Reinventing America’s regional grain milling and supply chain infrastructure is a powerful goal for innovators like Cairnspring Mills. Opened in June 2017, this grain mill in Burlington, Washington, U.S., specializes in European-style specialty bread flours that contain more wheat bran and germ for deeper flavor, such as Yecora Rojo Type 85 and Organic Expresso — each designated by the variety of wheat.

“We process single varietal flours, mostly type 85 (ash content),” said Kevin Morse, chief executive officer of Cairnspring Mills, who spent nearly 10 years as program director and economic development executive for The Nature Conservancy in Seattle. He left in 2015 to become co-founder of Cairnspring Mills with Tom Hunton, owner of Camas Country Mill, which operates a stone mill in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and focuses on whole grain flours.

As the movement of local bakeries milling their own flour continues to grow in the United States, the next step — the regional mill — is beginning to take shape. George DePasquale, co-founder of Seattle wholesaler The Essential Baking Co., a customer of Cairnspring, recalls participating in flavor panels when Cairnspring was testing various bread flours prior to opening.

“Those were great sessions,” DePasquale said. “When six or eight people were coming up with the same verbiage, then you know you’re on to something. As we get our bread on to the chef’s tables and people across the country are gaining interest in local grains, we are understanding the possibilities. If people can spend $30 on a bottle of olive oil, then why not spend $10 on a great loaf of bread?”

There are 183 flour mills in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and hundreds have closed during the last 100 years. But now the local food movement and the drive toward sustainable agriculture is attracting new investors to support change in the grain industry.

Cairnspring’s key partners include Patagonia’s venture capital fund Tin Shed Ventures, the Port of Skagit, Camas Country Mill and Washington State University’s The Bread Lab, as well as local farmers.

The multiple-year project involved a trip to Scandinavia where the partners worked with a milling company (which Morse declined to name) to develop a roller mill/stone mill hybrid. Cainspring Mills currently has a capacity of 5 million to 6 million pounds of flour per year, focusing on serving smaller bakeries that use between 500 pounds and 1,000 pounds of flour per week. San Francisco’s acclaimed Tartine Bakery is their largest customer, Morse said.

“We choose a combination of roller and stone milling because of the way the stone incorporates the wheat germ into the flow and incorporates those flavors into the finished product,” Morse said. “By using a roller mill, it essentially doubles our capacity to 1,200 kilograms per hour.”

Their milling process involves multiple steps: tempering the wheat, a roller break, then to the stone mill, and finally a sift at the end prior to the finished flour.

Hunton of Camas Country Mill has been using stone mills for more than six years. Much of what is milled and packaged at Camas Country Mill comes direct from owner Tom Hunton’s third generation family farm, located southwest of Junction City, Oregon, U.S. Hunton’s Farm was started in 1952 at the current farm headquarters by Everett and Ellen Hunt.

“His primary product is whole grain flour,” said Morse, who refers to Hunton as “my sensei when it comes to grains.” “We focus on European-style flour.”

Cairnspring Mills works with nearly a dozen wheat farmers in Washington and Oregon, where they often produce extremely high yields (100 to 150 bushels per acre) of winter wheat, he said.

Reflecting on his previous career, Morse said, “I got to see what happens when local producers leave an area. We lost a lot of farmers.”

Now, their goal is to help rebuild the local farm community.

“We pay growers $1.50 to $2 a bushel more than commodity wheat,” he said. “The bar is definitely higher, and they have to earn it. We have no false notion that our flour will replace commodity flour, but we are certainly going to offer a choice and a whole new variety of flours that you can’t find elsewhere. Consumers today are willing to pay for certain attributes. That’s what makes it work.”

Cairnspring Mills is banking on a higher customer demand for specialty flours that are 100% traceable made from premium, identity-preserved wheats.

DePasquale said his wholesale bakery uses Expresso variety wheat in a new single-origin bread line that includes three products: a miche, baguette and pan bread.

“You can identify the flavors,” DePasquale said. “It’s a good wheat. I’ve been playing around with different flavors, wherever I can find heritage wheats. We needed to make this work commercially. We’re a mid-size bakery, so a certain amount of bread has to be pretty consistent. We can’t say to the customer that this will be available when it’s available.”

Looking ahead, Morse said the partners in the business have aspirations for building more mills once they work through the inevitable cycles of building a profitable business model.

“Our idea of getting bigger is making bigger mills,” he said. ‘We want to find new places with local communities where there is a need. There’s a market demand for traceability, and we are 100% traceable. We know all of our farmers personally.”

Spearheading change

Fueled by work from The Bread Lab and others, innovators in the West coast and Pacific Northwest are helping lead the way for how specialty wheats are grown and freshly milled into flour at local or regional mills.

Nicky Giusto of Central Milling, a leading miller of organic and specialty flours based in Logan, Utah, U.S., explained that milling in-house can create two very difficult horses to tame: flour consistency and grain quality. Many bakers that he sees milling in-house tend to blend flour from a mill with their local product to make their in-house milling system work — “not ideal for the baker that has all their chips on the local table,” Giusto said, “but a step in the right direction. Milling in-house makes sense for bakers that do not live near a mill or bakers that are wanting to bake with only the freshest whole grain flour,” he said. “However, they are complicating a profession that is already difficult. It’s not easy to mill flour consistently; the stone mill needs to be watched and the granulation felt often. Even if the baker is successful at milling to a consistent granulation, they may be dealing with local wheat that has its quality fluctuations. Most local farmers are not providing the bakers who are purchasing their grain with an analysis of their grain. The baker will have to spend a lot of time adjusting their mix, which can lead to lost product — wasted money.”

Mike Zakowski, owner of The Bejkr in Sonoma, California, U.S., agreed that grain quality can vary a lot from season to season, even plot to plot, “as all soils are different and have different needs for replacing nutrients into the soil. For example, if it’s a hard red wheat that is weak or has a low protein that won’t develop into good bread structure, maybe it can be used for sprouting, crackers, dog biscuits and possibly countless other uses.”

Craig Ponsford, baker and instructor at Central Milling’s Artisan Baking Center, said that a one-man show doing in-house milling seems to almost make it look easy, “but as soon as there are other hands involved, then it becomes difficult. The chance of having two master bakers in one location is very unlikely, let alone one. The respect factor — for me — is consistency, and my guess is if you are trying to mill more than 30% of your flour needs, then you are having a hard time with consistency. I highly recommend keeping it small and manageable part of the business.”

Bellegarde Bakery in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S., is a wholesale bakery providing fresh flour and bread to more than 100 restaurants and markets in Louisiana. One of Bellegarde’s head bakers, Morgan Angelle, said they use a 40-inch granite stone mill to mill their flour, producing nearly 5,000 loaves of bread a week. Currently they mill six varieties of grain.

“Being able to do our own milling and baking test is a great advantage to having our own stone mill,” Angelle said. “I always like to know what is out there and what our most trusted farmers are growing and why. Before making a new grain purchase, we always mill a sample of the harvest to perform our own test. We do prefer a higher protein flour (12% to 15%), but more important is the quality of the protein.”

Founded in 2013, Manresa Bread has two retail locations in the San Francisco Bay Area and is available at Verve Coffee Roasters locations in Santa Cruz and San Francisco. The bakery produces 3,500 loaves of bread a week, using more than 4,000 pounds of organic flour. About 2,000 pounds of this flour is freshly milled in-house each week. Manresa Bread produces its bread and pastries in a 3,400-square-foot commissary kitchen located down the street from the Los Gatos retail space. Earlier this year, Manresa installed a stone mill to produce freshly milled flours.

“The new mill is something we are learning about,” partner and head baker Avery Ruzicka said. “Now you can put 300 pounds of grain in a hopper at one time, and an hour later (depending on the grain) have 300 pounds of flour. Being an artisan baker, it’s my job to provide the clarity of what the end product should be. With the new mill, we can mill fine flour. We use freshly milled in everything but croissants. Croissants are the next step. The structure will be dictated by the lamination itself. There is not as much room to make edits as in bread making.”

Implications for local grain

Local grain has another obstacle to overcome: financial incentives. Wesley Fehsenfeld of The Uhlmann Company in Kansas City, Missouri, U.S., pointed out the financial incentives of local grain are derived from scarcity and other characteristics that a niche market would assume — very similar to organic crops.

“However, quality crops certainly get rewarded and can stand out from the rest,” he said. “A grain’s story can’t sell itself when it’s quality is lackluster, and it struggles to perform for a baker.

“I think for the average farmer, there is not a huge incentive to allocate acres away from traditional crops to heritage crops. It works for small-scale, sustainably minded landowners who are interested in these heritage grains. For most successful farmers, it would be more of an aggravation to grow heritage grains because marketing is not as easy as hauling to your local elevator. There are a lot of end users who are looking for smaller quantities of cleaned grain in totes, but most farmers don’t have the equipment to custom clean, store, pack and ship smaller quantities. This type of infrastructure is lacking.”

Another consideration is that crop rotations are very advantageous to farmers, Fehsenfeld said. Planting a new crop can help to restore advantageous soil qualities.

“I am not sure that this is a primary driver of heritage grain acres, but it certainly is a plus,” he said. “Organic farmers already have to have a rotation in place, and I think it starts to make more sense for organic operations. I know an organic farmer in Illinois who is dabbling in the heritage grains. He has set up a small mill to service bakeries in Chicago. The bulk of his crop is contracted with end users ranging from distilling to baking. This type of arrangement works very well for the farmer. He has the advantage of being relatively close to a large metro like Chicago and also growing contracted crops.”

The road ahead

The farmer, baker, miller partnership is integral to success at Central Milling, which has been in continuous operation since 1867.

“Central Milling is quite successful because we live by the farmer, miller, baker model rigorously,” Giusto said. “We believe that one cannot exist without the other. In short, we listen to the baker’s wants and needs.”

As for the future of heritage, single-variety grains, he added, “They look nice on a bakery menu. You sound cool talking to a fellow baker, chef, or interested foodie. To me, it’s not sustainable. It can hurt the farmer and can lead to a situation where you’ll be in conflict with your local claim. Let me explain. Heritage is defined by a year range. I’m not sure what this range is exactly, but let’s say it’s 50 years. So, wheat in rotation 50 years ago is somehow superior to varieties, bred, and put into production 40 years ago. What we are saying is in 10 years it will be OK for me to use the newer variety and call it heritage. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Dave Green, executive vice-president of the Wheat Quality Council, agreed.

“There is a reason these varieties aren’t grown now, and it typically has to do with disease resistance,” he said.

Ponsford praised the passion of local bakers in their quest to improve quality but threw out words of caution. When asked if bakeries can develop regional flavor profiles for bread, he responded, “I guess this might be possible. It would have to be something very imprinting, like purple barley, or a special corn or something that really stands out. I am not sure if we will get to the point of having a regional wheat that makes such an impact. Once again, I feel like sometimes there is more thinking about the regional, heritage, local, milled in-house vs. fundamentally good bread.”