"Humankind's been here before," says Gilbert Williams, co-owner of Lonesome Stone Milling in Lone Rock, Wis., about 40 miles west of Madison. "Stone milling goes back in every culture."
Historically, millers have put grains to stone with power - whether generated by horse, water or electricity - and got flour. But not all flours are created equally.
The Industrial Revolution ushered in steel roller mills, which process grains quickly at higher temperatures. Some bakers argue they produce an inferior texture and nutritional content compared to the stone-ground method. The steel roller method has become the industry standard for commercially produced flour that undergoes homogenization to make it "foolproof" for the masses, Williams says, and shelf-stable, which often entails chemical doctoring.
According to USDA figures, by 1992, just four multi-unit flour producers had cornered over 70% of the market. Artisan millers are not just tilting at windmills; they really are up against giants. Williams is embracing the ways of a bygone era, going back to craft, back to local, back to small. Lonesome Stone Milling goes against the grain in that it mills organic grains from local farmers, virtually unheard of these days.
Williams works with local organic small grains farmers to produce locally milled organic whole-wheat flours, cornmeal and baking mixes, including a pancake mix made with rye.
"One of the visions of the company is to become a local version of Bob's Red Mill," Williams says, referencing what is probably the best-known national supplier of organic, whole-grain flours. "Bob's is located in Milwaukie, Oregon, and ships nationwide. And people want local...so I really want to stick to the grains we can grow in Wisconsin."
A 1947 wooden beauty of a seed cleaner, nicknamed "Mary Ellen Carter," starts the process. Once considered "the Chevy van of her generation," according to Williams, equipment like her became mostly defunct as more farmers moved to using genetically modified seeds and weren't saving any, let alone cleaning them.
Lonesome Stone co-owner Gary Zimmer saw the seed cleaner go up for auction about two and a half years ago, an event that kick-started the business. When the Lone Rock sausage facility for Black Earth Meats (owned by Zimmer's son-in-law) opened up about a year ago, Lonesome Stone acquired a mill and was milling by March. Now the vacated meat coolers house the mill and 2,000-pound totes of grain; a Hobart sausage grinder is refashioned for mixing flours. A gristmill grinds the grain between two 30-inch stone wheels. It's then sifted and separated into bran and usable flour, which is labeled with the name of the farmer who grew it.
Williams has degrees in chemistry and agronomy, and Zimmer has written extensively on alternative agriculture practices, including The Biological Farmer. Williams calls that book "right on the money with the grain, the fertility and the philosophy. And I'm buying from guys who are buying into his philosophy."
Lonesome Stone works with three area organic farmers, giving them an avenue to grow small grains in a crop rotation that overall leads to balanced soil and sustainable use of the land while supplying a local market with a local product.
Dennis Dochnahl of Scenic Heights Farms in Dodgeville raises organic grass-finished beef for Black Earth Meats, alongside rotations of organic wheat, corn and rye for Lonesome Stone; the manure functions as prime fertilizer.
"This is unique - there's not very many farmers growing this many types of small grains," says Dochnahl.
David Dolan of Dolan Farms in Dodgeville raises organic dairy heifers and produces mostly organic wheat for the mill. "Organic is just healthier, and I think it's a growing trend," he says. "That, and buying local…which makes it good for us growers. That's why I like what Williams is doing - it's close, it's local and he has a unique little project."
The economic perks are spreading through the village of Lone Rock, which covers barely one square mile. "I try to hire right out of Lone Rock, because you see how fallen down this town is," says Williams. "We are basically the economic expansion of this town."
Dick "Crusty" Sadler has been living in Lone Rock since 1975 and describes himself as a "consummate job hopper." Sadler found out about the mill when he picked up a bag of pancake mix from the corner Shell station. Out of his enthusiasm for baking with their products, he landed a job as a miller and recipe developer.
"He's been very, very good," says Williams. "He's lived here over 30 years, and I think this is the first time in years he's had a job in town."
Lonesome Stone hopes to expand its product line with low-gluten flours, and Sadler has a few mixes, for crepes and chocolate cake, in the works. The complete line of products is sold at the mill and at the Hilldale farmers' market; whole-wheat flours are available in bulk at the Willy Street Co-op. Eventually, the company wants to distribute as far as Chicago.
"You kind of have this tension between: Do you want to be some artisan flour mill? Or do you want to feed the masses?" muses Williams. Prices for Lonesome Stone's products are comparable to Bob's Red Mill and other organic bulk flours. "You can't price the average person out of the market," he says.
Lone Rock residents have been supportive, especially during the holidays. A local Lutheran church used Lonesome Stone's whole-wheat bread flour for its annual holiday noodle soup. And with similar holiday cheer, the mill donated bags of cornbread mix to include in all 80 of the VFW's Thanksgiving turkey dinner boxes. There are some Lone Rock locals, Williams notes, who may think twice about paying $3 for a bag of flour, but he thinks people realize the value in their product and want to buy something good, especially when serving loved ones.
"When you sit down with your family, with people you love," he says, "what's important is the value of the food."
I left Lonesome Stone Milling thinking about the value of food, which in a local context means, to me, instilling a little good-neighbor karma in what you buy. Food tastes better when you know someone nearby also benefits.
I chose to use Lonesome Stone's whole-wheat pastry flour to adapt my grandmother's pecan squares recipe, a family favorite that reminds me that you don't need much to create something of value.
"Tutu," as my siblings and I call my grandmother, was a French-born war bride who moved to the agricultural heart of California shortly after she married my grandfather. I don't think Tutu ever quite recovered from a war-era sense of scarcity, but I could see her being someone who might walk into Lonesome Stone and reason that a good local flour was worth the splurge.
I remember the kitchen in her house as a good place. I can track my growth since infancy on the door jamb between the living room and kitchen - little dashes with my name (and my brother's and sister's and cousins') scaling toward the ceiling. It was an important barrier for other reasons, too, as my grandparents were firm about no food outside the kitchen. You can guess on which side of that door I stayed.
There was usually some sort of baked good on the counter when we were there - often these chewy pecan squares. She hand-wrote the recipes she liked most on recipe cards, which, to me, are her legacy. I don't know where Tutu got the pecan square recipe, but the value is that it's been with us now for going on four generations.
The whole-wheat pastry flour makes a seamless substitution in this recipe. The texture is slightly denser, but unobtrusive, and the natural nuttiness of whole wheat plays nicely with the pecans. It's no fault of the flour, but these squares are rather homely - they always are. They may zigzag with fault lines during slicing, but I've never seen one left behind.
Tutu's Pecan Squares
Crackly and crisp on top, gooey and dense in the middle. The trick to keeping the texture of these squares is to avoid overworking the egg. Makes 16 two-inch squares.
- 1 egg, unbeaten
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8"x8" pan. In a medium bowl, gently mix egg, brown sugar and vanilla. Stir in flour, baking soda and salt until just combined. Fold in pecans and spread in pan. Bake for 18-20 minutes. Cool in pan and cut into 16 squares.