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.