Visit to Westwind Milling Company: our organic mill

Borden - Westwind Milling Company collection of flours/mixes

This is the second part in a two-part discussion about my visit to Westwind Milling Company in Linden. I already wrote about the history of the Westwind mill and mills in general. Today I am going to focus on the specifics of milling grains at our local certified organic stone mill. For those of you who participated in the Local Table Passport hosted by the University of Michigan, Westwind Milling Company is already a familiar part of the locavore food scene in SouthEast Michigan.

Lee and Linda Purdy started out as organic farmers. As Lee Purdy explains, “We had been practicing organic farming since the 80s but not really utilizing the marketing part of it. Farmers are producers not marketers. And the old statistic is that 80 percent of the farmers sell to the lower third of the market. That was me. And a lot of other guys were doing the same thing. Because all they know about is producing. They were trying to produce large quantities, because that was the big rush during the 20th century - bigger bigger, cheap food, all that stuff. But it is like picking up a hot pan before you know where you are going to put it down.”

Today the Purdy farm is one of 16 farms that support the mill. They are very careful to spread out their risk, “because if we got caught with drought or wet harvest or any number of other things we would be in trouble,” Purdy said. They visit the other farms on a regular basis and mill a variety of different wheats, corn, buckwheat, rye, spelt and barley.

When grain is harvested, for example hard red spring wheat in early August, it is stored in bins until the second week of September to level the amount of moisture in the grains. As the autumn progresses, the stored grains become more consistent for baking uses because this equalizing has taken place. Purdy describes Kamut wheat, which was found stored in an Egyptian tomb and sprouted thousands of years later, as an example of the grain’s ability to store forever under the correct conditions. Only once the seed coat is broken does the grain begin to oxidize and lose nutrition.

This degradation of enzymes is why Westwind Millings Company’s “big thing is from wheat to bread in a day” when they are making their own baked goods. “We are concerned about losing nutrition. We feel that there are more enzymes in fresh flour.” Given their oven is 50 feet from the mill - that is an easy choice to make.

Borden - Westwind Milling Company Lee in front of mill

When the grain arrives at the mill, it is transported within the building via elevator legs. The elevator legs have a series of metal cups that can lift up to 250 bushels of grain an hour from the basement to the second floor. At the top of the leg is a distribution arm that pours the grain into a bin, from where it can be moved again.

As Purdy explains, “Even though it is redundant, if I want to get grain to the other end of the building, I lift it and drop it and lift it and drop it till it gets to the right spot. It doesn’t matter because (the elevator legs) are running all of the time. When I am milling they are running, so I might as well utilize them.” The grain to be milled is kept on the second floor and is transported to the grinding stones via gravity. The entire machinery of the building is run on a 15-horsepower motor. The grain is scoured, removing the tiny hairs from the kernel and broken seeds, before it is poured into the mill. Then the grain enters the mill where it is ground between the run stone and the bed stone. Then the meal and the flour are blown up and shifted, separating the unbleached flour from the wheat germ.

The Purdys' current project is to finish building a separate area for gluten-free milling. Linda Purdy is hopeful that, within two months, they will be up and running for a gluten-free mill. They will be adding certified organic gluten free buckwheat (which they currently grind, but there is a lot of gluten flour dust in the milling area), garbanzo and rice to their extensive list of offerings. They plan to offer amaranth and millet as well.

I highly recommend swinging by their mill for a tour. It is fascinating and you can fill your car with goodies to take home!

Here is the link to the annarbor.com article!

Visit to Westwind Milling Company: history of a mill

Borden - Westwind Milling Company building

This is the first part in a two-part discussion about my visit. Today, I am going to focus on the milling tradition and the history of the Westwind Milling building, our locavore organic mill. Lee and Linda Purdy purchased the 174-year-old mill in Linden nine years ago and named it Westwind Milling Company.

Lee Purdy described to me their rationale for taking on the mill, “I was an organic farmer with 160 acres of land, and it was slowly losing value. We were becoming less and less efficient. At that time we had an option to sell to raise houses - like what everyone else was doing - there was a big housing boom. But because we are hard-headed, we decided to buy an old mill and find an alternative market for our grains.”

As Purdy walked me around the mill I couldn’t help but think that the history appealed to him as well.

According to Wikipedia, the first water powered grist mills were built toward the end of the first century BC. Before that everyone was grinding grains by hand, which, given my recent run in with milling chocolate, I can say firsthand it is a time-consuming process involving a lot of elbow grease.

As Purdy explained it, “Everyone had known for hundreds of years that if you want to get nutrition out of grain, you’ve gotta break it. However you gotta do it, you have to break it. It doesn’t matter if you are feeding horses or pigs or cattle or chickens or humans.”

Breaking apart the seed coat of any grain releases the nutrition contained within the endosperm or germ (which is also where the flavor is, because fat imparts flavor).

Much like the railroads were deeded land on the side of the tracks as an incentive to expand, millers played a pivotal role in our country’s westward expansion, because wherever they were, people had an incentive to settle down and farm.

Borden - Westwind Milling Company site of dam

The original settlement of the mill began in 1835, predating Michigan’s statehood by two years. The first thing the miller did was build a dam for the river. The dam was necessary because the miller needed a reservoir for the water to ensure a consistent water supply to turn the wheel. As Purdy said while looking over the dam, “The lake was here because the mill was here.”

Often when we think of a water wheel, we have that picture in our mind of an idyllic scene with snow on the wheel and frozen water. According to Purdy , “That is a miller's nightmare - the wheel is so out of balance, he would tear up his equipment. He would run the bearings out because the shaft would be going really fast.”

In order to prevent the wheel from freezing (a likelihood in Michigan) the miller ran a wooden flume from the dam to directly under the mill. He built the water wheel directly in the basement of the mill - thwarting the water from ever freezing thanks to geothermal heat.

Borden - Westwind Milling Company pegs in the bents

Having done a small bit of house renovation, I was in awe of the size of the wooden beams and joists used in the construction of the original mill. The holes for the pegs were intentionally put off by a 1/64 or 1/32 of an inch so when they drove the pegs into the hole, it would pull the joint closer together. It was important to build a solid building so the grinding of the grains would not injure the structure. Often, mills were built with two foundations to protect against damage from vibrations.

Vibrations happen when the run stone turns against the bed stone, crushing the grain between them. The miller has to sharpen the stones periodically with a chisel, called a mill bill, because hard grains can polish the granite to a mirror finish. Smooth stones are unable to grind grain. Purdy does not use a mill bill and a hammer; he has a carbide tip that he attaches to his air hammer.

“I chatter around on the surfaces to sharpen them up, or I will go through a furrow (the canal allowing the flour to leave) and make it deeper. My furrows need to be 5/32 of an inch deep at the end so there is enough room for flour to exit but not enough room for kernels of grain to come out.”

Here is Lee Purdy describing the different parts of the run stone:

After the first miller, James Murray, worked for seven years, he was deeded the mill by Martin Van Buren. He was transferred the 1,100 acres of lake that was formed when he built the dam on the river as well as 4,000 acres of abutting land (some of which became the town of Argentine). Given those statistics, one can well imagine the regard given to the miller as the provider of the means to make “one’s daily bread.”

I highly recommend contacting Lee or Linda Purdy to take a tour of Westwind Milling Company. It is totally fascinating and you can munch on a cookie as you learn!

Here is the link to the annarbor.com article!