Balancing Our Abundant Needs and Resources
Except for an inconvenient absence of tropical fruits and beans (cocoa or coffee), wheat flour (or any other small-grain flour) was the most obvious hole in our local food net during last year’s Eat Local Challenge at Willy Street Co-op. We had lots of great bakers, but not enough local supply of local flours for local breads, which posed a big challenge for those willing to stick to a local-only diet for one month. In a dramatic development of agriculture, opportunity and ambition, we’re now fortunate enough to have more options.
Animals and plants symbiotically rely on one another for calories and nitrogen. Perfect in form and function, it is in this same way that we’ve seen the development of several local businesses built around this very simple concept. Someone who “walks the talk” about balance is Gary Zimmer, most notably of Midwestern Bio-Ag, Otter Creek Farm, Black Earth Meats, Grandpa’s Way and now, Lonesome Stone Milling (LSM) in Lone Rock, Wisconsin. He is the author of two books on his highly successful soil mineralization practices and is also an organic farmer.
Over lunch two years ago, Gilbert Williams, co-owner and operator of Lonesome Stone Milling, discussed with Gary the closing of the local feed mill (which is located adjacent to Black Earth Meats’ former sausage factory) and the auctioning off of their equipment. In business since 1946 and employing many from the town, the owners of the feed mill had made the decision to retire and, according to Gilbert, Gary suggested the idea of getting their hands on that equipment and opening their own local feed mill. However, after their lunch discussion, they hadn’t had a chance to talk about the idea before the day of the auction.” I showed up,” recalled Gilbert, “and I told him, ‘Look, I don’t have any money right now, but if you buy the equipment, I’ll make it run for you, and we’ll make it a half-share.’ He didn’t say much at the time, but when the bidding started, Gary kept bidding, which told me he was saying, ‘You’re on!’” This proves that sometimes being in the right place at the right time can be magical, but when you are also there with the right people, it can be life-changing.
Gilbert, a long-time farmer and food processor in southern Wisconsin, accepted the challenge from Gary, and in little more than two years has successfully built a functioning flour mill from new, used or repurposed equipment. The main product for sale by the company is currently their pancake mix, but the smart growth plan they’re using may have them producing many more grain products in the future; most likely cornbread flour will be next.
“Rye was the starting of the business with the seed cleaner,” Gilbert began as we toured the mill. “Rye grows very well in Wisconsin and is half of the pancake mix and the other half is soft winter wheat.”
Currently LSM is working with two organic growers—former dairy farmers who are long-time clients and devotees to the soil mineralization practices taught by Gary and Midwestern Bio-Ag. In fields located high on a ridge near Dodgeville, steady winds aid in keeping the plants dry, and therefore more resistant to common diseases caused from wet conditions. “What these guys have is good soil and good crop rotation,” Gilbert said. “[Our] approach is—the soil has to have the right biology and the right nutrients, and that combination makes it so that the microbiology in the soil produces the right balance of nutrients [in the plant]. And when I say nutrients, I mean all of the nutrients. I’m not talking about just the nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium. I’m talking about the whole set of micronutrients right down to the boron, zinc, magnesium, manganese, chloride, iron, calcium and sulphur.
“To have all those compounds balanced makes it so the plant is growing in ideal conditions. You’re not spiking it with nitrogen and causing it to grow real tall and the result is two things: during the growth cycle of the plant it is more resistant to diseases than we’re going to see in this part of the country. Specifically, [diseases like] the rust, downy mildew, the leaf spot.So you’ve got an optimized growing condition, but it takes a crop rotation on the soil and a well-established biological system.
“The second factor is the flavor; you get a much better flavor when that plant is finally done and you have the seed from it, because that’s holding a wider rage of nutrients and its got more of the secondary enzymes that it’s able to manufacture,” Gilbert concluded.
In a string of properties spread over the majority of one block in Lone Rock, the feed mill is located directly behind the former Black Earth Meats sausage plant (a.k.a. Gorman’s Meat Locker). It was sitting idle at the time of the auction after a decision to consolidate all of Black Earth Meat’s operations to the Black Earth location. After the auction, the decision was then easily made to convert the sausage plant into the flour mill. A spacious, former walk-in cooler makes for a very cleanable, dust-controlled environment to mill flour.Gilbert introduced me to the “Robert Etenhoffer Memorial Stone Burr Mill.” Dedicated in honor of Gilbert’s father-in-law, whose bequeath made it possible to purchase the equipment, it was installed last March. A 30-inch bed stone is cemented into place inside the mill and a runner stone grinds against it and moves the meal out to a shaft. To control the amount of heat the grain is exposed to, thermometers allow Gilbert to monitor the temperature in the machine because, as he explains, “In the whole grain business, you’re selling it with the germ and that’s the flavorful part, the heathy part too, but you don’t want the oil in the germ to go rancid so you want to measure your heat.” More equipment in the room is connected by tubes and blowers that move the grain/flour in its various stages, ultimately to be deposited in 50-pound bags. Gilbert said that this is still very much a work in progress and more efficiencies will be built in as time and money allows. Later, the 50-pound bags will be blended into the pancake mix and repackaged in two-pound bags for sale to retail stores and farmers’ markets.
After walking outside to the feed mill yard, we entered the small building that houses the 1947 grain cleaner “Mary Ellen Carter,” bought at the feed mill auction. The mammoth cleaner stands 25 feet tall and 10 feet wide and was first bought and used in Rio, Wisconsin before coming to Lone Rock.
As we were finishing our visit, I was keenly aware that Gilbert is a man with an endless amount of work on his hands in repairing and retooling more equipment for improving their efficiencies, so I asked him if there was anything he really wanted our readers to know about this new company, to which, after a long pause, he replied, “We do plan to stick around. We have a heavy investment here.
“The bank is right across the street, and they’re our biggest champions, because...there’s not a lot of work in this town and I am hiring the people here. And this local food game, its what really got me into this.
“Like knowing Gary and other farmers, it’s realizing we’re in what is a region that has a natural resource, which is the creative organic farmers. [They are] a natural resource. What we have is a market 40 miles to the west and 90 miles to Milwaukee, then you’ve got Chicago at 200 miles. So you have natural resources, the skeleton of a processing system that needs a lot of work; you have a market, an agreeable banker and a wife who stumbles on some money. I’m a lucky guy, and I think having all these pieces here, we need to keep elevating the awareness that we’re here. I’m very much of the mind that the business has to support the small community and we have to be an asset here, so when you eat our product, this is what you’re supporting. We ARE the economic expansion of this town. But by purchasing these products, we’re encouraging the growth of this nearly lost Wisconsin resource.”