Organic Broadcaster

Illinois farmer finds success growing, milling organic grains

By Jody Padgham

“Farming, like lots of things, is a balance of theory and reality. This year is a good lesson in reality,” claimed Harold Wilken, north-central Illinois organic farmer, at a recent OGRAIN field day highlighting his diverse organic field crop operation.

5th-generation farmer Harold Wilken showcases his farm’s organic wheat variety trials at a recent field day. Photo by Harriet Behar.

Of 2,900 acres usually planted at Janie’s Farm Organics outside of Danforth, Illinois, 900 were too wet to plant in 2019. Farmers can talk about and make plans based on theory, Wilken noted, but must adapt and deal with the reality life throws at them. “We can have grandiose plans, but Mother Nature always has the last word.” Wilken, who farms with his son, Ross, and nephew, Tim Vaske, relies on diversity in both the field and marketing to adapt to reality.

While acres and acres of corn and soybeans tend to be the norm in Illinois, coming into Iroquois County about 60 miles south of Chicago, fields start to look a little different. Here the farmers of Janie’s Farm Organics show some influence. Fields of attractive tossing heads of hard or soft red winter wheat alternate with new plantings of specialty Shumei soybeans, open- pollinated flint corn, Ruby Red popcorn for milling, and thick cover crops of red clover. Each field has a planned multi-crop and multi-year rotation, tweaked as needed in response to the year’s weather pattern.

Transitioning his first organic land in 2002, Wilken is now known in the area as the farmer willing to manage conventional land through an organic transition. Farmers come to him, asking to have their conventional acres taken over.

“We start by planting cover crops, which make a huge difference in regenerating conventionally managed soil,” Wilken said. Not long into organic management, the roots, worms, manure, and microbes start working together. “With our class 2-3 heavy, wet, clay soils, a plow down of 6-8” red clover will put a lot of good residue into the soil, put a lot of nitrogen back in.” Wilken and his neighboring farmers are pleased by the improved soil structure and nutrient- and water-holding capacity organic management will bring.

Wilken also stands by rotations. Sticking to a solid crop rotation is essential to keeping weed, insect, and disease problems at bay, he explained.

“We use a grass-legume-grass-legume rotation to avoid conventional ag pitfalls,” he explained. “If we stray from our rotation, we might see weed or disease problems.” One typical rotation on Janie’s Farm might be one year of cover crop, fall-planted wheat, then corn. Or, soybeans, or another food-grade dry bean followed by wheat and then a few years of alfalfa to clean up the field.

Wilken believes in keeping seed from his fields, planting year after year “until it doesn’t work anymore.” Buying in seed can potentially bring in weed seeds and be a nightmare to manage for years, he advised. Seed that has adapted to your specific conditions and management over time will work the best for you in the long run, he added.

Market Opportunities
While dedicated to the soil-building qualities of the farm’s diverse crops, Wilken was led to many of the specific crops he grows through opportunities in the market. Through one of his many connections, he learned that bakers in Chicago were looking for locally produced wheat and corn. One inspiration has been the Grand Prairie Grain Guild (look for them on Facebook), a coalition of farmers, millers, bakers, and consumers started in 2014 with help from University of Illinois Extension. Comfortable looking outside the typical box, Wilkin’s philosophy of “We want to grow what consumers, our customers are demanding,” moved him forward. The needs of these bakers and chefs led him to success growing a number of wheat varieties, from hard red winter wheat to soft white winter wheat and hard red spring wheat.

Wilken has developed relationships with researchers and breeders from the Midwest and beyond with interest in creating locally adapted varieties. Older, heirloom genetics are being crossed with modern wheat varieties to create a new gene pool. Field trials and in-field selection create improved varieties with old flavors and improved vigor and yield that do well under organic management. This year at Janie’s Farm several varieties of wheat are being trialed, as well as five types of rye and open-pollinated corn. Warthog is a high-protein wheat popular with bakers for cookies and sweets, while Glenn wheat makes delightful bread, he shared.

Food-Grade Production Challenges
Growing food-grade grains takes a specific dedication to management both in and after the field, Wilken said. Fusarium head blight (scab) is a problem in some of the wheat fields this year, causing a reduction in yield. Organic fungicides are an option, but expensive and offering mixed results—“the exact timing needed to succeed is tough to meet; I haven’t seen success” in using the products, Wilken said. He plans to manage the situation by harvesting, color sorting (the infected kernels are pink) and using a fanning mill to separate out the lighter weight infected grains. “We might not make it to food grade, but at least we’ll get some crop.”

Fusarium in food-grade soybeans, especially those grown for the specialty Japanese market, creates troubles as well. They’ll need a lot of cleaning to sort out the discolored beans to reach quality standards. “Food-grade is not a haphazard crop,” Wilken cautioned. “The requirements are very stringent and hard to meet.” On-farm storage and drying capacity are needed to be ready to sell “when the opportunity hits.”

Wilken shared that growing food-grade wheat makes it a challenge to use any rye species for cover crops. “The rye is a good crop before soybeans in a rotation, but the buyers of food-grade don’t want any volunteer rye mixed into the wheat grain. We can’t guarantee that if it’s in the rotation,” he cautioned.

Milling Grains
Serving the growing demand for locally produced grains, it was a logical step for Wilken and his farm partners to develop a milling operation. His commitment to discovering grain products the bakers, brewers, and distillers desired led him to explore what it would take to put up a mill.

The first plan was to build a mill on the home farm property, but the $1.6 million price tag and limited space soon cooled that idea. Further exploration led to the purchase of a 15,000-square-foot warehouse with a 70×70 ft. heated cement floor in the small town of Ashkum, only 3 miles north of the farm.

Ross Wilken did the research and plant design that led to the opening of the mill in 2017. Housing two, Danish-sourced, custom-built mills with 3-foot horizontal grinding stones, the mill has a capacity of producing 1,000 pounds of flour per hour. The self-contained vacuum-based mills emit very little dust and are supported by sifters with three screens and a bagger. A mixer allows the production of mixed-variety combination flours. Integral grain cleaning equipment was bought from an old mill just 3 miles down the road.

Mill manager Jill Brockman Cummings clearly enjoys creating quality milled grains for her local customers. “Milling is an art as well as a science,” she claimed. While conventional, mass-produced flours are extremely uniform in protein and moisture, the grains run through Janie’s Mill are alive and variable. “We produce a different flour than you can generally find in stores. Ours uses a whole grain with living enzymes, with bran and germ. They have nutrients that our bodies can digest and utilize.” Both the miller and the bakers must adapt to these differences and respond to the living variations in the grains and the flours.

While embracing the differences of their grains, Wilken and Brockman Cummings also respect the need for consistency and high quality in product expectations; they ran practice batches of milled grain for several months before officially starting product sales. They now sell both wholesale and retail packages of dozens of grains in various forms, including cornmeal, polenta, grits, spelt, buckwheat, hard and soft wheat, rye and more. Bakers have told them that they find the flavors noticeably different and really enjoy baking with them.

Words of Wisdom
Wilken is clearly an innovative and forward thinker, shown in the wisdom he passes on from his experiences. “There have been lots of good opportunities passed up because there was a risk, and people are not willing to look at it. Be looking for the next opportunity. When it presents itself, study it well. Don’t reject it right off until you really look into it and see where it might take you,” he advised.

Wilken points out that five years ago he wasn’t even thinking of owning a mill, and now here he is, successfully growing a wide diversity of grains, and serving needs of bakers, brewers and distillers, as well as consumers, in his local region. “As things change, as local markets expand, get involved. There are more restaurants, more food stores, more bakers and brewers looking for what we raise. You might as well take advantage of it as anybody.”

Looking from the outside, it is obvious that Harold Wilken and his team have created an important partnership with the local market, playing an integral role in providing high-quality, nutritious, fresh, distinctive-tasting and consistent grain products to discerning consumers, while also creating a stable market and income for his multi-family operation. Janie’s Farm Organics is a great example of a successful intersection of theory and reality in rural Illinois.

Learn more at www.janiesfarm.com or www.themillatjaniesfarm.com.

About OGRAIN
OGRAIN (Organic Grain Resource and Information Network) is a collaborative effort of the UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, UW-Madison/UWEX Organic and Sustainable Cropping Systems lab, and MOSES, supported by a grant from the USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. For more information on events and organic grain resources, visit ograin.cals.wisc.edu.

Jody Padgham is an outreach specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison working with OGRAIN.

 

From the July | August 2019 Issue

 

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