Flour Power

An Ithaca-area business mills grain the old-fashioned way  An Ithaca-area business mills grain the old-fashioned way Folks at the hardware store in Trumansburg, a village a few miles north of Ithaca, figured Greg Mol '08 for a drywall finisher, or maybe a mason. The clues were all there: the work-worn hands; the white dust embedded […]

An Ithaca-area business mills grain the old-fashioned way
 

An Ithaca-area business mills grain the old-fashioned way

Folks at the hardware store in Trumansburg, a village a few miles north of Ithaca, figured Greg Mol '08 for a drywall finisher, or maybe a mason. The clues were all there: the work-worn hands; the white dust embedded in jacket, knit cap, and battered canvas pants; the frequent visits for building supplies.

They could be forgiven for having failed to guess his true calling: the former agricultural economics major is one-third owner of Farmer Ground Flour and its full-time miller. Practitioners of the trade—which moved west and went high-tech more than a century ago—are a vanishing breed, and Mol's on-the-job training has combined extensive experimentation with late nights of poring over historic accounts of nineteenth-century operations. Starting with a twenty-inch pair of millstones, he's built a Rube Goldberg-esque system in the corner of an unheated, 150-year-old, timber-framed warehouse on the outskirts of town. In October, Farmer Ground Flour produced ten tons of products—cornmeal, polenta, and four kinds of flour (wheat, rye, buckwheat, and spelt). "We put up the money and Greg has put in sweat equity," says mill co-founder Thor Oechsner '87, who bought the grindstones four years ago with fellow organic grower Erick Smith, MS '76, PhD '93. "Although he came in not knowing anything, he's really getting good at it."

The businesses that convert grain into the makings of bread, pies, and pasta were once common in Upstate New York towns—even ones as small as Trumansburg. In 1835, a decade after the Erie Canal opened to speed goods to market, there were twenty-one mills in Rochester alone, earning it the moniker "Flour City." But in the twentieth century, economies of scale and the pursuit of product uniformity propelled grain cultivation from the Northeast to the Great Plains. Today, just a half-dozen mills remain in all of New York State.

Greg Mol

Forty-five-year-old Oechsner has been farming since he was a teen; Smith, two decades his senior, came to it later in life. In the late Nineties, each saw an opportunity in the wave of organic dairy conversions sweeping the region: all those cows needed organic feed, and the two independently began growing for the market. Over time, two-legged consumers started looking like a viable customer base. "The closer you get to a finished product," Oechsner points out, "the more of the selling price goes directly to the farmer." Smith started filling an Ithaca taqueria's standing order for 500 pounds of black beans per week and both farmers began contributing to a local natural food store's bulk bins. In recent years, they've managed a combined 1,000 to 1,300 acres—big for the Finger Lakes, but small-time compared to the 8 million acres of grain fields in Kansas. Oechsner notes that without the deep pockets of locavores at urban farmers' markets, Farmer Ground Flour may never have gotten off the ground. "A lot of the interest and enthusiasm has been in New York City," he says. "The bakers there want quality, flavor, local production, and a connection with the farmer, and they're more interested in paying the little extra it costs to produce our flour."

Keith Cohen, owner of the hundred-year-old Orwasher's Bakery on Manhattan's Upper East Side, developed his Ultimate Whole Wheat loaf to feature the trio's handiwork. Speckled with sunflowers, flax, rye, sesame, oats, and millet, the baker's two-pound boule packs five grams of fiber in every slice and sells for $7.50. "Farmer Ground Flour is great—in terms of the flavor profile, it's better than anything else out there," he says. "There's a certain nuttiness, earthiness, and lightness." Unlike the product of large-scale mills with in-house labs to insure uniformity, Farmer Ground Flour keeps a baker on his toes. "It tests your ability," says Cohen. "While each batch behaves differently, it makes terrific bread."

Ithaca-area baker Stefan Senders, PhD '99, has been testing Farmer Ground Flour in pasta and bread as long as Mol has been milling it. He and his wife plan to open a bakery this winter, in partnership with Oechsner. "We may think of farming as a simple—if risky—practice, but it's an art," says Senders. "The farmer has to make a whole range of judgment calls about when to harvest." And timing is just part of the equation; an improperly adjusted combine, for example, can wreak havoc on the grain, damaging starches and leading to problems like excessive water absorption. Says Senders: "Everyone—the farmer, the miller, and the baker—has to treat the grain with a little respect."

— Sharon Tregaskis '95

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