Separating the wheat from the chaff, Cairnspring Mills grinds out locally grown baking flours.
STORY BY SARAH BARTHELOW
IMAGES BY MATT MORNICK
Every morning, on his way to work at Cairnspring Mills in Skagit Valley, co-founder and CEO Kevin Morse drives past the fields of Hedlin’s Family Farms, billowing with stalks of Yecora Rojo hard red spring wheat. Just last year, these crops didn’t exist. A commodity wheat might have stood in their place, sold at a loss to the farm or tilled under with the hopes of enriching the soil.
Today, they’ll find their way to Morse’s new enterprise, a regional mill that grinds out batches of locally grown baking flours. These farmers’ fields are part of the basin-scale grain economy that Morse’s new, ground-breaking facility was designed to create.
One hundred and fifty years ago, the site of a regional mill wouldn’t have been newsworthy. In the late 1800s, there were more than 24,000 mills scattered across the United States. Today, there are just 180. Of those mills, more than 80% of the capacity is controlled by four major companies — behemoths like Ardent Mills and General Mills.
The result? A homogeneous flour supply that anyone can dump into a mixer and bake a loaf of bread that is consistent and white and springy. But this has come at a cost — one we can’t afford, in the eyes of revolutionaries like Morse.
The highly refined flours found on grocery shelves today are made from the cheapest grain possible and have such high extraction rates — the amount of flour squeezed out from a grain — that all but a trace of the nutrients is stripped from final product. To maintain such a massive supply, management practices have included dripping insecticide into ship holds to preserve traveling grain, and using the controversial herbicide Roundup. “We’ve been eating a polluted food source,” Morse says. “The only people it’s good for are the people who are making money from the flour.”
Cairnspring Mills aims to change that by producing small-batch, responsibly grown flours that bolster local food systems and produce superior baked goods. “What has happened with our food system going from a more local, distributed system to a centralized industrial system is it has extracted the value from our communities,” Morse says.
In the model of Cairnspring, the grain stays regional, from farmer to miller to baker. Take, for instance, the mill’s flagship product line: European-style bread flours. Dave Hedlin — a third-generation Skagit Valley farmer — plants his fields with Edison hard white spring wheat, a varietal developed by a local retired school teacher, in partnership with The Bread Lab, an extension of Washington State University that works to breed and develop regionally suited grains. The Lab is housed in a building just a few blocks down the road from Cairnspring.
After harvest, the grains are taken to the mill, ground, bagged, and then trucked another few miles down the road to Edison, where Breadfarm bakery owners Scott Mangold and Renee Bourgault bake them into their popular loaves and pastries.
It’s a truly local affair. “Building local food systems is the way to get at community health and conservation issues,” Morse believes. In additional to providing employment and benefits to his three full-time and two part-time employees, Morse has seen the mill add value to his hometown of 30-plus years by employing local welding companies and engineering firms, casting a wide net to bring together neighbors with a shared cause.
The market and reach of the flour also extends regionally beyond the valley. One of the mill’s first and largest customers is Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. The advantage of an operation like Cairnspring is that they can work with medium-scale bakeries like Tartine — or Grand Central Bakery or The Essential Baking Company in Seattle — to quickly provide a reliable supply of custom flours. So if Tartine wants, say, a Yecora Rojo hard red spring wheat blended with 25% Edison hard white spring and 5% medium rye for a specific loaf they sell, the mill can produce as little as a single pallet of flour. There’s no one else in the country working at that scale.
And the bakers love it. Customers report that Cairnspring flour is flavorful, silky. The crumb is more moist, and the finished loaves last longer on the shelf. It produces a quality product that just isn’t possible with commodity flours.
In an attempt to upset Big Flour and bring value back to his community, Morse set out to completely reinvent the system. In fact, he has had to retrain millers to use his more traditional equipment. Only one milling school exists in the country — at Kansas State University — and their massive training facility is meant to churn out worker bees for the major milling conglomerates. Totally self-taught, Morse scoured the globe for the best milling technology he could find, learning from local experts as he went.
As he walks through his warehouse milling space, there’s pride in his voice as he reveals how the mill is truly an international affair that has been custom designed from kernel to cup. The cleaned grain starts in tempering silos — from Italy — where moisture is added back into the wheat to prepare it for milling. Twenty-four hours later, the grain drops into a large roller mill (South Africa), where grains are pre-crushed and roughly ground before being sent to two large stones (Ethiopia) that grind it into flour in a traditional milling system (Denmark). The flour then travels to a sifter (Poland), where part of the bran is filtered off into a holding silo, but as much of the germ as possible is retained in the flour.
Unlike large commercial mills that extract the whole germ, Cairnspring aims to preserve the oils, fats, and nutrients found in this central part of the grain. After the final sift, the finished flour is funneled to the bagger (Texas), where 25- and 50-pound bags are individually filled and stitched before being loaded onto a pallet to be shipped to customers.
It is, in part, thanks to the nationally recognized Bread Lab that this experience is possible. Skagit Valley is not traditionally a wheat-producing region. In fact, it’s not even mentioned on the USDA wheat production map. A combination of factors — transportation, weather conditions, and subsidies — meant that, over time, it became cheaper and easier to grow grain elsewhere. But that doesn’t mean this region isn’t suited to produce a high quality and high yield product.
“The only reason you grow grain in Kansas is that nothing else will grow there,” Morse explains. “They can expect 40 bushels to an acre, while our farmers can produce crops that yield 120 to 150 bushels an acre.” Many rural communities have the capacity to grow grains, but they need a market for them.
Morse is hoping to provide one. “Cairnspring is proof of concept. We’d like to see hundreds of regionally owned mills west of the Mississippi someday soon.”
And unlike big conglomerates, the technology, systems, and know-how of this mill is all open-source. The hope is that a network of small mills can provide each other with the scale and risk management that larger mills enjoy. So if Tom Hunton at Willamette’s Camas Country Mill — an early partner and role model for Cairnspring — runs out of hard spring wheat flour, like he did this past winter, one of the other regional mills could step in and provide a surplus so that Tom’s customers don’t experience any disruption.
This scale also allows for a 100% traceable supply chain, so a loaf can be traced back to miller to grain to grower. In contrast, the General Mills flour-born E. coli outbreak in mid-2016 has yet to identify the origin.
The name Cairnspring captures the mission that Morse and his team are on to reinvent local food economies. A cairn — a stack of rocks commonly spotted along hiking trails — leaves a mark on a new trail for others to follow, while a spring provides a fresh and clear source for travelers, much like how the mill will serve as a guidepost for future entrepreneurs looking to bolster local economies with clean food sources.
Certified as a B Corporation — a distinction for socially-conscious companies — and counting investors like Patagonia and King Arthur Flour among its ranks, Cairnspring has created a new model for getting clean food to communities that may be the greatest thing since sliced bread.
You won’t find bags on the shelf just yet, as the mill is sticking to commercial markets before ramping up its capacity to distribute directly to retail. So, ask your baker if they buy local flour. Or look for one of the mill’s monthly open houses, where the public can drop by to buy a bag of flour, meet growers and millers and bakers and buyers, and share in the community of food.
Sarah Barthelow is a freelance food writer and the voice behind the popular food podcast, And Eat It Too! She lives in Seattle and regularly bakes with as many different types of flour as she can get her hands on.