After the pandemic flour craze, micro-millers take stock

In March and April 2020, as the pandemic crippled our previously reliable food supply chains, many people discovered fresh flour from small, regional mills. I have evangelized about this kind of flour for years, but to have my personal passion take off in popularity because of a terrifying health crisis was far […]

In March and April 2020, as the pandemic crippled our previously reliable food supply chains, many people discovered fresh flour from small, regional mills. I have evangelized about this kind of flour for years, but to have my personal passion take off in popularity because of a terrifying health crisis was far from ideal.

Now that the dust of the pandemic flour boom has begun to settle, I have been talking to small-scale millers to see how they endured. In the grand scheme of flour, these mills aren’t just small, they’re micro. The milling industry is concentrated like the rest of agriculture, and dominated by four companies that run mega-mills around the country. Wheat is grown far from population centers, harvested in bulk, and sold to grain elevators. Everything, including seed varieties, defaults to industrial standards for factory milling and baking.

By contrast, micro flour mills are working with farmers in their region; in some cases the mills are actually run by the farmers themselves. This is a hard part of the food system to quantify: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) isn’t tracking how many small-scale mills there are or tabulating how many acres of grains are harvested for this kind of processing. There is no craft flour guild, as there is for small-scale malting, to support or speak for this neighborhood of local and regional food systems.

I decided to survey local and regional mills around the country to take stock of the state of micro-local milling. How did these businesses weather the early days of the pandemic? Has the increased demand kept up or did those panic-buyers go back to mass-produced flour or stop baking altogether? Below, some of the successes — and challenges — of meeting the pandemic flour boom.

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Carolina Ground
Established: 2012
Asheville, North Carolina
Pandemic boom: 100% increase in retail sales, 150% increase in milling rates

Carolina Ground was born of another global food crisis, the one caused by commodity grain speculations in 2007 and 2008. Facing impossible prices for flour, a group of bakers in western North Carolina got together to try to secure a local supply. These beginnings undergird Carolina Ground’s business model of serving wholesale bakers.

“We sell our wholesale flour to our bakery customers at a lower price so [they] can make bread that’s affordable,” said miller Jennifer Lapidus. Retail flour sells at a premium to subsidize Carolina Ground’s wholesale business, and by focusing on larger volumes they can drive growth back to farms.

Last year, the mill closed for two weeks to figure out how to keep staff safe. Retail sales doubled when they reopened. A few months later, those sales stabilized to a new normal that was significantly higher than before the pandemic. The boost gave Lapidus confidence about the mill’s stable future: Instead of renewing a rental lease in 2020, she bought an 8,000 square-foot building outside Asheville.

Cairnsprings Mill
Established: 2016
Burlington, Washington
Pandemic boom: 500% increase in retail sales

“We lost 25% of our business when restaurants closed. Opening up to the public saved us,” said co-founder Kevin Morse. The mill is open every Saturday and sells 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of flour each week, but during the early days of the pandemic they were selling 18,000 pounds per week. People now make weekly circuits through the Skagit Valley, where the mill is located, to buy flour, beer, bread, and meat. The consumer response to fresh flour is strong, and this year, Cairnsprings also started an online store and retail distribution to grocery stores.

“Food should be seen as economic development. The need for infrastructure to facilitate food development is key,” said Morse, who worked in rural economic development and at the Nature Conservancy before starting the mill in 2016. The pandemic sent shockwaves through the system — with some positive repercussions for rebuilding middle infrastructure like mills — yet Cairnsprings still struggles with access to business basics, like financing that would help them put in grain silos and another milling line. But, Morse said, “the demand is there.”

Barton Springs Mill
Established: 2016
Dripping Springs, Texas
Pandemic boom: 3,500% increase in retail sales

“Overall, we mill about 12,000 pounds of flour a week, but at the height of it, we were milling 30,000 pounds a week. Between March and April, we went from filling 8 orders a day to 300 orders a day, and stayed at 120 until a few months ago,” said owner James Brown. (This central Texas mill just west of Austin closed for a full week because of the Big Freeze in February, but did not suffer damages.)

Barton Springs stores all 400 tons of its yearly grain needs on-site, so they had plenty of supply to meet the demand. They had plenty of packaging, too. Labor and logistics were trickiest to work out, but Brown hired chefs and sous chefs who were suddenly in limbo to help manage the flow. “It was pretty uncomfortable adjusting, switching from bagging 50-pound bags to 2.5- and 5-pound bags.”

National flour struggles, he said, made a lot more people aware of the grain economy, whether they retain them as customers or not. Right now, their online sales are still higher than pre-pandemic, but only by about 10%. In May, when writing contracts for the next growing season, he decided he couldn’t take any more of a risk, and did not increase the acreage he contracted with farmers. One thing that’s changed, however, is Brown has realized the importance of education. “I know I have to keep our customers returning,” he said. To do that, he has made a commitment to telling more of the story of their flour on social media and other remote educational channels, and he looks forward to reopening the education facility at the mill.

Grist & Toll
Established: 2014
Pasadena, California
Pandemic boom: 200–400% increase in retail sales

“I woke up one morning and our web orders were coming in at one a minute. It was sheer panic,” said owner Nan Kohler. To manage the situation, she shut the website down and began limiting the amount of flour people could buy.

Not wanting to create a backlog, each week she calculated how much grain she had and how long it would take to make each type of flour. Yet when she updated the store, the website would inevitably crash because people were so eager for flour. The pressure was intense, and it strengthened her conviction that the system for producing staple foods in the U.S. needs to change. In particular, Kohler said, California needs four to six regional grain handling facilities to clean, store, and transfer grain because farmers are not able to get crops to the few existing mills. Right now, the nearest cleaning facility is 5 hours away from the Pasadena mill. And where, she asks, is the money going to come from to rebuild this kind of infrastructure?

“Food security needs to become much more compelling to venture capitalists,” said Kohler. This will happen as consumers understand they can create change by choosing good food, she hopes.

Groundup Grain
Established: 2019
Hadley, Massachusetts 
Pandemic boom: 1,000% increase in milling volume

“We had just about everything we needed, a good grain supply and a flour mill,” co-owner Andrea Stanley said of meeting the demand last spring. As the supply chain disruption began, she saw the need for more flour, and contracted with Domoy Farmsin western New York for an extra 40 acres of spring wheat. All of this was possible because Groundup is the logical extension of Valley Malt, Andrea and Christian Stanley’s parallel grain business and pioneering New England malthouse.

Malt business dropped off when breweries and brewpubs were affected by closures, and the mill filled a gap. As their sales demand grew from 1,000 pounds per week to 10,000, they worked 12 to 14 hours a day, six to seven days a week, through June, a pace that convinced them to order another mill from New American Stone Mills.

When Groundup Grain opened in July 2019, they sold strictly wholesale flour because as maltsters, that’s what they knew. Switching from institutional sales to retail bagging early in the pandemic was a bumpy process, but they figured it out. Other challenges included setting up online ordering, learning how to get reasonable shipping rates, and trying to physically keep up with running the mill. Prior to COVID, the Stanleys had only long-term plans for retail, but the retail shift has brought home bakers on board, as a really fun addition: Andrea Stanley observed that, similar to the way people are into craft beer, people can get really into fresh flour, and a crowd of excited amateur experts can have a long impact on regional grain economies.

Janie’s Mill
Established: 2017
Ashkum, Illinois
Pandemic boom: 4,000% in sales

“The mental aspect of what we did,” said farmer and owner Harold Wilken, was really satisfying. “We had letters, emails, text messages, thanking us for flour when they couldn’t find it anywhere else.”

Janie’s Mill has a very short supply chain — they own their mill, grow the grain on their farm, and run a cleaning facility — enabling them to quickly adapt to the spike. Finding 30 extra people to run two shifts was simple because college and high school students were home. Ross Wilken, Harold’s son, usually sticks to farming but took on a night shift to meet the demand. Once things slowed down slightly, the mill was able to offer some of their milling capacity to other farmers, like Granor Farm in Michigan.

Since Janie’s Mill sells all its own retail flour through an online portal, they received valuable feedback from customers. They learned that those customers really wanted rye, so Janie’s increased their rye acreage accordingly. The growth has allowed the mill to work with other farmers, too, to get access to heritage corn varieties and grains that grow better elsewhere, like Kamut and durum. The mill is still very busy, and they created a Facebook group as a way to build community and answer questions; close to 800 people have joined already, exploring the mill’s many kinds of flour.

Maine Grains
Established: 2012
Skowhegan, Maine
Pandemic boom: 4,000% increase in online retail sales

“We’re trying to pretend that March and April never happened. A spike like that may never repeat,” said co-founder and president Amber Lambke. Yet COVID also legitimized mills like hers in the eyes of mainstream retailers. “We got calls from mainstream grocery stores we’ve been trying to get into for years,” she added.

Prior to the pandemic, the mill, located in a small town an hour and a half north of Portland, was averaging 24 online orders a week. At last year’s peak, they had 180 orders each day. The pinch point was milling time and bagging, so they bought two extra bagging and weighing machines. High school kids provided the extra hands.

The mill’s income didn’t skyrocket because the costs went way up. Before March, 82% of the mill’s business was selling bulk flour; this quickly dropped to 50%, and has only recently begun to return. Despite the challenges, Lambke said the mill feels even more secure after this experience. She had to reach out to more farmers than usual to meet their needs, and that makes her feels optimistic that eventually Maine Grains will become a conduit for non-commodity grain growing in the state.

Hayden Flour Mill
Established: 2011
Queen Creek, Arizona
Pandemic boom: 400% sales increase

“We had to turn off the tap at one point because we just couldn’t serve all the orders,” said Emma Zimmerman, who runs the Arizona-based heritage grain mill. “We turned 10 this year, and if this happened eight years ago, we could not have managed it.” They wouldn’t have had access to grains, or been able to ramp up capacity because they were still learning the ropes. Last year, however, they had the skills and supplies to pivot to retail.

Locals discovered them, surprised to find there was a mill in their backyard. At the end of the year, they invested the extra earnings by adding packaging equipment and augurs — and gave staff a good holiday bonus.

“It would have been nice to be able to [buy] a little more grain, but you can’t model on a big blip like that,” said Zimmerman. The impulse to be cautious was already in place, especially because even before the pandemic, the larger grain industry had noticed and begun responding to consumer interest in heritage grains.

The future of regional grains

So, what’s the takeaway? The boom didn’t last for most mills, but many millers feel more stable, and have been able make crucial investments. One of the companies that served this movement, New American Stone Mills, got so busy that they moved to a larger facility, where they are building six to eight mills on any given day, rather than the pre-pandemic level of two or three. But 2020 didn’t ultimately change the big picture of flour in the U.S. very much. Every day, 160 million pounds of flour is milled in the conventional industry. And it’s not clear how much change small mills can make without larger systemic investments and policy change.

Not that we needed a crisis to show us that regional agriculture needs processing infrastructure; studies like Vermont’s Farm to Plate local-foodshed initiative made that clear a decade ago. My hope is that small flour mills’ ability to step up and answer needs of consumers early in the pandemic has helped private investors understand the importance of regional infrastructure for grain.

Read more Civil Eats: It’s Time to Reinvent Food Banks, Says Expert Katie Martin

“Without aggregating and processing infrastructure, there really is no way for farmers to step into the (grains) market. Investment in that area is key,” said Heather Darby, head of the University of Vermont’s Crops and Soils Team, a key player in supporting the redeveloping grainshed in the Northeast.

Investment doesn’t have to be dream capital sailing in on a cloud. Changing lending habits and farm policies would help regional grain systems a lot. For instance, the USDA offers very low interest loans for silos to farmers, but mills are not eligible unless they grow the crops they want to store. Farmers don’t always have the opportunity to ensure food-grade or malt grains; crop insurance is set by the patterns of what is already grown in a region. Novelty is not rewarded with protection against crop failures.

Did I expect the surge in sales last spring to recreate grain networks that have been disappearing since the 1870s? Maybe I did, hoping against hope that the food sector I adore is growing so slowly. Magical thinking makes me wish that consumer exposure to fresh flour changed things—but two months of desperately voting with one’s fork can’t reverse 150 years of consolidation in the food system.

It’s going to take generations to rebuild regional grainsheds, as miller Greg Russo from Farmer Ground Flour in Trumansburg, New York, reminded me. “The market is still forming itself. Bakers are still figuring it out. Farmers and millers are figuring out what quality criteria we can use, what we need,” he said. “It’s not so easy to scale this up.”

It’s certainly not easy, but I believe it’s worth the work.

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