I was delighted to read on the 2015 Grain Gathering program that Marie-Louise Risgaard would deliver one of the keynote addresses. I had never met her but I knew that her family had a farm and a milling business in Denmark and I owned and loved her mom’s book, Home Baked: Nordic Recipes and Techniques for Organic Bread and Pastry. Hanne Risgaard’s Real Rye Bread was actually the very first bread I had baked in the months after we lost Noah, in part because having never baked rye bread with the grand-kids, I wasn’t weary of re-awakening painful connections, but also because I had wonderful memories of summer vacations spent in Denmark with my former in-laws when our own children were little and I was hoping to find some degree of comfort in making rugbrød, a staple in their household. The recipe is terrific as are many others in the book and now I was to hear Marie-Louise, Hannah’s daughter, tell in person the story of Skaertoft Mølle, her family’s small organic mill (mølle means “mill” in Danish). How lucky was that?
Marie-Louise herself isn’t a miller. She’s a baker and an instructor. Her dad, Jørgen, is the miller “and technical genius,” Hanne, her mom, the driving force behind it all and the one who keeps reminding both of them that, in the words of Marcel Proust, “the real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
Jørgen was a farmer-teacher with an MBA and Hanne a journalist working in both radio and television when, in 1983, they took over Skaertoft, a farm that had been in Jørgen’s family since 1892. For a few years they both kept their outside full-time jobs and farmed the land with artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Then they had a visit from an adviser who introduced them to organic farming. That was their first eye-opening.
The second came in August 2003 when a question popped up in a radio program they were listening to: how come there was no good organic bread flour on the Danish market? They saw their chance and jumped for it. At the time Marie-Louise was finishing her master’s degree in agricultural studies. She became her parents’ scientific anchor as, over the next three months, they worked on developing a 5-year business plan. The family got in touch with Irma, a high-end supermarket chain which had been very supportive of organic farming since 1987. Irma was enthusiastic and placed an order for flour. The only problem was that it gave them only eight months to deliver it. The family had no mill yet. Only an old cow stable in which to put one. Which they did. And on June 1st 2004, they shipped that first order. Right on schedule.
But not before the family had acquired a third set of eyes: their flour was going to be the best, a high-end organic product that would sell for much more than the regular supermarket flour (€3.80 as opposed to €1.20). It needed a distinctive face. No happy farmer against a sunny-field and blue-sky background for them! Skaertoft Mølle being a no-waste business, they wanted their bags to evoke the full cycle of organic farming. The face the design firm StudioMega came up with was indeed strikingly different.
The flour was an instant success. But then it was a complete departure from what had been available until then on supermarket shelves: organic, cool-milled on a slowly-revolving stone mill, it had better flavor. It also offered better nutrition: to keep mechanical influence to a minimum (thus protecting the integrity of the nutrients), the grain passed through the mill only once and distance from mill to bag was as short as possible.
Because of the varieties chosen, it had a higher protein content and better baking properties. “We have never mixed individual loads of grain. We have always relied on the quality of the single batch. This means that we have single-farm – sometimes single-field – traceability. We always visit our partners to check out storage facilities, take grain samples for analysis (protein, gluten, ochratoxins, baking test), to discuss crop rotations and our needs for grain, but we never make contracts. We only accept the highest quality – a promise we’ve made to ourselves never to be compromised. The farmers accept and respect this, because we also pay a higher price for the grain. When the quality of our own harvest is not good enough we sell it as animal fodder.” Skaertoft Mølle started with five types of flour in 2004. Today it offers about thirty products, flour and grain combined.
Skaertoft Mølle published a cookbook and a bread book, started offering bread baking classes, was awarded three esteemed prizes, began cooperating with an organic company in Germany, introduced fresh organic yeast to the Danish market and launched an annual Bread & Food Festival. The Skaertoft story truly has all the makings of a Danish fairy tale, especially when one doesn’t stop to consider the enormous amount of work and energy that made it come true.
And like in all good fairy tales, it has its dark moments. One year “we had a catastrophic harvest. And land prices halved over night. And the same year sales stagnated. Completely. And we were totally unprepared for that. … Other mills were now making stoneground flour – and they were building bigger plants with packaging machines – and not relying, like us, on manpower and hand-packed bags. They made what appeared to be similar products but at a much lower price. And supermarkets love that. So we were no longer in that very privileged situation of being “alone” on the shelves.”
Hard times helped the family grow yet another set of eyes: the mill was separated from the farm and turned into a shareholding company. They started looking for other outlets for their flour and grain, both in the food service industry and in supermarkets other than elite ones. As hard as it was, they also decided to lower their prices. The family and the mill workers (most of them women) labored flat out for two years with minimal payoff in economic terms. But they never compromised on quality and it worked: Skaertoft Mølle has acquired new customers, come up with new products for both elite and regular supermarkets, entered into new deals in the food service market, and set up shop online. It has also acquired a human face (or rather three): “We are no longer just bags – we have been on TV commercials and have become ‘the family’ in people’s minds and that has been an important change.” The shareholding arrangement has brought in funds: next step is the purchase of a packaging machine to decrease costs and provide a healthy working environment. New products and exports are in the works. The morale of this modern-day fairy tale? “Looking at bread though new eyes can take you a long way!” Indeed.