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Prairie Flour

Milan, Minn. — A charming red Cape Cod style chicken coop, an old barn filled with goats and dome-shaped brooder houses neatly frame Mark and Wendy Lange’s farmyard, surrounded by wheat and corn fields. Near the farmhouse, a shed door opens to a flour-milling facility with gleaming white walls and stainless steel equipment.

The fourth-generation farm is the Langes’ realized dream — to sustain a living with a small, diversified operation.

Mark and Wendy started milling the organic wheat, corn and oats they grow on their 80-acre farm in October 2003. Then, they packaged flour in brown paper bags and delivered it to local homes and grocers. Today they have expanded to a region-wide business with the Dry Weather Creek Farm label. The Langes’ customer base now includes grocery stores, co-ops, restaurants, bakeries and direct-delivery stops within a 50-mile radius of their farm, located in Minnesota’s heartland — Chippewa County. And they’re negotiating with natural foods stores in the Twin Cities.

Besides their own grains, the Langes have started marketing whole and ground flax, rye and other organic grains from area farmers. “We want everything to be Minnesota grown,” Mark says. They produce about 400 pounds per month of wheat flour and 100 pounds of the other grains.

There are only three other stone mills in Minnesota — in Freeport, Cook and Middle River. Dry Creek’s flours are being requested by artisan bread makers more than 100 miles away, but shipping costs are prohibitively expensive.

Enter AURI

As Dry Weather Creek’s business has grown, so has the need for nutritional labels, shelf-stable products and convenient bread and baked-good mixes. Charan Wadhawan, AURI food scientist, has helped the Langes develop from a home-based to a commercial business. She’s offered “anything and everything they want to know about flour and mixes — the difference between hard and soft wheat, what is good for cake, what’s good for bread,” Wadhawan says.

Wadhawan has primarily tested Dry Weather Creek’s flour protein, fat and moisture. “Flour can’t be too wet; that will reduce the shelf stability … But because of the heat production during stone grinding, they’re actually more stable than commercial milled flours.”

She is also designing nutritional labels for the flours and mixes even though that’s only required for food products with 50,000 or more sale units per year. “It’s a good idea because a lot of people are looking at nutritional labels,” Wadhawan says. “And they don’t have to hide anything bad about whole grains … the trace minerals that our bodies need are in whole grains and not in refined flour.”

The grinding way

The milling process starts with a cleaner that shakes out the chaff and seed. The grain is then piped into a bin where it is stored until ready to grind. Only red spring wheat, Dry Creek’s main product, is stored in the main bin. Other grains are milled as needed. When the wheat is ready to package, it is piped into a scouring machine, then to one of two mills. The primary mill grind grinds whole wheat flour and unbleached white, which requires a separate process to shake out most of the bran, sold separately. The second mill grinds wheat into coarse flour used in crackers and whole grain breads for a “nutty” texture.

Though stone grinding sounds like a labor intensive, Old World process, the mills are modern and automated. Grinding stones are not visible. Both the top spinning stone and lower stationery stone disk — that work much like a mortar and pestle — are enclosed in stainless steel. As the wheat grinds, the flour works itself to the outside of the stone where it falls into a canvas-covered bin.

In smaller separate mills, the Langes process organic corn and oatmeal that they grow and rye and flax purchased from organic farmers. “The bags are stamped and logged so we can track everything back to when it was made,” Mark says.

The Midwest Organic Services Association certifies both the Langes’ organic grain production and milling operation. Dry Weather Creek is also licensed and annually inspected by the State of Minnesota.

Farm history

Though Mark and Wendy did not farm until six years ago, the farm has been in Mark’s family for nearly a century. “This farm was originally purchased by my great-great grandparents in 1910,” Mark says. His grandparents owned it when Mark was growing up in Montevideo, just 12 miles away.

“This is where I played as a kid; I spent a lot of time here,” Mark says. When his grandfather died in 1988, Mark purchased the farm. But because he made a living as a tool and dye maker in Montevideo, he rented the crop land to conventional farmers, lived in the farmhouse and raised horses.

In 2000, Mark met and soon after married Wendy. Both in their early 40s, they decided to farm Mark’s land themselves and return it to its original, natural condition. “We didn’t want to get into conventional farming with the high costs; our farm is too small,” Mark says. “And we like the organic way, the natural (farming methods) with all the advantages to soil and water.”

The Langes enrolled in a local Land Stewardship Project course called Farm Beginnings, “that did wonders for us,” Wendy says. The program for new sustainable farmers helped them write a business plan and figure out how to make an income on small acreage.

In 2002, they started to turn land that had been farmed conventionally for decades into organic production. “We had one section that qualified organic the first year because it had been in alfalfa,” with no chemical additives, Wendy says.

They also wanted to incorporate some small-scale dairy and livestock production. “We wanted to choose enterprises that compliment each other. We tried chickens and omega-3 eggs for awhile, thinking that would fit in. It didn’t.” They found more enjoyment in 13 South African Boer goats. “Through trial and error, we decided goats are our livestock of choice.” They want to eventually expand a 50-goat herd to a dairy with 175 does.

Growing steady “Every year income from the mill goes up,” Mark says. He would soon like to leave the tool and dye business to be a full-time farmer. “That’s not the end of our goals, but it is one of them,” says Wendy who quit her secretarial job at the Milan elementary school three years ago because “someone had to be home when the goats were kidding.”

Mark and Wendy both emphasize that the past six years building a farm operation with biological diversity has not been easy. “It’s taken a lot of work to get the land back to organic … to recover from its chemical addiction,” Mark says.

“We still have a long ways to go,” Wendy says. But when the day comes that the Langes, who have no children, are ready to retire, they want an operation that could be sustained for generations. “When we’re ready to leave, another young farmer can stay in farming through Farm Beginnings, so all our hard work is not wasted.”