By Roger Blobaum
The search for more markets for buckwheat and other grains, a continuing challenge to organic farmers in the Midwest, is being met by a group of producers near Winona in southeast Minnesota.
They purchased the Stockton roller mill, a water-powered landmark shut down three years ago when the miller retired, and surprised even themselves when they turned it into a thriving business in less than a year.
This was accomplished with a milling facility that had its last new equipment installed prior to World War I, draws its power from a slow-moving brook, grinds flour like it was ground in the late 1800s, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Sites.
The rustic mill, which has been grinding grain for Stockton area farrers since 1857, is not yet fully restored. But word spread quickly when the wheels started turning last March and the new owners have been overwhelmed with orders for buckwheat pancake mix and other organic products.
These include whole grain flours, some corn meal, and the longtime favorite, flour milled from natural dried buckwheat. This product, carrying the colorful “Stockton Brand” label, once again is reaching a national market. The mill also cleans, bags, and sells wheat, rye, millet, soybeans, and sunflower seeds.
The reason the mill got off to a fast start was the managerial touch of Marc Schwartz, 27, who had experience with stone mills in his native Pennsylvania and had managed a large food cooperative in Pittsburgh.
He left Duquesne University and a career in physiological psychology after becoming convinced Vitamin B deficiency contributed to schizophrenia. He decided whole grain food could remedy the illness and this influenced his decision to learn all he could about milling and to come to Stockton.
Coming from Pennsylvania where the organic movement is well established, he said, he was relieved to find he didn’t have any difficulty obtaining Minnesota-grown organic grains for most of his milling needs.
“I was quite surprised when I attended a dinner shortly after arriving here and found about 300 organic farms from this area were represented,” he said. “I have never seen organic farmers gather like that in Pennsylvania.”
Ed Ellinghuysen, who operates a 339-acre organic farm near Stockton, organized the group that decided to buy and operate the mill. He said he got the idea one night while milking and called together a group of farmers who farmed like he did but had been unable to find organic outlets for their grain.
“With such a demand for natural food, I felt it was a disgrace to let the old mill sit there idle and deteriorate,” he said. “I knew it was a good mill and remember my dad telling about the times he took grain down there.”
The group incorporated the Stockton Realty Co., raised the money that was needed, and purchased the old mill. The transaction covered the wood and stone grist mill, a house for the miller, the concrete dam and mill pond, and several acres along Garvin Brook on the edge of Stockton.
The incorporators, in addition to Ellinghuysen, were Ed Hauck of Millville, Paul Drenckhahn of Minneiska, Marlyn Peters of Lake City, and Fred Giese of Stockton, all dairy farmers; Mrs. Evelyn Rupprecht of Lewiston, widow of a farmer, and Bill Cornforth of La Crescent, a farm owner.
Their first break was finding Ronald Graner, a miller who worked for the Department of Agriculture as a flour inspector, and hiring him to direct the 6-month job of cleaning and repairing the equipment. It was taken apart, rusty duct and hopper linings were replaced, and everything was put in order so it could pass government inspection.
In the beginning it was decided the mill would grind organically-grown grain for its owners and do some custom milling for others to stay busy. But it became apparent almost immediately that it would succeed beyond anyone’s expectations and would be hard pressed just to keep up with incoming orders.
“We do custom grinding to the extent that if a farmer brings in 500 bushels of wheat we’ll exchange flour ground in a certain way for it,” Schwartz explained. “But we can no longer take that specific wheat and grind it for him.”
The immediate challenge was encouraging more production of buckwheat, the mill’s specialty and a traditional cash crop in the area in the past. This was done by putting 500 bushels of seed in the hands of organic producers, who repaid the mill with new crop buckwheat in the fall.
The program was an unqualified success, partly because flooding and an unusually wet spring delayed planting of corn and soybeans. Buckwheat is a late, short-season crop and organic farmers in the area were delighted to have a chance to produce it for a local market.
Ellinghuysen said the mill will push production of wheat and rye this coming spring and plans to put out contracts for varieties of wheat with good milling and baking qualities. Some of the organic wheat needed at the mill this first year had to be shipped in from Arrowhead Mills in Texas.
Small flags stuck in a map on the mill office wall show where the largest shipments have gone. They include natural food warehouses in the Midwest and food cooperatives in cities like Madison, Wis., Lansing, Mich., and Chicago.
“We sell our products from Washington State to the tip of California and from the top of New England into the South,” Schwartz reported. “We’ve had an extremely good response, are even getting orders from foreign buyers, and have twice as much business as we can handle.”
He said the Stockton Mill does not give big discounts to wholesalers or allow exclusive dealerships and tries to avoid selling to outlets that mark prices up too much. This is done, he said, because the mill’s owners feel organic foods should not be priced so high people can’t afford them.
Why doesn’t the Stockton facility put on a night shift like the big mills in Minneapolis or operate on weekends to meet the growing demand for its organic products? There’s a simple answer: Garvin Brook was running through Stockton long before the mill was built, has always given the mill a good night’s rest and the weekend off, and has no intention of working any harder.
“We’ve been able to run the mill up to 16 hours a day in the summer for four days and for eight hours on the fifth day,” Schwartz said. “This winter we expect to have enough power to go 10 hours a day for five days.”
Water backs up in the mill pond overnight and on weekends, then delivers power as it rushes through a sluice box into a head box and through two vertical turbines. One is rated at 80 horsepower and the other at 45, providing ample power to lift grain three stories high and operate the obstacle course of rollers, shakers, sifters, purifiers, and hoppers as it is fed back down.
The mill is an ecological marvel–no dust or smoke or noise–and blends in with the other buildings in the little valley hamlet (pop. 346). It is a block off U.S. 14, a quiet highway since most if its traffic was diverted to a new interstate road nearby, and shares the Stockton business district with a grocery store, two taverns, and a cycle and snowmobile shop.
Schwartz said it is believed the Stockton mill has the first set of rolling mills installed in this country. Working with them has changed his attitude toward steel rollers, he said, because he had always been told that stone grinders turned out a superior product because they heated the flour less.
He takes an intense interest in this because of his concern over the Vitamin B that is lost when flour gets hot. The slow-moving rollers at Stockton, he said, run cooler than most stone mills.
“We can run 16 hours a day here and the flour is always cool–it never gets hot,” he declares. “I’ve worked with modern stone mills that turn so fast the flour will heat up so you can’t hold it in your hand.”
However, to meet the growing demand for stone ground flour, a large stone flour mill is on order for installation in the Stockton facility before spring.
Only two of the old mill’s six grinders have been used so far by the new owners. The others, plus the new stone mill and other equipment being restored, will increase milling capacity substantially in the next few months. Two 5,000-bushel steel bins also have been installed to provide organic grain storage.
“We’ll pretty much stay where we are regarding what grains we are buying but we will increase our capacity with the new stone mill and with the restoration of other parts of the mill as we go along,” Schwartz said. “The mill is here to get good food to people at a decent price and we have no interest in starting a big flour empire here in Stockton.”