largest grain-storage complex (total capacity of more than 25,000 metric tonnes) at Washdyke, on Timaru's northern reaches. All but one of Grainstor Ltd's 12 shareholders are growers, with Turley as chairman. The new mill has 28 suppliers of grain, all from South and Mid Canterbury. It is designed to process both soft and hard wheat, and has capacity to process up to 40,000 tonnes of wheat and produce up to 28,000 tonnes of high-grade baking flour a year.

It took 10 months to build and, after trial flour production as part of the commissioning process in March, set about its first contract - supply flour to biscuit-maker Griffins Foods Ltd. Turley says the work of the Foundation of Arable Research, funded from levies received from its grower members, has been crucial in ensuring arable farmers have access to the latest information to maximise on-farm production. "The foundation is constantly researching ways to improve crop performance, from timing of chemical and fertiliser application through to crop management programmes. Its work is critical to the future of the seed and grain industry." He says the growing trend amongst consumers to seek greater transparency on food safety and traceability should help Farmers Mill. New Zealand arable farm practices can match, if not bettr, the best overseas growers have to offer.

While industry data suggest New Zealand harvest volumes of wheat have risen 29% in the past five years, he says it is disappointing that the imported volume of wheat has increased by 88% in the same period. Turley describes the arable industry as being in good heart and willing to embrace the challenges posed by competing land uses and global demand for protein derived from quality production sources. He is also an advocate of vertical integration, and is adamant the brightest future will come through farmers unlocking the value that resides within the "paddock to plate" supply chain. "That's the way of the future in this industry, not the generic rhetoric from others that so often surrounds the philosophy."

- Written by Sue Russell, Business Rural Spring 2013