The Farmscape Ecology Program * KYPP Nugget 12: Nov. 24, 2010

KYPP Nugget: Milling it Local

Coming up in The Columbia Paper: "Of Flies, Canals, Dirt, Money and Wheat"
Stay tuned for the second part in our series on local grains inspired by the "Sowing the Future" event we participated in this fall.  Conrad will delve into the tangled tale of historic wheat production in the area.

Milling it Local: Background Exploration

Hand Milling at the Farmers' Market
Make-shift wheat milling at the Hillsdale Farmers' Market.

I didn't fully appreciate the important role of small-scale local milling, processing, and storage facilities, until I started asking around about local grain production.  I kept hearing from farmers that growing grain wasn't the big problem, it was finding the facilities they would need to process, clean, mill, and store the grain for human consumption.  In other words, it was a problem of infrastructure.  So I started wondering - where CAN local small grains be processed and milled today?  Below is a first attempt at mapping the small grain processing and milling facilities in the Northeast, derived from extensive internet searching.  
Locations of Small Grain Processing Mills in the Northeast

While this map may not be completely comprehensive, it does illustrate how sparsely distributed these facilities are in the Northeast.  This is particularly true when one realizes that most of these locations are farms or bakeries that process their own small grains or local small grains for their own products, and not custom mills for use by other farmers.  As mentioned in the article to the right, there are currently no such custom mills in all of New York State.

At the same time, there is a strong demand for local food of all kinds, including grains.  This is reflected in new rules for producers selling at the Greenmarket in New York City, requiring that 15% of the flour used in products be regionally sourced.  Such regulations along with recent regionally-focused grain conferences, heritage grain projects, and other efforts are all aimed at fostering a regional grain movement.  One can sense the beginnings of such a movement in Columbia County, even in spite of infrastructure challenges - just look at the anecdotes in the article at right.  Yet it is a small beginning; in the 2007 Census of Agriculture there were only 6 farms in the County growing winter wheat for grain, and it is likely that most of this wheat was used for animal feed, not human consumption.  Again, lack of local infrastructure is a clear hindrance. 

When I think of what a regional grain movement might look like, I think about the past.  Below is a map of the locations of gristmills (custom mills for grinding grain into flour) in Columbia County in the 1870s-1880s.

Locations of Gristmills in Columbia County, 1870s-1880s

This map depicts 45 gristmills, which is a little less than the 62 reported in 1822, in A Gazetteer of the State of New York (Spafford 1824, p. 127).  As you can see, it would have been fairly convenient for nearly any Columbia County farmer to bring grain to the mill for grinding into flour, and this is just what they did.

19th Century Harvest
Engraving of a 19th century grain harvest by Alexander Anderson.

Writing in the late 1700s in Claverack, Alexander Coventry is always mentioning bushels of grain being traded, sold, bought, and, yes, brought to the gristmill.  For example he writes in September of 1790, "“Took 3 bushels of Mescelane [rye and wheat mixed together], and ½ bu. Corn, and 2 oats to miln [sic] and got ground" (p. 483).  Another time in 1792, he writes of picking up flour and meal, presumably at a gristmill where he had left grain:  "“Went to the miln [sic], got 2 barrels of Indian meal: containing about 6 ½ bushels, 2 ½ bushels in bags, and 4 ½ bushels of wheat in flour" (p. 658).

And of course, it's not just about infrastructure for grain.  The map below depicts the industrial landscape of Columbia County in the 1870s and 1880s.  In addition to gristmills, it shows the clustering of other industries, such as blacksmiths and shoe makers, around village centers.  You'll need a magnifying glass to see this version, but the industrial landscape map link below will take you to a larger version on our website:

Industrial Landscape Map, ca 1880

Industries in Columbia County in the 1870s-1880s

What I like about exploring both history and other cultures or ways of life, is that it can provide a new context for thinking about what might seem like a perfectly normal situation around us.  In this case, the fact that we get our grain (and many other kinds of products) from somewhere far away. 


Alexander Anderson (1775-1870) Scrapbooks of wood engravings.  New York Public Library Digital Catalogue.

Alexander Coventry Diary, 1785-1831, edited as a typescript by the New York State Library in collaboration with the Albany Institute of History and Art

The Industrial Landscape map is derived from lists and locations of manufacturers we assembled from State and Federal census data, the Beers atlas of 1873, Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, county histories, and Child's 1871 business gazetteer.

Spafford, Horatio.  1824. A Gazetteer of the State of New York.

Stilgoe, John. 1982. Common Landscape of America, 1580-1845.

USDA Census of Agriculture, 2007.
10/28 column: "Milling it Local"

by Anna Duhon

Last week I received an email from a friend who is living in the small West African country of Togo as a Peace Corps volunteer.  One part of the email especially caught my eye.  “The mills here,” she writes, “are popular locations, where women bring all of their crops to grind – corn into corn meal or flour, black eyed peas…into bean flour, plus soy, millet, sorghum, and even peanuts…." [See a picture of grain being carried in Togo]

Mills were on my mind, as I had just been researching options for milling and processing locally grown small grains such as wheat, and the scarcity of such facilities in the region was striking.  After quite a bit of searching, I could find only a handful of them throughout the entire Northeast, and most are connected with or exclusively serve particular farms, bakeries, or products.  [Map of milling and processing locations in Northeast]

In other words, these are not the kind of “micro-mills” that my friend describes in Togo, where small-scale farmers can bring their bushels of grain to be milled into flour.  In fact, when I spoke to agronomist Elizabeth Dyck, who coordinates the Northeast Organic Wheat Project, she said that there is currently no such micro-mill in the entire state of New York (though one is in the works in Western New York, and will hopefully be running next year). 

We are a long way from Togo, and in terms of small-scale grain processing, we are a long way from the kind of “modern” convenience that farmers there profit from.  My friend from the Peace Corps, who is incidentally also from New York, expressed the difference between her own understanding of mills and those of the Togolese by writing, “While I always thought of mills as ancient things, picturing maybe the windmill in Don Quixote, here people think of mills as very modern, as it was only in maybe the last fifty years or so that they began to be used here at all.”  (Before that, grain in Togo was hand-ground at home using stones.)

Here in Columbia County we once did have the small grain milling capabilities that are currently in place in Togo and many other parts of the world, but that was close to 200 years ago when gristmills (“micro-mills” in today’s lingo) literally dotted the landscape and often were the anchor around which villages and towns grew.  In 1822 there were 62 gristmills in the County, or one for every 600 people or so.  They were a key component of local sustenance, as this is where families and farmers brought their crops of wheat, rye, corn, and other grains to be ground into flour.  Small mills were so vital to rural life and prosperity in the area, that according to historian John Stilgoe, they were initially encouraged with enticing offers, and supported as public utilities. [Map of gristmill locations in Columbia County in the 1870s-1880s]

I find myself wondering if some of the “ancient” agricultural infrastructure of our past might in fact become a vital part of our future.  Signs of a resurgence in local small grain production are sprouting up everywhere, alongside demand.  But at the same time there are clear indications that we don’t have sufficient shared infrastructure to support widespread regional small grain production.

My experience during a late September weekend a few weeks back brought both this resurgence and need clearly into focus.  On Saturday I stopped by the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market and talked to Fred and Sally Laing, who have been producing delicious rye honey cakes from their own rye, but had just recently run out of flour and could find no place nearby to grind their remaining rye into flour (they travelled to Virginia to grind their first batch).  Then on the way out of the farmers’ market, I ran into two local producers from Honey Dog Farm grinding a practice run of their own wheat on a borrowed small electric mill in the parking lot; they hope to be able to sell wheat flour in the area soon. 

And finally, on Sunday I participated in Hawthorne Valley’s second annual Sowing the Future event, in which the public was invited to hand-sow a field of grain -- this year wheat, which is being grown on the farm for the first time since the early 1990s.  For Hawthorne Valley, the challenge is not milling the grain since it has a bakery with a mill, but rather finding a facility in which to clean and process the grain before milling.  For this the farm has made arrangements with a Dutchess County farmer who is one of the few in the region with such a facility.

Clearly there is a growing need for the processing and micro-milling facilities we have lost as a region.   Yet milling is just one of the aspects of the local infrastructure that has slipped away as we’ve traded some conveniences for others.  When you look at old maps of Columbia County from the end of the 19th century, it is amazing to see the clustering of services (mills, blacksmiths, shoemakers, grocery stores) in every small hamlet and village – places that these days are a long drive away from nearly all services. 

Some change is afoot, however, and one place to see it is in the re-introduction of food stores like Otto’s in Germantown, the Chatham Real Food Co-op in Chatham, and Migliorelli’s in Hudson back into town centers.  Whether it is micro-mills that farmers can use to process small grains, or grocery stores within walking distance, I wonder how much of what has been lost or would be considered “ancient” and old-fashioned, might yet be reclaimed simply because it is part of how we want to live in the future.  Who knows, perhaps in 50 years there will be flourishing backyard grain production and micro-mills will be quite popular locations here as well!


This and previous “Perspectives on Place” columns are available on our website, at /fep/columns.html, where we invite your observations of the landscape, your comments, or your questions.

Sally and Fred Laing display their rye honey cakes
Sally and Fred Laing of White Oak Farm display their rye honey cakes at the Hillsdale Farmers' Market.

Sowing the Future, 2010
Hawthorne Valley's Sowing the Future event drew lots of families eager to fill their hats with wheat and help sow a field. 

Sowing Wheat at Hawthorne Valley Farm
Sowing wheat at Hawthorne Valley's Sowing the Future event in September of this year.
Wood Engraving of Sowing a Field
"Sowing the Future" in the past?  This 19th century wood engraving of a farmer sowing his field was done by Alexander Anderson (1775-1870) who lived and worked in New York, engraving scenes of rural life, among other subjects.

Togolese Women Carrying Grain
Community members from the village in Togo where my friend is staying carry sorghum and millet back from the fields that will soon be brought to mill.