Industrial Harvest


A Field Trip to the Fields by sarah kavage

This past week, I spent a couple of days out in Indiana visiting my miller, grain broker, and the elevator that sold me the grain.  Mock me if you will, coastal snobs, but there is nothing like the midwest countryside in June.  It’s humble and breathtaking at the same time, and they’ve got some especially pretty country up there in Northeast Indiana.

First stop was Greenfield Mills, located in Howe, Indiana – about a 2 1/2 hour drive from Chicago.  For four generations, Greenfield Mills has been owned and operated by a single family, the Rinkels.  They manufacture New Rinkel flour with “green power” technology that has been around for, oh, 75 years or so – water from a mill pond and a dam on the Fawn River powers the generator.  Mills of this size used to be common – there used to be 10 mills on the Fawn River alone, and over 260 in Indiana.  Now there are only about 260 small mills in the entire country.  The Rinkels (Dave, Mary, Amanda and James) were wonderful and accomodating and let me poke around the mill and take pictures to my heart’s content, the results of which can be seen here.  My Industrial Harvest brand flour looked pretty great to my untrained eye, but it pleased me to no end when I later sat down with someone who knows about such things and she said “this is just what I hoped it would look like!”

Next stop:  Mitchel Enterprises, of Bluffton IN.  Leon arranged the purchase of the wheat.  He gently corrected me when I called him a broker – in the business, a broker is a middleman who does not touch the actual stuff.  Leon is more appropriately known as a “jobber,” a different breed of middleman (another term none of these folks like, but what seems to be a necessary element in this business) that buys and sells the actual grain and by-products of grain.   This, in commodity speak, is known as the “cash” market, although if I had to carry around enough actual cash to pay for all this stuff I would have needed a briefcase (there have been multiple instances of sticker shock on this trip, first at the Rinkels’ and then at Leon’s).  Leon and his nephew Jan buy, sell and transport grain and grain by-products – they deal a lot with waste products that accumulate during the industrial food production process.  Often these can be used as feed or bedding for animals (here’s where I am torn between a distaste for industrial meat production and a respect for resourcefulness).

And finally, at the end of a very long, hot day in the car, I made it to the elevator where the wheat I bought came from:  Lehman Feed Mill in Berne, Indiana.  Jeff Lehman, the owner, looked no less hot and worn out than I did but still took a break from his running about to talk to me about their business, and let me wander around in the 90 degree heat as long as I liked (which was not very long) to take pictures (seen here).  He and Leon both do some hedging on the Board of Trade, especially to cover large transactions, but preferred to stay in the cash market whenever possible.  Jeff told me that trading has been more volatile overnight the last few years, so he will often place trades before the close of business or on Fridays, especially during the harvest when he’s shelling out a lot of cash as farmers bring in their crops.  Jeff says he tries get farmers to focus on quality rather than yields, but that can be tough.  The higher quality grain is kept separate so that it can go to customers like me, who will pay a premium for it.  Occasionally, a larger elevator will buy Lehman’s high quality grain to blend, so that their lower quality grain will meet a deliverable standard (be prepared to read more, much more about grain quality in upcoming posts).

To sum up:  Three family businesses, two very large checks, and two straight days of talking, taking pictures and asking questions.  All of which were expected, but then there were also some surprise adventures that happened on this field trip.  During a dip in a local lake I was entertained by the arrival of three buggyloads of beer-drinking, hip hop listening Amish teenagers obviously on rumspringa. Way tanner and in better shape than the other group of redneck “English” teens at the lake, they entered the bathroom in traditional garb, and came out looking like California surfers.  The next day, before heading back to Chicago I stopped at a diner for dinner.  As I ate, the buzz began about a big storm heading out our way.  By the time I’d finished, all the other customers had run out to hole up in their basements.  The restaurant staff and I gathered about the Weather Channel and gawked; the restaurant owner closed down the kitchen early and sent most everyone home and I waited out the storm with the owner, a waitress, a busboy and three cups of coffee.  Folks were calling with weather updates, at least two of which included tornado sightings.  We were on the edge of our seats – did you know the cooler is the safest place to be in case of a tornado hitting a restaurant?

Finally, at around 11 pm it appeared to be safe to travel on, so I rode the caffeine high all the way back to Chicago.  And just when I thought I was home free, I somehow got turned around the wrong way getting on to Lake Shore Drive and got pulled over doing an illegal u-turn right in front of a cop car.  Frazzled, I explained to the cop that I’d had to wait out the storm, wasn’t really from Chicago, got kind of lost, tired, etc. etc. – and at that point, the cop says, “what’s that in your backseat? ”  (did I mention that I’d filled the trunk and backseat of the rental car with 700 pounds of wheat and flour? It’s great for gas mileage.)  Anyway, so I reply:  “It’s wheat.”
“What?”
“Wheat.”
“What for?”
“It’s kind of a research project.”  (at this point, any mention of art seemed unnecessary information).
And with that, the cop turned around and went back to his car with my drivers’ license.  After about 10 minutes of me literally and figuratively sweating it out he came back with his partner.  Partner (female):  “Can I look in your backseat?”  To which I consented:  “It’s 50 pound bags of wheat.  Do you want me to open them up?”  They poked and prodded at them for a few seconds, and then the (male) cop says in an authoritative tone “It’s wheat.”  I get a mercifully short lecture, no ticket, and am told to be careful getting home.



The Miller by sarah kavage

Another crucial link in the long chain of transactions that hold this project together has now officially been forged (actually, this happened awhile ago, it’s just taken me awhile to post):  the miller. 

It took awhile to find a miller, and was much more difficult than I’d expected (although, to be honest, nothing in this project has been easy, I’d erroneously assumed that after figuring out Board of Trade delivery logistics, I’d be home free).  Dealing with 1000 bushels of non-organic wheat posed problems to millers both large and small.  The big guys couldn’t keep “my” lot of grain separate from the rest.  Since this project is all about creating an identity for a generic commodity, once it comes out of the grain elevator, it needs to evolve into something more “special” – and I mean, I just can’t go putting my very special commodity grain in with all that other riffraff.  The small mills were typically either exclusively organic and/or too small to handle that quantity of wheat in a reasonable time frame.  And, you guessed it, there just aren’t a lot of small mills out there anymore.  Smaller grain mills used to be common in the country midwest, but most of them have gone out of business.

So finding the folks at Greenfield Mills was a lucky break.  A fifth generation family operated mill on the Indiana / Michigan border, it’s also hydro-powered (generating power for the mill, plus 11 nearby homes).  Small enough clear out a bin to keep my grain separate, big enough to not be exclusively organic, and run by some very kind, understanding and accomodating people.  Dave Rinkel, who I suppose you could call the patriarch of Greenfield Mills, has been walking me through the miling process with plain talk and good humor.  

They’ll be milling two types of Industrial Harvest flour (and as much as I detest terms like “branding”, well, I’d just like to acknowledge that creating this “brand” has been a very satisfying part of this process):  a whole wheat pastry flour, and an all-purpose unbleached white flour.   Here are the labels that will go on the bags of flour.  Bonus points for folks who can identify the origins of the label symbology…

All purpose Industrial Harvest flour label

Industrial Harvest Whole Wheat Pastry Flour Label

This project has been a little bit like starting several businesses at once; I’ve been continually polling the bakers I talk to:  what kind of flour should I make?  Because soft red winter wheat  – the type traded on the Chicago Board of Trade and commonly grown in the lower midwest – Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri – is lower in protein, it’s better suited to pastry flour.  Although I’m not opposed to pastry flour, it’s used more for baked goods (cookies, crackers), biscuits and pie crusts – all delicious food items, but it’s not quite as versatile as I’d like – and I really wanted folks to be able to make bread with this flour.  After further discussion with Dave Rinkel, I decided that it would be worth mixing in a bit of hard wheat to bump up the protein content of the soft wheat and get an all-purpose flour.  This will make it better for breads, which need that protein to develop that great chewy texture.  At this point, I get a little bit less uptight about letting other wheat mingle with my special batch; in life, practical considerations create inconsistencies that we must live with, and more than anything else I want this flour to be a useful product for the people that receive it.



Milling About, Observing and Routine by sarah kavage
One of the things that came with me to Chicago from Seattle was a couple pounds of hard winter wheat berries grown in Eastern Washington.  That seems just a little bit silly since I was going to the heartland and all, but there it was in the bulk foods section, begging to come along and weigh down my luggage.  

This project requires understanding every link in the cycle of growing, refining and making all sorts of things with wheat.  Now that I’m feeling a little more comfortable with the baking, I can take things up a notch – what about actually making the flour?  Back in Seattle, I ground some of the wheat up in a coffee grinder just to see how that would work.  It took a long time and almost burned out the motor, but I did end up with something flour-like.  I thought I might be able to find someone who had a home-use flour mill in Chicago and try it, but it turns out I’ve been a little busy trying to find things like commodities traders and farmers and cannot even bring myself to think about running around this huge city trying to track down a flour mill.  Somewhere, somehow I heard something about using a blender to do the job.  And InCUBATE happens to have a really nice heavy-duty blender.  So this is what happens when you put wheat in a blender and make some bread with it.  

It took 5 or 6 rounds of running the blender, sifting out the flour, and putting the rest back in the blender till I was good and sick of the noise, and there were still a bunch of cracked wheat berries left over.  


Here’s the side by side comparison.  The blender flour (left) was more uniform in size and texture, while with the milled flour it’s quite easy to differentiate the flour (made up of the endosperm, the starchy interior part of the wheat) from the bran (its brown, papery exterior).  The texture of the blended flour was also coarser – comparable to hruba mouka, the coarse-ground flour used by the Czechs to make bread and dumplings.  

I decided to repeat the bomb-proof no-knead recipe from the other day, and used 1 cup of milled whole grain flour, 1 cup of fine whole wheat flour (the whole grain flour sifted) and 1 up of the blender flour.  To that I added a healthy dose of pure wheat gluten that a friend gave me.  Made from the protein part of the wheat, pure (or vital) wheat gluten added to bread is supposed to help it rise – another trick home bakers use to get bakery-quality results, especially for whole wheat breads.  

At the end of the milling, sifting and measuring stage, here’s what was on the counter.  The photo deliberately misrepresents my organization / neatness level. 

Wheat, Deconstructed

Wheat, Deconstructed

From left to right in the bowls, we have the sifted and unsifted milled flour, the blended flour, and the cracked wheat.  The cracked wheat won’t go into the bread but can be made into some sort of porridge (ugh) or as a substitute for couscous or bulgur in a pilaf (not so bad), or even into bulgur wheat itself, which sounds delicious but labor-intensive.  In the center we have the gluten on the left and the bran on the right.  The excess bran is used to keep the dough from sticking and to put a little crunchy crisp on the top, but there will still be some leftover.  I’ve been using it in shakes for breakfast and gave the rest to the person who gave me the gluten. 

The result:  delicious!  I was a little bit amazed at how quickly this bread baking stuff has become somewhat routine.  The motions, the textures and the timing are already starting to feel more intuitive.  No doubt my learning curve has been flattened (steepened? anyway, it’s getting easier) due to the advice of many friends and visitors (pros and hobbyists) to the InCUBATE ‘test kitchen.’  The all-powerful internet helps too, but the internet can’t stand in the kitchen with me and tell me  “that’s a good crumb” or “those little strands are what you’re looking for” or “it’s probably time for it to go in the oven now.”  These people are teaching me what to look for and how to observe the process, and it’s making this project a whole lot more satisfying and delicious. 

As a postscript, I thought of Heike a lot making this latest loaf and this post – read her observations, and her observations about observation here (I liked them so much I put them on my other blog).  She’s also the proud owner of a new flour mill!