Iroquois County is home to a local stone mill that is producing flours from locally-grown grains.
The mill is owned by Harold, Sandy and Ross Wilken, who also operate Janie’s Farm, a local organic farm where the grains are grown. The farmland is in Iroquois and Ford counties, and also some in Kankakee County.
Jill Brockman-Cummings is the mill manager of Janie’s Mill in Ashkum.
Brockman-Cummings said the Wilkens family, “had been farming organically for, at the time, about 12 years, and they had the idea to build a flour mill mainly because they were growing small grains like wheat in the organic rotation. That’s the second year of organic rotation is a small grain.
“They were selling on the commodity market, or even if they were selling it as an organic product, they just felt like it could be used here in the Midwest here, locally, as a good food source.”
She said Harold and Ross began traveling around the country visiting other mills.
“Then they asked me if I might want to be part of the milling project and be the mill manager, so then we traveled together to a couple more mills, and Harold and Ross decided it was something they wanted to do, so that they could market good, local, healthy flours and small grains to this part of the country.
“A few generations back, there were mills all over the countryside here. Flour mills. Grain Mills. They’ve just disappeared. This scale of an organic stone mill is probably one of a kind in this part of the Midwest.
“That was kind of why they built the mill, and of course it was going to use their crops, mainly, to mill to flour,” she said.
“That was in 2015 or so when they were traveling around and I traveled around a little bit with them,” she said. “The mill was assembled and built in 2017. We started milling that spring and summer. It good basically the rest of that year to feel like we had some good products.
“That was right before the holidays, and we learned that bakers don’t really want to change what they are doing right at the busiest time of their year, which is right around the holidays. But that was OK. It gave us more time to develop our flours and our products. So 2018 was really kind of what I feel like the start of a viable mill and we were selling our products.”
She said they have since built on what they first started milling.
“In 2019 we added about 15 more products to what we were milling, and we’re still building on that.
“I just love to mill new products,” she said. ‘It’s one of my favorite things to do. When I get a new grain I think what can I do? How do we want to mill it? What do the bakers want? You always have to find out what the bakers want. You always have to find out what the bakers want first, and then try to give them the product they are expecting.”
All the flours are freshly milled, within a week or two of sale, she said.
Some customers want them even more fresh. Most days both mills are running. On one particular day, one was milling a bread flour for a baker in Bloomington, Indiana — Muddy Fork Bakery. “He likes it the day before freshly milled,” she said. Some customers have finely tuned palates and can tell the difference of when a flour has been milled.
“So we are milling that for him special today,” Brockman-Cummings said. “On mill 2 we are milling einkorn flour, which is a whole grain flour. That’s one we started milling in December. It’s really cool. It looks totally different than a regular wheat flour.”
Brockman-Cummings said Janie’s Farm and Janie’s Mill are separate entities. The farm sells the mill the grain. About 95 percent of the grain milled at the mill is from the farm. “The other five percent or so we buy from other organic farmers, or Harold sources it from his organic farmer friends. He tries to find organic farmers in this region of Illinois. Some of the grains, like einkorn, red fife and spelt, don’t grow that great in Illinois because it’s too humid and our climate just doesn’t do well, so he does purchase those from other organic farmers. But that’s OK because then we are supporting them as well.”
The grain arrives at the mill in large white sacks they call totes.
“They hold 2,000 pounds of grain,” she said. “That’s clean grain. It’s been to the cleaning facility. We inspect it upon arrival to make sure it looks good and clean, no bugs, no dirt, no chaff. Then we store it until we are ready to mill and we need to fill the boxes.”
Rows of black boxes line another section of the mill area. “That wall of black boxes, each has a different variety of wheat or a different type of grain like rye, spelt, einkorn, buckwheat, corn. So then when it’s time to mill whatever we need, based on orders, we put that on top of the mill and it gravity feeds the mill.”
The organically certified flours and grains are kept in one area. There is another area that houses the transitional grain flours.
“If Harold and Ross are taking on a new organic farm, like one that’s been in a family and farmed conventionally for years and years, and the owner says ‘I want it farmed organically,’ Harold and Ross will usually, if it’s in Iroquois County, will agree to farm it organically for that landowner, but it takes three years for it to be certified organic.
“The first year they will grow soybeans. The second year they grow a small grain, like wheat or rye, one of those, and the third year they grow corn,” she said. “So the second year of that transition from conventional to organic, they can harvest the crop and we at the mill will buy that crop at a lower price than if it were certified organic. Then in turn we can provide it to bakers who want a flour that’s not as expensive but still is stone ground and been grown using organic principles. So virtually it is organic it just can’t be certified.
“We have a lot of bakers who don’t necessarily need it to be organic flour but they do want the stone milled flour, they want the freshly milled flour, so they buy that. We keep it separated.
“We’re organically certified here at the mill and so is the farm. We have to keep everything separated. You can’t mingle transitional with organic. I have to be really careful when we go from transitional milling on the mill to organic. You’ve got to do more of a cleaning process and keep track of it all and document it all.”
Brockman-Cummings said the stone mill is “it’s own animal. This mill is actually quite different than that mill over there, even though they are supposedly the same. The mill differently. As you are milling, the stones warm up and as they warm up they expand and then they get closer or they get too close.”
As she walked up to the mill on this day, she noted that she heard the stones and they sounded too close together, so she adjusted them to keep the milling process uniform for the product they were producing.
“So when you do stone milling you really have to be in tune,” she said. “You can’t just walk away and be done once you turn them on. You have to keep monitoring them throughout the day.”
The organic einkorn was being milled that day, “Einkorn is the most ancient of all the wheats. That was like the parent wheat that all other varieties of wheat came from. It’s actually quite different from modern wheat. It looks more like rice. It has nutritional value that is so much better than regular wheat. The protein is super high and the gluten is low. So people who have some people who have trouble with gluten (not celiac) can actually eat this. The minerals and vitamins are off the charts compared to other wheats.”
Because of the low gluten, she said, bakers do have to learn to bake with it.
The grain flows into the hopper. The top grain is stationary and the bottom one spins. When the grain flows into the top stone, there is a hole that it flows into, then centrifugal force the grains across the stone and is ground. It then gets sucked up in a pipe to the sifters. It then goes out of the sifters into another pipe that takes it to the bagging area.
“To get the kind of flour we want, there’s basically four variables. The first variable is the type of grain. If you want a bread flour, you’re going to use a high protein grain. If you want to make all purpose flour you’re going to use warthog, which is a medium protein range and it’s a little softer gluten. So you have to know your wheats and what they are good for.
“The second variable is how quickly do you feed the mill,” she said, pointing to a control on the mill that indicates that. “So right now we are doing a semi-hard vary, so we are doing it at two-and-a-half. If I wanted to do spelt, which is a soft grain, I’d turn it up. You’ve got to play around with that.
“The third variable is how tightly you have this bottom stone next to the top stone. If you want a really fine flour you’re going to have them very close. If you want grits you actually separate them.
“The last variable is when it goes upstairs to the sifters. We have all different size screens. If you want really fine flour you’re going to put super fine material on there. If you want a coarser flour you are going to put bigger screens.”
All of these variables are requested by the baker, she said.
“Professional bakers know what they need to get their products, especially like a pastry chef or an artisan baker.”
She said they worked with a professional baker in Chicago to develop the flours. “I would mill it and give it to her,” she said. The baker would then tell her if it was a good flour or if it needed tweaked.
“We started with just a handful of flours, about four or five,” she said. They then were hearing from bakers in 2018 that the flours still had too much bran and were too heavy, so they made some adjustments.
“I’m constantly learning and trying to improve on what we are doing,” she said. “Some customers are wanting rough-cut oats, so we are working on that now. I’ve been practicing. I think I’m pretty close. I just sent off a package to a chef. We’ll see what she says.”
The sifters work with blades that sift the flour and it works it’s way through the screens, from a coarser screen at first to the finest screens for the final product. “Whatever is fine enough comes through,” she said. Larger pieces get redirected.
There are employees who bag the flours, which is done first thing in the morning. That gets done and then a new milling gets started and is done during the day.
All stone milled flours have some bran in them, she said. “The germ and the bran are the two parts that have naturally occurring oils, and that’s why ours has a shelf life.”
The flour and grains are bagged and readied for sale.
Brockman-Cummings said they also are selling grains. “That was something we didn’t really foresee was that so many people would buy the actually grain. A lot of vegan bakeries have their own mills in them now so they want to mill their own grains, at least some of it like the whole grain flours. And a lot of home bakers now have counter top mills.”
Another area in the mill is the resale ship, where the employees ready the products to fill online orders, or to sell to customers who buy at the mill.
They have a semi-automatic bagging machine to fill the smaller home-use bags. “We got that bagger with a grant,” she said. “We got a grant from Frontera Farmer Grant, that is funded by Rick Bayless (chef). He supports small local farms.
“Before that I was hand bagging but that was in the beginning. I would get two or three orders a week. Now we get five orders a day, and some of them are big orders,” she said. Sometimes the orders are bigger and more often.
While the mill operates Monday through Friday, they do sometimes meet customers who have to pick up orders on the weekend.
Depending on the type of flours that will be milled next, and the grains being used, the employees have to sometimes purge the mill. “We take the doors off the sifters. We’ll clean the whole interior of the sifters as best we can using brushes and wiping it down and vacuuming.” To start a new grain through, they will send about 100 pounds through to help clean out the mill more. They do sell the purge flour to distillers. “We don’t sell that to bakers because there is probably a very small percentage of the previous flour,” she said.
Brockman-Cummings said the Wilkens are “all about building community. That means giving jobs and better quality of foods. More than anything that’s what they want to do to provide good healthy food to people and at the same time giving jobs.”
The flour is sold at The Gathering in Gilman as well as at the mill in Ashkum. The goal in 2020 is to find a few more local, small stores to sell it.