When you think local food, visions of vegetable farms, cows grazing in pastures and cheese creameries often come to mind. Less common is a local flour mill, but here at Common Ground we've got you covered! During the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, flour was one of the many products that experienced worldwide shortages. Our Grocery manager stumbled upon a small organic flour mill an hour north of Urbana called Janie’s Mill. Our story is not unique, as Janie’s Mill experienced tremendous growth over the past 2 years. Their extreme dedication to fulfill all of their orders combined with their high quality product has gained them national recognition. A group of Common Ground employees was fortunate enough to get a first-class tour of the mill and farmland.
Tucked away in downtown Ashkum IL, you would never expect this quaint little storefront to be the entrance to a full-scale flour mill. Mill manager Jill was happy to show us around the mill and let us get a feel for the day to day operations. Almost immediately, Jill laughed and recounted a story from earlier that day where a student group from the University of Illinois commented on the lack of men at the mill. “People have the vision of big burly men here”, says Jill, but in reality the majority of the workers that keep the mill running are hard working women.
Both Janie’s Mill and Janie’s Farm, the source of nearly 90% of all of the grain, are owned and operated by farmer Harold Wilken. Initially a conventional farmland, Harold began transitioning to organic farming in 2003. Harold eventually transitioned almost all of his land to be farmed using organic methods and explains “I loved it. It was what I really felt like I was supposed to do”. Since then, he has helped convert over 300 acres of land to organic farming for other local farmers. Back inside the mill, there is even a separate section where transitional grain is stored separately from the organic grain. Keeping this grain separate is imperative for them to retain their organic certification.
Janie’s Mill uses a custom designed stone mill from Denmark. Stone milling is the ancient art of grinding flour between two stones. This process keeps the grain intact and reserves all of the nutritional value. The less nutritional method for milling flour is by using a steel roller which opens the grain, takes the germ and bran layers, and leaves only the starchy white endosperm. Jill likened the contrast between steel rollers and stone milling to the difference between chemical and organic farming. Their complex and meticulous system allows them to produce different varieties and consistencies of flour simultaneously, while still checking for quality and cleanliness at multiple points.
The building that houses Janie’s Mill was originally a fuel company. Owner Harold remembers going with his father to purchase fuel as a child. The mill is split up into different areas where specific parts of the process take place including receiving, milling, packaging, and shipping. Janie’s produces a variety of different types of flours that are sold nationwide. They sell to individuals online, to retailers such as the Co-op, and to restaurants and bakeries. They also sell the grain from Janie’s Farm to bakers who have their own mill.
The Covid-19 pandemic created a whole new set of challenges, and opportunities, for Janie’s Mill. Common Ground was not the only business that was struggling to keep a steady supply of flour on the shelves. Lack of availability, coupled with the home baking boom seen at the beginning of the pandemic, catapulted Janie’s Mill into the national baking industry. During the early days of the pandemic, they were working round the clock to produce 7000 pounds of flour per day. A lot of businesses were purchasing their flour primarily because of availability - the fact that it was organic was not necessarily important. Many businesses have stuck with Janie’s Mill to this day because of the superior quality of their product. A prime example of this is a small bakery in Miami who now orders a pallet a week and exclusively uses Janie’s Flour for their baking.
Our last stop at the mill was to visit their resident baker Cecilia. Cecilia is responsible for overseeing all the online orders and shipments, marketing their products, test baking, and maintaining their baking blog. Finding the perfect flour for a particular recipe is a process that she does not take lightly. Cecilia bakes a recipe using every type of flour, determines which is the best, and then adjusts the recipe to the flour. She creates guides to give her vendors and customers that contain information on each flour as well as suggested uses. Just to the side of the main lobby, Cecilia uses a tiny standalone oven to bake her loaves of bread. She believes it is important to make sure that the recipes are accessible and able to be cooked with any kind of equipment. We were lucky enough to sample a loaf of bread and…..WOW. The whole group devoured the bread, many of us going back for seconds. Thankfully, we didn’t have to feel bad about it as Ceclia assured us “There’s nothing wrong with eating the whole loaf - that’s a rule”.