Harold Wilken, a miller from Ashkum, Illinois, has found himself on the frontline of the effort to put food on people’s tables during the coronavirus pandemic. He tells the BBC’s Follow the Food about what he is doing to cope.
We had always planned to expand our operations at Janie’s Mill, just never this fast. But as the global grain chain used by the big suppliers has broken down in recent weeks, we’ve found more and more people needing our flour.
Under normal circumstances we would mill for around eight hours a day, which produces about 4,000lbs (1,815kg) of flour on average that would go into 50lb (23kg) bags for wholesale. About a year ago, we started selling small retail bags – the kind you can buy in the shops – and would probably get about 10 orders a day online for those. But then coronavirus came along.
We first noticed something was different in mid-March when we started getting 100 orders a day. We were already wondering how we can keep up, but then it quickly went to 200, then 300. We pulled in extra shifts and thought “You know, we’ve got this mastered”.
In a normal week the millers at Janie’s Mill would expect to be producing around 4,000lbs (1,815kg) of flour a day (Credit: Janie’s Mill)
Then this past week we started getting another 200 more on top of that, taking us to 500 a day. People are confined to their homes without much else to do, so are returning to more homely, traditional pastimes like baking with their children, trying out home-made bread and experimenting with their own sourdough starters. Last Monday we got orders for 7,272lbs (3,300kg) of flour in small retail packages. At the same time our wholesale demand has only declined a little bit – it turns out that bakers are very resourceful about how they get bread to their customers.
So, now I’m going to drive to Pennsylvania to pick up another small-package milling machine so we can double our capacity. We are having to adapt to all this new demand.
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Most people can’t believe it when they call to ask if we have flour and we say yes. They ask what type we have and we say “All kinds”. They just don’t understand how we can. But that is the beauty of the way we are set up here.
Our grain is grown on our 3,000-acre (12sq km) organic farm close to the mill. We grow, harvest, clean and store the grain close by, which means when orders come in we can be more responsive and get flour to those who want it.
Most people can’t believe it when they call to ask if we have flour and we say yes
And we are getting people ordering from all over the country. I spent an entire day sorting, labelling, filling boxes and carrying them to the UPS truck to send them as far away as California and New York. It is very humbling to see.
We have had to take on extra people to help us bag and label all the flour. My wife Sandra is a schoolteacher, so she knew there were all these kids who couldn’t go back to college because the schools have closed. So we have brought in some of them to help package the flour. We’ve got people who did all sorts of other jobs they couldn’t do, like childcare, who are now working for us.
The mill has gone from just seven members of staff – three full-time and four part-time – to now having 18. We have six more from the farm also coming over to help. They have been amazing. One of our most accomplished millers volunteered to do a night shift, which now means we can mill our all-purpose flour, which is the most popular, through the night.
Growing wheat in nearby fields means the mill can be responsive to changes in demand (Credit: Janie’s Mill)
As a farmer, I am used to working long hours, but it has definitely been exhausting. I drive orders to Chicago myself to make deliveries and some nights I have been working until 22:00 along with the mill manager, Jill Brockman-Cummings. She has been training our other millers, though, so they can take over when she goes home.
Ashkum is just a small community and most of our staff live in a 30-mile (48km) radius of the mill. So when you think about the amount of money those wages are putting into the community at a time when they wouldn’t normally be getting any, it is making a very positive impact.
The driving vision behind Janie’s Mill and Janie’s Farm has been to feed people in this part of the country with good quality, local food by shortening the grain chain. Time will tell what it means for us long term.
For me, however, it means so much more than just seeing our business grow. In 2001 our eldest daughter was killed in a car accident at the age of 15. After she passed, we named the farm after her and the mill also bears her name. It feels like Janie’s spirit has been with us all this time. And we are all just working hard to honour her.
This interview with Harold Wilken at Janie’s Mill in Ashkum, Illinois, was adapted by Richard Gray.
This article is part of Follow the Food , a series investigating how agriculture is responding to environmental challenges. Follow the Food traces emerging answers to these problems – both high-tech and low-tech, local and global – from farmers, growers and researchers across six continents.