Offering a distinctive, high-quality product and engaging deeply with customers aren’t exactly new ideas. But they aren’t what has been called for in commodity-based businesses, which are trapped by global market prices and aim to control the market by brute efficiency. Yet King Arthur and the regional grain companies manage to sell their product at higher prices than do General Mills and Ardent Mills, and also manage to escape, to some degree, the relentless pressures of commodity pricing.
If King Arthur is basically a medium-size, employee-owned corporation that tries to be good, a regional mill like Maine Grains represents a more radical vision: the return of true agricultural localism. As Amber Lambke, the founder and chief executive of Maine Grains, told me, there’s more to that vision than selling a fancy type of flour. The local mill is the missing link in a local food economy that sees regional trade between farmers, bakeries, beer breweries and raisers of livestock.
The regional grain industry also employs more people, relative to its size: Whereas the giant mills are highly automated, run by employees sitting in a control room, stone-milling methods demand more labor. A place like Maine Grains will never come close to competing in terms of efficiency or price. Yet it exists and is growing.
Could more parts of the American economy be restructured along these lines, with employees as beneficiary-owners, with more people doing more work in companies operating on a more reasonable, human scale? We have, for the past few decades, put our faith in an economic model that insists that everyone will be better off if we do everything to make production as cheap as possible, keeping prices and salaries low, and make every region of the economy highly specialized. That approach, it turns out, does make some people rich, but it does not help everyone.
The flour industry might seem an unlikely arena for business innovation. There was once a time, in the 1990s and 2000s, when it was widely thought that Silicon Valley would show us the way to a better, fairer economy, creating entire ecosystems of companies with distinctive offerings. Yet that was before the emergence and eventual dominance of Amazon, Facebook and Google. Instead of high-tech, it is low-tech businesses like craft beer and community supported agriculture that seem to stand at the forefront of economic transformation.
If it can happen with flour, it can happen anywhere.
Tim Wu (@superwuster) is a law professor at Columbia University, a contributing Opinion writer and the author, most recently, of “The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age.”
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