Janie’s Mill, Years of Flourishing Stone Ground Milling
Small town communities surrounding and supporting local agriculture are impactful to the businesses who serve them. Harold Wilken, co-owner of Janie’s Mill, recognized this during his time as an organic wheat farmer and wanted to find a way to tailor his business to connect more with these individuals. After nine years of contemplating how to best provide his products locally, he changed the trajectory of his business to a new endeavor: organic flour milling.
The preliminary stages of this change consisted of constructing a flour mill in Ashkum, Illinois, three miles away from his existing farming land, Janie’s Farm, in the neighboring town. While figuring out the operational logistics of the plant, Harold hired Jill Brockman-Cummings as mill manager who collaborated with him on the project details. In 2017, when all of the plans and machinery were in place, Janie’s Mill became the fully operational business that has provided organic goods to the local community and beyond for the past seven years.
At the beginning, the grains grown on Janie’s Farm were solely used to create the business’ milled products. Although this location still continues to be a major source of these grains, Janie’s Mill has expanded its sourcing locations to other organic producers. With his desire to foster community relationships, Harold has been able to create strong bonds with the farmers who source these products to the mill.
As an organic farm, these trusting relationships are meaningful to ensure that the organic certification is upheld when sourcing. Not only does this certification require that all outside grains be compliant to the organic guidelines, but it also warrants a large amount of documentation throughout the milling process. The company takes this very seriously as Jill indicated, “We work really hard to make sure that we’re in compliance.”
Within Janie’s Mill, there are two Denmark-sourced ENGSKO mills that grind the organic grains. Both mills differ in their speed of processing as well as the bran content within the final flour product. With the faster one leaving the bran untouched and the slower one removing a bit of bran from the grains, they allow for a variety of flour products to be made ranging from a rate of 350-450 pounds per hour.
If it is not the company’s “nutritious and delicious” selling point driving people to their business, their unique offering of organic stone ground products surely is. They provide a wide variety of flours for different baked goods along with rye, buckwheat, and corn meal varieties. Jill explained that she has seen a growing popularity of their ancient and heirloom flours among their customers. For other food savvy customers with additional baking or cooking needs, Janie’s Mill also offers flaked grains, wheat berries, and grits.
Even though the company now has a mix of wholesale and retail customers, this was not always the case. Early on, they recognized that their grain products suited the needs of those in the professional food industry and gravitated toward targeting them with wholesale offerings. This was a large marketing endeavor for the company that was supported by their first successful experience with the Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) in 2018.
Being financed for the next three years through the VAPG’s reimbursement process was impactful for milling labor costs and the marketing revamp of the company. The business sought the attention of new wholesale customers through updated packaging as well as a user-friendly website for online sales. As Harold stated, this initial grant was beneficial “to get us on the map of milling and providing product.”
Just as the company was beginning to settle into this newfound wholesale customer base, however, the COVID-19 pandemic caused them to restructure their plans. Many of the bakers and chefs to which they were supplying their products were not able to continue operating during the shutdown. With no wholesale opportunities, business slowed considerably for Janie’s Mill in March of 2020. Fortunately, their established e-commerce platform was still available, drawing in an unexpected boom of sales.
Instead of bakeries or restaurants at this time, these new customers were home bakers who could not access these grain products at stores. The jolting switch of eight online orders per day to hundreds per day changed the mill into a 24/7 operation for the time being. “That meant we went from just a few employees to about 40,” Jill shared.
This growth in sales and labor tapered off after some time, which lined up well with the end of the mill’s first VAPG grant period. It was not long before they consulted the grant again in 2021 after seeing its impact on their business over the previous three years. This time, however, the $250,000 of awarded grant funding was used to sustain and grow the online retail business that flourished during the pandemic.
Marketing was a big focus of this second grant experience as they wanted to secure long-term online customers. Instead of using the traditional marketing strategies they used in the past, they opted to expand to social media to get the word out about their one-of-a-kind products.
Both of these VAPG experiences contributed to where Janie’s Mill is today: offering year-round products to various breweries and bakeries, online customers across America, and those in the area stopping by at the mill. The marketing of their offerings never ceases throughout the year, which allows for more growth opportunities beyond the major expansion efforts that were afforded by the USDA’s funding.
The recorded profits of the first grant and marketing boost of the second grant were noteworthy effects for Jill as she recalled the mill’s VAPG experiences. She expressed that the money they were awarded would not have been accessible had they not known about the VAPG. For anyone hesitant to apply to gain access to these helpful funds, Harold ensured that even though it may initially seem daunting, it is an important program for farmers.