Organic Farmer in Northwest Minnesota Is Operating One of the Nation’s Largest On-Farm Milling Setups

by Roger Blobaum

Ray Juhl is one Midwest farmer who sees production of organically grown grain and stone-milled flour as an emerging agricultural industry with strong demand and unusual growth potential.

He’s so certain of this that he has built and equipped one of the nation’s largest on-farm milling setups. It is located on the 2,500-acre farm near Middle River, Minnesota, where he and his son Douglas produce thousands of bushels of organically grown wheat, barley, oats, and buckwheat.

Main operator of the new mill is Randy Heinbaugh, Juhl’s son-in-law, and initial production is set at two semi loads of flour, corn meal, and rolled oats a week. The output can be doubled with longer days and weekend work.

What has convinced Juhl, a careful businessman, that these large orders will materialize? He says he began getting the message right after buying a used 10-inch stone mill to grind some flour for his wife, Helen, to use in making bread.

Before long he was turning out small bags of flour under a “Natural Way Mill’ label for health food stores in nearby Bemidji and Thief River Falls and for a church youth group selling it as a fundraising project. The word spread almost overnight, he recalled, and he has been overwhelmed with business ever since.

“No one has ever shown this kind of interest in anything we’ve ever done before,” he said. “All I know is that the visitors, the mail, and the phone calls would indicate nearly everybody wants some.”

Although the Juhl farm is 10 miles out in the country in the northwest corner of Minnesota, and only 40 miles from the Canadian border, people from as far away as Minneapolis and St. Paul drive up on weekends to buy organic flour.

Juhl explained that these are individuals who stop by the farm to pick up 25 to 50 pounds of flour to take home. Others, he said, just send a letter with some money in it and say “send me some flour.”

“There has been somebody stopping by almost every day, and every Sunday for sure, and we’ve been trying to get a sign up so people will know when there are tours,” Mrs. Juhl added. “It’s enjoyable but we never know when they are coming.”

Although they have never advertised, the Juhls get dozens of phone and mail inquiries from bakeries, food co-ops, and other volume buyers looking for stone-ground flour. Most of them request samples and that involves putting a lot of flour in the mail.

Juhl is the kind of man who responds to a challenge. When he couldn’t get rail cars three years ago to ship his grain to market, he bought a semi trailer truck. His neighbors wanted some hauled, too, so he bought another. The result is a trucking operation, with three semis and several trailers dispatched regularly from the farm.

The trucks, with their regular runs to far-off places like Florida and California, fit right in with the expanding milling business. Juhl uses them both to deliver flour and other grain products to customers and to bring back organic corn and other grains for the mill.

Although he hasn’t had much time to line up a steady supply of grain, he reported, there apparently is a substantial amount of organic wheat in neighboring North Dakota. This is hard red winter wheat, like he raises on his farm, and is the type used in making bread.

“We’ll have to go to organic farmers in Iowa to get the corn we need and are prepared to reach out as far as we have to in getting the other grains,” he said. “Of course we raise quite a bit ourselves.”

Juhl said he has started raising some hull-less barley, a high-protein cereal variety, for production of stone-milled barley flour. He said there appears to be quite a bit of organic rye and buckwheat in the region. He also has tried making flour from brown rice.

A rodent-proof building 40 feet wide and 104 feet long houses the new equipment, including two 30-inch stone mills that turn out a ton of flour or more an hour. It also has storage space for at least three semi loads of finished product. Other equipment inside includes a high-capacity oats roller, grain cleaners, and hopper bins for cleaned grain.

Grain is brought through one wall into the cleaners from four 2,500-bushel hopper bins alongside the building. Juhl said the bins, plus other storage on the farm, provide enough capacity for between 60,000 and 70,000 bushels of grain of all kinds.

Automatic equipment fills bags to the desired weight and most will carry the “Natural Way Mill” label. It is likely, Juhl added, that printing on the bags soon will include some of his wife’s good bread recipes.

Juhl has been farming without chemicals for three years and applies a humate-type organic fertilizer. The soil is high in organic matter, has not been cropped very long, and its main problem is that it often is too wet in the spring.

“Our yields have been comparable to those of others in the area,” Juhl reported. “I think we’re doing fine with organic methods.”

For many years a large organic garden has supplied most of the food for the Juhl family. They no longer have livestock, and prefer a diet of fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts.

“We’ve been canning for five months, have three freezers full of food, and are ready for the winter,” Mrs. Juhl said. “We practically live on what we raise here on the farm.”

Roger Blobaum interviewed and photographed and wrote about organic farmers in the Midwest in the early 1970s. These organic farmer profiles were initially published during that period in Organic Gardening and Farming magazine or in the Organic Observer. Most were published again later in two Rodale Press publications, the Organic Farming Yearbook of Agriculture published in 1975 and Organic Farming: Yesterday’s and Tomorrow’s Agriculture published in 1977.