Heartland Mill continues to pioneer organic agriculture
Hugely successful Kansas grain mill operators share humble beginnings regenerating the land.

Story and photos by Dan Sullivan

Story of an old millstone

Sandwiched between wooden pallets on the cement-slab floor of Heartland Mill's production facility rests a pair of old millstones etched with the date “1784.”

According to mill General Manager Mark Nightengale, the company received an unsolicited call in 1993 from a widow who was about to move into an assisted-living facility and was looking for a home for the two millstones she’d been using as landings outside her home for the past half century. “She said, ‘In the late 1700s my great grandfather put in a stone mill in what was once known as Horse Valley, Pennsylvania’,” Nightengale recalled.

“She said the reason they called it that was because the Union troops hid their horses in that valley.” After Heartland Mill negotiated a price and arranged for shipping, the old widow offered one final tidbit of information, Nightengale said. “She said, ‘These stones ground corn for the Union Army during the Battle of Gettysburg.’”

November 16, 2007: Located 50 miles from the eastern Colorado border and just as far from any major highway, Marienthal, Kansas, seems at first glance an unlikely place for a hotbed of organic agriculture. But the organic grain business that has risen steadily from this High Plains breadbasket community of 100 or so residents has grown to be the largest employer around.

As Heartland Mill's General Manager Mark Nightengale tells it, this company and its founders were in on the ground floor of the organic movement when incorporating as a business in 1986.

“Several farmers—and I was farming at the time—began noticing that our soils were really compacted and low in organic matter,” Nightengale recalled. “It seemed to have happened overnight. We went from good soils to highly compacted soils in a matter of a season.”

“Yields were severely impacted, the water-holding capacity of the soil was not there, and good soil tilth was not there.”

As the farmers struggled to figure out what the problem was, Nightengale said, they saw their soil organic matter drop from about 1 percent to less than 0.1 percent over several growing seasons. “It was a progressive thing, but the farmers noticed it from one year to the next. It was visually apparent.”

The farmers began investigating the cause of their lost productivity and poor soil. “Some people told us we were going to the loony bin,” Nightengale recalled when the group began to reject the common chemical NPK approach for composted manures and organic amendments. “We found that the greatest thing our soils lacked was soil organic matter or humus. Our carbon ratios were really out of sync, also.”

Farmers enter processing

A handful of these farmers went into commercial composting. Some got together and formed Heartland Mill, which in its infancy consisted of one hand-crank mill powering a modest 6-inch set of grinding stones in Sharon Springs, about 60 miles northwest of the current facility. The company’s first big break came in 1989 when it landed a substantial contract to mill organic oats. The company moved to Marienthal and began construction of a more modernized mill in the footprint of a former Orville Redenbacher Popcorn plant.

“We discussed that if we were going to get added value for [organic crops] then we had to do the processing and marketing ourselves,” Nightengale recalled. For support, the company joined the Organic Crops Improvement Association (OCIA)—in fact it was the first member in Kansas and the seventh worldwide—only to learn that the commercial organic movement was in a fledgling state of development, at best. Nightengale found himself pounding the pavement, explaining what “organic” was and why it should command a premium.

“We began to realize that the organic standards were not even written yet, and that organics and the whole-farm systems approach were just on the drawing board. So we became part of that process.”

Fast forward to 2007. Of 73 current stockholders—some of them founding members—only half a dozen or so still actively farm, said Nightengale. Others, he said, either retired or simply lost out in the farming business.

Today neighboring, regional and farther-afield farmers grow the grains—mostly hard red winter wheat, but also oats, barley, rye, spelt, corn and millet—that get shipped, cleaned and mill readied, or transformed into dozens of certified-organic (and certified kosher) flakes and flours for sale by the 2-pound bagful to the truckload. A white-flour roller mill operating around the clock can produce 100,000 pounds a day. Sharing the same facility, four 30-inch pairs of grinding stones churn out whole grain and sifted flours, while rolled grain products—most significantly rolled oats—are produced on specialty milling equipment in a nearby building. Heartland Mill’s total daily capacity is about 160,000 pounds of product. (Nightengale declined to give specifics on the actual volume produced but said that across the whole spectrum of organics, demand far outweighs supply.)

Partnerships give rise to innovation

Strong partnerships with bakeries and other businesses across Kansas and beyond have created a sense of brand loyalty to the Heartland Mill name and yielded valuable data that’s used to grow better crops and to mill better baking products.

Apprentice baker Mikey Humphrey said return customers come from near and far—some daily, others perhaps only on an annual stopover—to WheatFields Bakery in downtown Lawrence, Kansas, seeking the artisan breads handcrafted predominantly with Heartland Mill flour. (Lawrence is some 300 miles east of Marienthal and just west of Kansas City, Kansas.)

Humphrey came here to learn to be a baker five years ago. Retrieving a row of baguettes from the 3,000-pound rotating cement slab in the bakery’s 25-ton wood-fired brick oven, he said he feels he’s found his calling.

He’s worked many sectors of the food-service industry in the tight-knit, somewhat alternative Lawrence community over the years and said he’s seen the demand for artisan foods climb steadily. On any given weekday, Humphrey said, WheatFields will bake several hundred loaves. On weekends, they ramp it up to more than 1,000. The bakery goes through about two tons of Heartland Mill flour a week, which actually isn’t much considering that’s only about one-seventieth of the mill’s daily production capacity. But Heartland Mill and WheatFields share a special relationship that goes way beyond commerce.

Head baker Thom Leonard, who has been baking bread since 1973 and helped open WheatFields in 1995, has worked over the years as a consultant to Heartland Mill, helping the company continually improve its products. In 2001, Leonard helped the mill establish a hearth bread test based on a similar French method for assessing the quality of baking flour. Bread loaves are baked according to artisan tradition and samples are rated on more that 30 characteristics, measuring the flour’s performance from mixing through masticating.

It’s all about consistency as well as quality according to Leonard.

Such attributes can be measured in baking tests, Leonard explained. They can be measured more precisely, he said, with a specialized instrument called an alveograph. “When you make bread you are expanding all the gluten sacks with CO2 as the yeast respires." Heartland Mill’s alveograph—a Chopin Alveograph, to be exact—measures the properties of a dough sample as it is expanded by a force of air, “which is what happens when you bake bread, so what happens is it’s measuring the same characteristics you look for in a loaf of rising bread.”

Because harvest times vary—this year the bulk of the harvest took place earlier than the typical norm, which falls around the week of July 4—and because crop characteristics depend not only on timing but on the weather, percentages of various lots get blended together in 7,500-bushel bins to create a consistent product throughout the year.

“Timing of harvest affects the quality; so does the variety being grown and cultural practices and the location itself,” explained Leonard. “You can grow the same variety in the same season in adjoining fields and harvest on the same day, and it will still not be the same.

“Sometimes you have to go further afield…to get the kind of wheat that will give you the right kind of extensibility and elasticity,” Leonard explained. For the uninitiated, he elaborated that extensibility is the quality of dough that allows it to be drawn out or extended, while elasticity helps the dough to retain that shape. “You need a balance of extensibility and elasticity.”

Listening to Leonard wax on about the subtleties of quality baking materials, it’s clear that his collaboration with Heartland Mill has been fruitful for both the baker and the miller.

“I think we’re really fortunate because of the relationship I had with Heartland Mill when they were building the mill and for several years afterwards,” Leonard said. “We’re a very low-volume bakery, and we had more to say about the quality of the flour than very large bakeries, simply because of the relationship I’ve had with them.”

And when it comes to the information they’ve gathered together, Heartland Mill has an open-book policy.

“There aren’t many places people can go and look at the lot number on a 5-pound bag of flour and get the same data that I can. You don’t have to have a password, it’s free-and-clear and their website explains what those numbers mean. I think what they provide is a real service to the baker.”

Bursting at the seams

While Heartland Mill does have a retail line—walk-ins and website orders welcome—the bulk of the company’s business is just that: bulk. This means they deal predominantly with manufacturers, distributors and bakeries willing to work directly with the mill (WheatFields actually orders through a distributor due to its relatively low volume).

Despite Heartland Mill's success and consistent premiums for organic wheat and other organic grain products, many area farmers remain reluctant to jump on the organic bandwagon, according to company sales manager Carl Rosenlund. “Some farmers have an attitude about the volume of paperwork,” he said. “Some are willing to do it, and some say it’s just too much. They don’t care if there’s a premium of 100 percent.”

The mill consistently employs around 25 individuals, about one quarter of the population of Marienthal.

Although Heartland Mill is willing to negotiate up-front contracts with farmers, the arrangement is not really the company’s model of choice. “The problem with contracts is that somebody is not going to be happy,” Rosenlund said. “If prices are up, the farmer’s not happy. If they’re down, we’re not happy.” That said, “We do a little bit of everything,” he added.

“We buy from all over North America. You don’t have to be a stockholder to sell to us. We like to buy locally primarily. Some of the products we can’t grow in our region, such as oats, we buy in from the northern states and Canada.”

Heartland Mill exports products to Europe and Asia as well as North and South America. That market has shifted over the years, Rosenlund said, from primarily Germany, Holland and the Netherlands to China, Sweden and France.

“The Asian market is primarily wheat,” Rosenlund said. (With a growing awareness of wheat allergies on the rise worldwide, he said, there’s also a large and growing market for the company’s spelt products.)

GMOs (genetically modified organisms), which are not allowed in organic production, are pretty much a non-issue for Heartland Mill…for all crops, that is, but corn, which can disperse pollen hundreds of yards, potentially miles. The mill has its corn periodically tested by an independent lab to make sure it’s below acceptable GMO thresholds (which vary at home and abroad).

Rosenlund says business has grown steadily by 5 to 25 percent a year over the two decades the company has been in operation, particularly as of late. “It’s been tracking quite well the past seven years,” he said. “This is good wheat-growing area. We’re well-situated for a mill.”

On January 1, a build-up of snow and ice ripped through the roof of Heartland Mill’s storage facility, causing the loss of half a million dollars worth of product. “We were actually milling four days later for a bulk load,” Rosenlund said, adding that with the repairs came improvements.

“We store it, we stage it and we ship it out on trucks,” he said. Having control at each stage of the process from planting to delivery not only makes economic sense, Rosenlund said, but “we exert more quality control on our product, too.”

When expansion was inevitable, the company—true to its history—took a somewhat unconventional approach, growing down instead of out. “We went 20-feet down and expanded the operation within the existing structure,” Rosenlund explained.

It wasn’t so much a space issue (what else is there in western Kansas?) but a matter of protecting the mill from the region’s severe winds.

Wind swirls and fast-moving thunderstorms have already taken out three of the four grain elevators surrounding the mill, Nightengale elaborated. “We knew if we were to go up another 30 or 40 feet in the air that’s what would happen to our building, so we chose to go down.” A deep water table of around 140 to 150 feet made that strategy possible, he said, one result being a more-pleasant work environment that also keeps the roller mills at a more constant temperature.

From the beginning, as much mill equipment as possible has been purchased used, refurbished and updated, making for an interesting blend of old-fashioned and modern ingenuity—one part player-piano, one part high-tech synthesizer.

“We found it at different places, went through it, installed new bearings, sandblasted it, repainted it, upgraded and modernized it, and we’re using it today,” Nightengale said, the gearhead in him shining through like so much polished brass. “The bottoms of our mills were cast in the late 1800s; the tops were rebuilt in the 1940s. We’ve taken out the old Babbitt bearings and replaced them with high-speed electronic bearings, modernized them and integrated them into an electronic, automated system ourselves.”

Now Heartland Mill is about to take that retrofitting—in the truest sense of the word—one step further (or backwards, as it were).

“We’ve been looking for old ancient French Burr millstones, which produce the best whole-grain flours that mills can get,” Nightengale explained. “They’re 2 points harder than diamonds. You can beat a chisel on these stones and the chisel will split; that’s how hard they are.”

After joining the SPOOM Society (short for the “Society for the Preservation of Old Mills”), Heartland Mill got a line on several pairs when the company was contacted by Steve Evans of Bob Evans Restaurants. “He said, ‘We have a stone mill with six French Burrs.’ We gave him an offer, and he took us up on it.”

“We now have six pairs of those stones, and they’re 54-inches in diameter. We moved them here to Marienthal, and it’s our intention to produce our whole-grain flour with them”

It’s this obsession with perfection—going the extra mile to combine the best of modern science with old-world craftsmanship—that has bakers around the world clamoring for Heartland Mill’s wheat. “They like our flour because of the wheat quality; some of the bakers like the High Plains wheat,” Nightengale offered modestly.

Unlike so many processors who move into organics led by their pocketbooks (even if their hearts and minds eventually follow), these farmers who banded together more than 20 years ago to solve a soil crisis in western Kansas are a testament that doing the right thing by the land can have its economic advantages, as well. “Some of those soils are between 3 and 5 percent [SOM] now,” Nightengale said. “Some even more."