Mark Fowler

Mark Fowler

Farmers can appreciate better than most how a parent’s choices can transform their children’s lives. In Mark Fowler’s case, his father’s path led him away from his parent’s Kansas farm, to be the first in the family to receive a college degree and onward to a career as a Spanish teacher.

Although Fowler spent time on his grandfather’s wheat and cattle ranch growing up, his father was whetting his appetite for international travel, taking him on trips to Mexico with his Spanish classes. When it was the younger Fowler’s turn to go to college, his grandfather took him aside, letting him know there would be a place for him if he came back to the farm. The young man took the offer under advisement, but wanted to try his own thing.

That “thing” turned out to be getting a degree from Kansas State University (KSU) in milling sciences and management and from his first job, a desire to work overseas. It took a few years to get there, employed first with Cargill in Wichita. Jumping to Seaboard, an international grain processing and trading business, he became milling specialist in the corporate office visiting and offering advice for the company’s milling operations in South America, Africa and Caribbean. Later he served as the Technical director for the Seaboard Overseas Group working out of their office in Durban, South Africa Even when Fowler returned to KSU to work for its International Grains Program for 14 years, he reveled in the opportunities to teach people from other countries as well as travel overseas.

Deciding to scratch an entrepreneurial itch, Fowler left KSU to lead Farmer Direct Foods, a small cooperative specializing in stone ground hard white wheat. Two years in, he realized it was the first time in 20 years he’d been away from the international milling industry—and he missed it.

Enter Vince Peterson, who had recently been elevated to president of U.S. Wheat Associates and was looking for an individual to replace him as vice president of overseas operations. Although Fowler gave his wife and two daughters veto power over the USW offer—and another move—it’s easy to imagine the family couldn’t stand in the way of a job that had “overseas” in its title.

It’s been a little more than a year since Fowler took on his new duties at USW.  Scott Yates, director of communications and producer relations for the Washington Grain Commission thought it a good time to check in.

WGC: What do you think as you look back over your career so far?

Fowler: I think of it as different chapters of my life. At a relatively young age, I had the opportunity to gain a lot of experience with Cargill in the domestic industry and then with Seaboard, the international industry. When my family was of an age not to travel so much and we went back to Kansas to be closer to family, I continued to be involved in international milling at IGP. We spent 14 years in Manhattan, raising a family. Having a hometown provided stability that was important to my wife and I for our daughters.

WGC: Were you familiar with U.S. Wheat Associates?

Fowler: I like to say I’m U.S. Wheat’s oldest, newest employee because I have worked with them for more than 20 years. When I was with the Seaboard Corporation, I was U.S Wheat’s customer. I was receiving the U.S. crop quality information and meeting staff and talking about different mills and locations and what wheat would work best. I was the target of their trade servicing activities. Then, when I went back to Kansas, I cooperated with U.S. Wheat to provide trainings for groups that came through the IGP. I also worked for them, traveling once or twice a year as a milling consultant. I’m very familiar with U.S. Wheat and U.S. Wheat is very familiar with me!

WGC: Do you think that your history in the milling industry is an advantage?

Fowler: Knowing all the variables and dynamics of the global wheat industry, the different products made in different regions, the different options companies have to buy grain, and especially having the perspective of a miller or a milling company–that gives me a solid foundation. I’m bringing a different perspective to U.S. wheat because of my background.

WGC: But is your experience a double edge sword? You look at the world through the lens of a miller. What are you missing?

Fowler: When I compare myself to Vince, my weakness is in the ability to analyze the markets from a technical perspective. But U.S. Wheat as an organization has a history that is very strong in market analysis. My background in the milling utilization side brings a perspective on export quality, technical service, mill utilization, and grain origination and how grain from different origins is used. Vince and others are very strong in developing a market analysis perspective. I like to believe my perspective is adding to the strength of the organization. As the global industry becomes more competitive, U.S. Wheat has to match that competitiveness and add more layers to customer service. Price was the dominant variable for many years. Now, as we become more competitive, we have to add the quality variable.

WGC: We in the Northwest have been beating the quality drum for quite some time, but I’ve also heard it said that a good miller who knows what he or she is doing, can basically make a poor wheat perform well enough. Is that true?

Fowler: You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but there is a lot you can do. Wheat producers are three steps away from consumers. The first customer for wheat is the mill because nobody eats wheat or flour for that matter. You have to convert the commodity into an edible product. The type of wheat you choose is dependent on the flour you need. The type of flour you need is dependent on the quality of the product you are making for the consumer. The quality of the wheat needed is dependent on the quality of the market. While you can make a cake out of almost any kind of wheat, it you want the finest cake with the best texture and melt in your mouth feel, you need soft white wheat from the state of Washington. Yes, you can make a cake out of wheat from Argentina, as an example, but it is going to have a tougher texture.

WGC: Is the average consumer really going to care about the texture?

Fowler: No, not in every market, but in the markets where we are successful, Japan, Korea, China among others, the consumers are aware of quality and have a definite preference. Your average consumer may or may not know the difference or even the quality they want, but they know the quality they don’t want. Again, it depends on the market. Think about Italians. They know good pasta from bad pasta. Americans not so much. It’s market dependent. It’s also important to think about value. U.S. wheat is low moisture and has a big kernel size. That can make a difference in flour extraction of up to 1 percent compared to an origin with higher moisture and a variable kernel size.

WGC: In terms of wheat exports, Asia has been the Pacific Northwest’s bread and butter. We are now hoping to expand the Latin American market. Is it possible the countries to our south will become another Indonesia?

Fowler: There’s no doubt we need a larger presence in Latin America. It is a growing market. In fact, sales in our two regions that make up Latin America has grown from almost 27 percent of total U.S. wheat exports in 2008 to more than 38 percent of our total in the last marketing year. But when you compare it to Indonesia, the population in Latin America is not growing as fast. And it is very competitive. Canada is a strong presence in this hemisphere and Argentina continues to be a strong competitor for wheat markets in Brazil.

WGC: I recently checked how far it is from Indonesia to Australia versus the U.S. to Indonesia. Australia is 7,000 miles closer than the U.S. Can Indonesia really be a consistent market for us when Australia is so near?

Fowler: It’s really comes down to a simple math equation. Given the population growth in Asia, Australia cannot supply all the wheat necessary. Yes, Australia has a competitive advantage on freight and logistics, but it can’t produce all the wheat needed to supply the growing Asian population.

WGC: Vince Peterson was in your position for 12 years. How has he been at letting go?

Fowler: The transition has been pretty good. Vince has needed to move on and take over the job responsibilities in his new role. I think we have worked together long enough that he has confidence in his decision to bring me on board. There have been bumps along the way. Being a new person at USW is a rare thing. One of the strengths of the organization is that in nearly every one of our offices, we have someone with 20 plus years of experience. That kind of longevity is rare in today’s environment. Bringing in a different perspective to a very mature organization has presented opportunities to look at operations in a new way. I believe one of the reasons I was hired was the need to strengthen the perspective of millers and milling operations and continue the development into a more multi-dimensional organization—not just market analysis, but product development and business analysis too.

WGC: Are you concerned about the trade war that’s developing with China?

Fowler: I think the long-term benefits to improving trade relations with China are positive for the U.S. wheat producer. Our history with China, even in 2017 when they imported 1.7 million metric tons—that’s still less than 2 percent of their consumption. Anything that improves our access to China is going to be positive.

WGC: It’s been suggested that soft white, as a specialty wheat, is in an enviable position compared to some other classes. No other country grows soft white like ours. Are we in the catbird seat?

Fowler: Soft white is a wheat that provides unique qualities, but there is always going to be competition. When you have a product like soft white that does provide unique qualities, your competitors are going to work hard to replicate it. You can never rest on your laurels. The only constant is change and if we aren’t changing to meet the needs of our consumers, somebody else will.