Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Meet the Miller: Kevin Christenson

Except for a natural food store which had probably known better days, there was no source of organic flours of any kind in or near the little town where we used to live in the Northeast. I bought 50-lb bags of wheat, spelt and rye whenever we visited more baker-friendly places and relied on my little mill to supply me with whole-grain flour on demand. If kept at cool temperature, grains will last forever, so I never ran short of the essentials but access to more “exotic” grains such as barley, buckwheat, millet, etc. was another matter. I had no choice but to turn to the natural food store where freshness was sometimes an issue, even in the bulk section where everything looked a bit sorry for itself. So imagine my delight when I heard about Fairhaven Organic Flour Mill, an actual mill located in the Skagit Valley, about one hour away from where we now live now in the Northwest, a mill milling organic whole grains and run by a miller who is a real person, not a corporate entity.
I had liked the various Fairhaven flours which I had tried (our local grocery store carries them bagged and the nearby PCC Market has some of them in bulk) and I thought I'd like to take a closer look. So I contacted Kevin Christenson, the miller, and told him I would love to come and meet him if he was up to a visit by a serious home baker and bread blogger.
We drove up by a beautiful December morning. In the valley, the fields were a patchwork of green and brown (having lived for so long in states where the landscape tends to be monochromatic from early December to the end of March, I marvel at how much color the winter landscape still offers here in the winter). Mount Baker was visible in the distance, snowy and majestic.
The mill is located inland in a new-looking industrial zone but Puget Sound is only a few miles away as we discovered when, after our visit, we drove north along the coast to Bellingham, a quaint little college town with an awesome bookstore and good eateries.
Puget Sound and the San Juan islands
Kevin Christenson was born and raised in Minnesota and has lived and worked in Manhattan for seven years but he is the only miller for miles around (the other organic mill in Washington State, Blue Bird Grain Farms, is located way to the east). As such, he has established strong ties with the local farmers and bakers and if working in close collaboration with those who till the land and feed you, your family and your community doesn’t make you a local, what does?
The mill's front entrance

The mill's backyard
Becoming locals was exactly what he and his wife Matsuko had in mind when they decided to move to coastal Washington State to raise their two boys. They had visited the area several times and fallen in love with it. Now they needed to find jobs that would make them bona fide actors on the local scene, jobs that their kids could understand and relate to. It took a while. They bought a house with a garden and lived on what they grew (Kevin had been a home gardener all his life and still grows most of their food) and they relied on their savings for the rest. When he found the mill up for sale on Craigslist (of all places!) in 2007, he had already spent two years researching a business he could try his hand at but everything he found was of the run-of-the-mill (no pun intended!) variety, jobs he could have done just as well in New York or in Minneapolis. Not what he was looking for. The mill was another story.
Then located in the 5,000 foot basement of an old building in Bellingham, it had started in the mid-70's as a cooperative to provide whole-grain organic flour to the local bakers and homemakers when nobody else was doing it and it had been bought in the 80’s by one of the coop members. The owner was now ready to retire and eager to sell.
From the start, Christenson's idea was to encourage local farmers to grow more grain. With the support of Stephen Jones, director of the Mount Vernon Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center (where the first Kneading Conference West took place last September), contacts were established and fair price agreements worked out. Today the mill buys 60% of its grain from Washington State (compared to 20% when the Christensons bought it). The wheat (which used to come mostly from Montana) now comes from Washington farms which Christenson has visited many times: spring red wheat and buckwheat from Walla Walla; barley, soft white wheat and hard red wheat from nearby Lynden. Millet still comes from Montana as do spelt (although Christenson is trying to get some from Eastern Washington), rye, oats and some light barley; brown rice comes from California (none is to be had locally); corn from New Mexico (the 2011 crop didn't yield enough in Washington). The mill stopped milling soy in 2010 because the source could no longer guarantee it would be free of GMOs.
Thanks to the move to the 7,200 square feet new facility in the fall of 2010, the mill could conceivably double its output of 80 to 100,000 lb a month. But the kids are still young and family life remains top priority, especially with both parents employed at the mill although Matsuko works there only part-time.
Trevor filling buckwheat flour bags
Altogether the mill employs two full-time and two part-time workers. Kevin never went to milling school (if such a thing exists in the United States) nor is he a baker. He had to learn literally every aspect of the job as he went along (the previous owner stayed on for two months to help with the transition) and, as he sees it, he is still learning every day.  He likes machinery and has always enjoyed fixing whatever broke down. That's a big plus. He has a business degree. That helps too. Finally he enjoys engaging with people and he is an indefatigable listenerhe has frequent contacts with farmers and bakers; he consults with Stephen Jones; he participates in as many grain-related programs and field trips as he can.
His is strictly a whole-grain operation. The organic all-purpose flour sold under the Fairhaven brand actually comes from Central Milling in Utah. Fairhaven isn't simply not equiped to produce such flour. Christenson is currently working with Snohomish County farmers who are seeking a grant to finance the installation of an organic white flour mill. It would cost over $1.5 million. Fairhaven still uses its original stone mill but only to make coarse meal (which some local bakers order every week). All the other flours are hammermilled.
I bought bags of grain and some flour and on our way out, we saw old posters on the walls of the office. They belonged to the previous owner who was of the back-to-the-earth hippie-ish persuasion. Although Christenson kept the posters, he is more attuned to our times. Intent on making sure his community remains relevant in the global economy, he is keen on doing what he can to foster a sustainable way of life in the Skagit Valley. Listening to him I kept thinking: "This is what it actually means to act locally and think globally. That's it. In action. With no rhetoric, embellishments or flourishings. Simple as can be."

10 comments:

  1. Yet another beautiful post, the photos, the text, what a great opportunity to get to know Mr. Christenson and his work!

    Thanks for sharing!

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  2. Thank you, Sally! Visiting the mill and meeting the miller gave me an even keener appreciation for our local flours. Ever since taking that class with Jeff Hamelman back in October, I have been trying to use them as much as possible in my baking and it was fun to go all the way up to the source. Maybe next summer i can go see the amber waves of grain themselves and interview the farmer...;-)

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  3. Wow, this is so fantastic! I love supporting local producers and even better when you can meet them in person :)

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  4. Thanks for your visit, Elina! I too love putting faces behind the products I like. It makes them so much more interesting and somehow "real'.

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  5. Brings back memories for me, I took the tour of the mill when I was at the Kneading Conference. When you get this far north again, send me a note and we can have lunch on the Islands. Great post MC, thank you! I will republish this on FB.

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  6. Another great post! There ARE "milling schools" in The Netherlands, and I have decided to become an volunteer assistant miller on one of the working grain mills around Amsterdam! I will be "matched" with a miller and start when the weather is getting a little better (I could have started right here and now, but I somehow thought it would be a better experience to start when there is no horizontal rain around ;-)

    It still takes a while, but before you know it, spring wil be here, and I will make sure to make a nice blogpost about my first hands on experiences!

    greetz from Amsterdam!

    Freerk

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  7. I love how Mr. Christenson decided to look for work that would seriously benefit the community he and his family moved into. And milling really does that. What an exceptional man. Thank you for sharing!

    Greetings from Finland. :)

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  8. Hello Freerk! Thank you for stopping by. I'll be looking forward to your milling posts... How exciting!

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  9. Hello Jarkko! Isn't it wonderful that the web makes it possible to visit one another's neighborhood across the world? I am looking forward to reading more from you. The first whole grain bread I fell in love with was a Finnish rye...

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  10. Hello Teresa, yes, I would love to. Thank you so much for reposting on fb!

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