On a clear, sunny afternoon in late August, all is quiet outside The Mill at Janie’s Farm. Situated between industrial buildings and some small brick homes, The Mill currently bears no formal signage. It’s windy today, and although Ashkum, Illinois – about 77 miles south of Chicago – is the last place you’d expect it, a tumbleweed breezes past the front door. The stillness doesn’t last for long: Seconds later, a large Champagne-colored truck rounds the corner up ahead, humming loudly, and parks in front of the building. The driver is Harold Wilken, owner of Janie’s Farm and The Mill at Janie’s Farm.
“This is Marvin,” he says of the truck, throwing open the passenger door. “Marvin belonged to a neighbor, another local farmer named Marvin. Marvin has so much personality that we decided we had to name the truck after him.”
Marvin is just one of many examples of Wilken’s connection to the local farming community. A fifth-generation farmer, he’s been raising grain in Ashkum for almost 40 years. He’ll tell you that the past 16 years have been the most fulfilling – and busiest – of his life. That’s because, in 2002, after 23 years of conventional farming, Wilken transitioned to organic.
He opened The Mill in 2017, and in just a year, its output has already grown considerably.
The farm grows both heirloom and hybrid grain varieties, from heritage Turkey Red, a hard red winter wheat, to Erisman, a soft red winter wheat. As with most things on the farm, Wilken personally drove to Jennings, Kansas, to get the parent seed for Turkey Red from a family farm. Although Wilken takes pride in his organic crops, he also grows some transitional wheat, which means it’s not certified organic yet, but in transition to become so; it takes three years for land to be certified organic. His transitional wheat flour is sold at a lower price than the organic flours produced at The Mill, making it a more affordable option for some customers.
As he drives from The Mill to a few of the 2,500 acres he farms in Danforth, just three miles away, the only thing that changes is the scenery. It’s quiet in his fields of wheat, and Wilken seems to appreciate the calm. That’s probably because he doesn’t get a lot of it these days; his cellphone, currently inside one of Marvin’s cupholders, is constantly buzzing with calls and texts from clients, farmers, chefs, bakers and even university researchers. Last week, Wilken was in upstate New York to buy used equipment for the mill. This morning, he was picking up wheat from a farm he contracts with nearby, and tomorrow he’s giving three local farmers a tour of his operation, as they’re hoping to also make the jump from farming with chemicals to organic. His voice is a little hoarse today, but a smile never leaves his face.
“When we started going organic, I had a neighbor come over – he’s 10 years older than me – and he said, ‘Harold, I’m worried about you. If you go organic, you’ll never rent another piece of ground. Nobody is going to have anything to do with you; you’re going to be all on your own.’” Wilken says. “And I said, ‘I thank you very much for your concern, but I feel that this is what I have to do.’ That was about 1,700 acres ago.”
One thing that noticeably separates Wilken’s fields of wheat from most neighboring farms are signs proudly announcing that his crops are organic and that chemicals aren’t sprayed here – and can’t be.
At Janie’s Farm, Wilken, working alongside his business partner, his 27-year-old son, Ross, raises crops to U.S. Department of Agriculture and Organic Crop Improvement Association standards. Organic farming always made sense to Wilken, but for most of his life, that path didn’t seem viable. He still remembers the way his grandparents farmed their land without the use of herbicides and pesticides and a focus on nurturing strong soil health. His family has long had a farm near Sedalia, Missouri, as well, and his childhood memories of farming without chemicals never left him.
However, when Wilken was just beginning his career in the 1970s, most farmers in his area had transitioned to what’s known today as conventional farming. This style of farming saw rapid expansion in America during the ‘50s and ‘60s and relies on the use of chemicals to grow commodity monocrops like corn and soybeans. On a conventional farm, crops are sprayed with herbicides and pesticides to combat disease and insects; once harvested, they’re cleaned and processed. Unlike with corn and soybeans, though, there’s no formal process for cleaning grains: This means that when conventional wheat is milled into flour, for example, residual chemicals linger in the final product.
“In the 1990s, I was a conventional farmer and hated it – I hated when I had to spray Roundup,” Wilken says, pulling Marvin off the main road. “I was just miserable, and you could never get ahead.”
Marvin is now cruising through the front lawn of a house and farmstead with a small orchard. This is the home of Jill Brockman-Cummings and her husband, Will. For the past two years, Brockman-Cummings has been the mill manager for The Mill at Janie’s Farm, although she and Wilken share a much deeper history. She grew up in Congerville, Illinois – her father, Herman Brockman, was a professor at Illinois State University in nearby
Normal – and her grandparents owned a farm in Danforth. In the late 1990s, Herman began purchasing his parents’ farm, and around the same time, Brockman-Cummings and her young family moved to town as well. Not a farmer by trade, Herman was looking for an organic farmer to take over the management of his land and knew that Wilken was interested in making that transition. It wouldn’t happen right away, though.
In 2001, Harold and his wife, Sandy, lived every parent’s nightmare: Their eldest child, Janie, died in a car accident at the age of 15.
“After she passed away, [Herman] contacted me in a condolence letter,” Wilken remembers. “He said, ‘I know this is not the time, but when you feel right, call me: I’d like you to consider organically farming my farm.’ And that was the beginning of a change.”
Wilken steers Marvin back onto the road. After a minute or two, he pulls off again, this time near one of his alfalfa fields. He glances out the driver’s-side window; it’s getting late in the day and the sun is creeping closer toward the horizon.
“I’m telling ya, there are so many… it’s not coincidences,” he says. “I miss my daughter a lot, but I also feel that she’s here. I feel she’s the one who has made the connections or helped from the other side. Somebody already had the name Spirits Farms, [so] I thought it was right to call our farm Janie’s Farm.”
Looking back, farming Herman’s land was a turning point for Wilken. Once he gained some experience and confidence with organic growing, he diversified, expanding from corn, soybeans and wheat to oats, rye, buckwheat and alfalfa, as well, plus the heirloom grain he grows today. Since moving back to Danforth in the early 2000s, Brockman-Cummings has seen Wilken develop a reputation as the go-to organic farmer in the area. Today, he works with 22 tenant farmers, six full-time owners and employees and two part-time employees. One of those full-timers is Tim Vaske, Wilken’s nephew; Vaske maintains farm equipment for Wilken and Ross and raises a herd of grass-fed beef nearby.
“People just started coming to Harold,” Brockman-Cummings says. “The word was out: There’s a guy in Iroquois County and he’s farming organically. I think that’s one thing that Harold feels really good about, is that he’s employing people. It’s revitalized the economic opportunities in this area, and it just keeps growing. It’s really just been a blessing to have Harold and his son do this.”
Wilken puts Marvin back in drive – it’s time to head back to The Mill. It used to be that his work was mostly in these fields, but today, he’s managing a much larger operation, with plans to grow it bigger still.
Years before the two Engsko stone mills from Denmark were installed at The Mill, Wilken, Ross and Brockman-Cummings were focused on research. They traveled to mills across the country, from Oregon to New York, to see how other people were milling grain to make whole-kernel flour. It was during a mill tour in New York that Wilken met Amy Halloran, author of The New Bread Basket. The book charts the 10,000-year history of grain growing, including how America has drifted away from local and regional milling over the past 100 years. Although people like Wilken are seeking to bring that tradition back to communities across America, it’s slow going.
“Harold is a demonstration of exactly what’s missing to help create regional grain economies," Halloran says. "The mill is not just set up to benefit his farm, but to help several growers. He’s not looking just to process his own grain – no mill is. They’re engines of regional economies that eventually provide a market for a lot more than a single farm. The interest in a local or regional grain product and economy is coming along, but it’s much slower than other areas of local food, because [mills] – that intermediate processing facility – [have] disappeared, and because that processing facility is so expensive to create. Consumers being able to taste the difference figures into the equation of the value you put on the product, too.”
Unlike a bag of white all-purpose flour you buy at the grocery store, The Mill’s flours vary in color, from grayish-blue rye and rosy Turkey Red to light brown Glenn bread flour.
“They’re not the same product,” Brockman-Cummings says of most industrially milled flours. “There’s no flavor from their flour. It’s a medium, whereas ours is a medium with flavor and nutrition.”
All of the flours produced at The Mill are whole-kernel, which means the nutrition in the bran and germ – including oils, vitamins, proteins, amino acids and minerals – are left intact. This is achieved with those Danish Engsko stone mills; most large industrial mills use high-speed roller mills, which process out the bran and germ.
“The fat and flavor lie in the bran and the germ of the kernel, and largely in the germ,” Halloran says. “That germ is not reintegrated in a supermarket product because it has short shelf life, it’s very volatile and you want stability. To have true stone milling increases flavor tremendously, regardless of the characteristics of the grain itself.”
Entering The Mill, the first thing you’ll notice is the chilly temperature. In the summer, The Mill is kept at around 58°F and rises as the machinery runs; in the winter, the temperature hovers at around 45°F. The stones are kept cool, as well, at no more than 100°F year-round.
“We keep it cool because our flour is alive; it has all the oils in it, so that’s one way to keep it fresh – to keep it as cool as possible,” Brockman-Cummings says, pointing to a row of pallets stacked with 50-pound bags of flour. “Outside it’s pretty [hot] today, and that wouldn’t be good for the flour.”
Prior to their research for The Mill, neither Wilken nor Brockman-Cummings had experience milling flour. The importance of keeping the grain, flour and equipment at a consistent temperature was just one lesson they learned along the way. Brockman-Cummings had to learn the ins and outs of the two Engsko stone mills – one for milling finer bread and pastry flours and the other for coarser all-purpose and heirloom flours.
“You need to feel it; a lot of it is ‘see by feel,’” she says. “In the beginning, I always tell people that the first kind of flour I milled was sand, because I didn’t really have any experience milling. Based on the kind of grain, you can push the flour against your palm and tell how gritty it is – so if I need to tighten the stones, loosen the stones. That’s why, periodically – 10 to 15 minutes max – I check the flour to make sure. You don’t want to get 2,000 pounds in here and it’s all wasted because you made a mistake in the milling and created a product you can't sell.”
Today, she’s milling Turkey Red heirloom wheat to make Mackinaw – all of The Mill’s flours are named for rivers in Illinois – an unsifted 100 percent whole-grain flour with a sweet vanilla-cream and spicy black pepper flavor. Whole kernels of Turkey Red are fed into the mill and ground into a coarse flour before being spun in a cyclone to separate dust particles. Flour is then sifted through three different chambers based on the fineness of the grind. At this stage, Brockman-Cummings will feel the flour to see if the texture is correct. If it’s feeling good, the flour is spun once more through the cyclone and then deposited into holding tanks.
This mill can process between 400 and 500 pounds of flour in an hour; the other one, used for finer flours, can produce 300 to 350 per hour. On an average milling day, The Mill produces between 500 and 1,000 pounds of flour. Because freshness is a key concern, most of the flour is milled to order. The Mill’s largest distributors are in Chicago and St. Louis who ferry 50-pound bags of flour to restaurants and bakeries, but Wilken still delivers some of it himself.
Although chefs and bakers currently make up the bulk of The Mill’s business, 2-pound bags of flour are also sold online, with orders coming in from as far away as Pennsylvania, West Virginia, California and Wisconsin. Halloran knows that it will take time for chefs and bakers – let alone home cooks – to understand the value of buying organically grown and stone-ground flour, yet it’s happening, even if slowly.
“Consumers don’t understand how much they are supporting by dedicating extra funds to alternative flour,” Halloran says. “Anything we can do to help businesses like Harold’s and bakeries who rely on his flours succeed is going to go a lot further than what it costs us.”
At J. Devoti Trattoria in St. Louis, the foundation of the menu is housemade pasta, pizza and bread. Chef-owner Anthony Devoti has always sourced as much local and organic produce, meat and dairy as possible – including growing fruit and vegetables in the restaurant's backyard garden. When he learned that he could source organic flour from The Mill, it felt like finding a missing puzzle piece.
“It’s the only kind of organic flour that I’ve ever found [grown and milled] locally,” Devoti says. “It works very similar to a lot of other wheat flours. The grind seems a little finer to me. But what really puts it ahead of the game, I think, is the richness and the sweetness that you get from a super-fresh milled wheat. It’s a fresh product; you can really taste the flavor.”
Devoti uses The Mill’s Chicago, a finely sifted bread flour, in all of the restaurant’s bread and pizza doughs, and the Iroquois all-purpose flour to make fresh pasta.
“As a society, it’s fun to get back to that old-school thing of having very local food, kind of like Grandma and Grandpa,” Devoti says. “We’ve gotten away from cooking properly. Hopefully that ‘trend’ of people cooking and eating locally and seasonally will soon not be a trend and we can keep the local, sustainable, handmade food belief going.”
Katie Brown has a similar perspective. As executive chef at Raintree School, a Reggio-inspired “forest school” for ages 2 to 7 in Town and Country, Missouri, her work focuses on teaching young people about seasonal and sustainable food. On Thursdays, the students participate in “bread day,” where they learn how to make bread from scratch. This aligns with the school’s mission to teach students about the natural world and sustainable agriculture.
“[Students] use The Mill’s flour for that recipe, and the kids get a chance to practice with measuring, smelling and feeling ingredients,” Brown says. “It gives them a chance to see the full circle of where food comes from.”
At Raintree, Brown also uses The Mill’s Iroquois all-purpose flour for pancakes for breakfast, cupcakes for class parties and bread for snack time. “I really enjoy the crustiness of it – it kind of has a spongier texture than the all-purpose [flour] at the grocery store,” Brown says.
Some of The Mill’s other early clients in the St. Louis area included Union Loafers, Companion Baking and Vicia; Wilken also works with Eat Here St. Louis, a farm-to-restaurant purveyor. In the Kansas City area, The Mill has been working with Ibis Bakery for about a year. When Will Berndt, a head baker and the bread production manager at Ibis, placed his first large order, the shipment came with a surprise.
“I expected it to be shipped by a company, and [Harold] showed up driving his own truck,” Berndt says with a laugh. “It was pretty funny. When I need grain, he’ll show up like three days later, still delivering it himself.”
Unlike most of Wilken’s clients, Ibis doesn’t buy flour, but rather, whole grain. Currently, Ibis is milling Janie Farm’s whole-wheat kernels in-house for most pastries and all of its breads, including the seeded multigrain bread.
“We mix it with a lot of our heirloom wheats, and it just gives it a little more structure,” Berndt says. “They offer varieties that we haven’t been able to get anywhere else. It’s always clean, it makes great bread, and compared to some other places, it’s definitely a higher-quality product.”
Today, The Mill has been up and running for almost a year. Now that Wilken is confident in its production and it has established a reputation for milling quality products, he’s ready for what’s next. He soon hopes to offer organic blue, white, yellow and red corn in addition to the cornmeal he already sells, and he recently purchased a hulling machine for oats, which he’s looking to begin testing out by Christmas. And with grant money from Chicago-based chef Rick Bayless’ Frontera Farmer Foundation, Wilken was able to buy a semi-automatic bagger to package those 2-pound bags of flour destined for home cooks.
Eventually, he’d also like to open a retail store and bakery at home in Iroquois County so that he can more easily share his and other local foods with the community. He sees the farm and mill as his way of giving back to the land and the area's economy, and to feed people healthy, nutritious food. The road hasn’t always been smooth, but with the support of his colleagues, friends and family – and Marvin, of course – Wilken is in it for the long haul.
“You’ve got a farm boy here who’s half Missourian, half from Illinois, born and raised in a rural county, who has had his world opened up amazingly through this,” Wilken says. “I mean, I know now what good food is. It’s like, where was I? At 58… I wish I was 38. Why didn’t I get a chance to do this when I [was younger]? But it [wasn’t] here. One of my passions is to bring it here, so that kids who are growing up nowadays have a chance to eat good food.”
The Mill at Janie’s Farm, 405 N. 2nd St., Ashkum, Illinois, 815.644.4032, themillatjaniesfarm.com