Keeping wheat’s story — and profits — local - Salish Current
April 15, 2024
Keeping wheat’s story — and profits — local
Adam M. Sowards

Skagit farmers deliver their grain to the Port of Skagit granary where it is conveyed into the building to be cleaned and the wheat separated — literally — from the chaff. The grain is then sorted into siloes or totes, depending on where it will go next. (Adam M. Sowards / Salish Current © 2024)

April 15, 2024
Keeping wheat’s story — and profits — local
Adam M. Sowards


Wheat flour — with flavor, “terroir” and a story — is growing out of broad local, resilient grain system in Skagit County.

When Kevin Morse started out as CEO of Cairnspring Mills in Burlington, he traveled frequently to find customers. He toted bags of flour in his backpack, and at airports Transportation Security Administration officers routinely pulled Morse aside.

“What is that, sir?”

“That’s flour.”

“Why are you carrying flour in a Ziploc bag?”

“I’m a miller.”

“What’s a miller?”

“Millers make flour.”

These TSA officers could be forgiven their ignorance. Around 150 years ago, more than 23,000 flour mills operated in the United States. Today, that number has fallen below 200, and five companies control about 80% to 85% of the milling capacity, according to Morse.

 “Most of the world still thinks flour is a ubiquitous white substance that should be cheap,” said Morse. “And they don’t understand there can be a difference.”

A broad effort in Skagit County is developing a small-scale, local and resilient grain system that helps farming communities while producing better flour. 

Craft flour for local resilience

Craft beers, coffees and chocolate exist as growing parts of their markets. Why not flour?

That is what Cairnspring Mills is doing.

“We’ve been eating stuff that’s on a shelf in a bag and never even questioned where it came from. Never expected it to have flavor or ‘terroir’ or story. Never knew how it was growing,” said Morse.

Flour can be a way to reset people’s assumptions around food and farming.

The work in Skagit exemplifies efforts to rebuild local, regenerative food systems with sustainability and resilience at the core, all while increasing profits. 

Totes are part of the difference at Cairnspring Mills. Because they can be stacked high, the totes provide an efficient use of space. More importantly, they are smaller than how most of the industry stores the grain, allowing Cairnspring Mills to keep closer track of supply chain, quality and multiple grain varieties in its facility leased from the Port of Skagit. (Adam M. Sowards / Salish Current © 2024)

The enterprise involves local government, farmers, millers, bakers and others, including consumers willing and able to pay a premium for high-quality, locally grown and processed flour.

Port of Skagit investments 

Morse is quick to point out the mill was not his idea.

More than a decade ago, the Port of Skagit, local farmers, the Washington State University Bread Lab and others considered how best to sustain agriculture in the Skagit for at least another century. 

They identified value-added grains as one potential avenue to ensure agriculture continues to be economically viable. The port started focusing on value-added agriculture in 2010.

The port serves as an economic engine and invests in publicly owned infrastructure to support resilience and economic opportunity for industries, including value-added agriculture.

The Port of Skagit built malting and milling facilities, including the only publicly owned granary in Skagit County in 2016.

According to a port document, this grain-processing infrastructure ensures “greater economic certainty for the diverse grain producers in our region.”

“These are ways to add value to these lower-value crops and contribute to the long-term vitality of the farmers,” said Morse.

Without the port, launching Cairnspring Mills would have been slower or would not have happened at all.

“The port has been such a great partner. They’ve helped us invest, build, lease back all of the equipment,” said Morse. “It’s really a public asset.”

Infrastructure for local producers

This infrastructure is essential for Cairnspring Mills’ scale of operations, a scale that serves a different purpose than the large industrial systems where the vast majority of flour originates.

“One mill in Arlington, Texas, will make six to seven million pounds of flour in one day,” said Morse. “We made six million pounds last year running two shifts a day five days a week.” 

What is needed for the local scale is infrastructure for storage, processing and distribution in what is sometimes known as the messy middle. 

Morse prefers the “remarkable middle” or “magnificent middle,” because at this scale, Cairnspring Mills “can deliver traceability, cleanliness, identity preservation, quality and story that none of the big mills are set up to do,” said Morse. 

The commodity system that dominates the flour market — and so much else of the food system — makes it difficult to break into the business or maintain local agricultural identity.

When selling into the commodity stream for mass-produced flour, a farmer trucks wheat to a grain elevator which sells it to another, larger grain elevator, that sends it on to a large flour mill. At each step, the story of that crop and that farmer disappears into a bland, indistinguishable product. Meanwhile, farmers capture a smaller and smaller part of the value at each stage.

What is happening in Skagit is preserving that story and that value.

“We’re still operating at a human scale. I still know every farmer we source from. We walk every farm, every year,” said Morse.

The port along with other investors made this local, small-scale operation possible.

Morse counts 70 impact investors who are patient and “want to see us change the system and disrupt it for the better.”

This approach allows for more stability, too. Last summer, Skagit Valley Malting abruptly closed and filed for bankruptcy in the fall.

“By the Port owning it, when unfortunate things happened at the malting company, it didn’t get cut up and sold off in pieces and parts,” said Morse. “It stayed here in the community. We were able to lease it and, frankly, stay in business.”

Overall, the investments have been successful enough that the port is planning to expand its granary. Its first phase is to install a grain dryer and conveyance infrastructure to move the grain, followed later by more silos for storage.

The port requested $500,000 from the legislature for the expansion and received $125,000 in this year’s supplemental capital budget. It is not yet clear how the port plans to make up the shortfall, but Morse said, “We’ve always been scrappy here, and we figured out how to get things done with a little bit of money.”

The port is looking “at all tools in the toolbox,” said Linda Tyler, Port of Skagit communications director. “The Port is very committed to the project and finding ways to fund it.”

Once the expansion is completed, the port’s granary will increase its capacity for finished product by 40%.

That will help Skagit farmers, who provide 70% of the wheat heading to Cairnspring Mills.

Wheat on Skagit farms

“I love growing wheat,” said Michael Hughes, a partner in Hughes Farm. “I enjoy the plant. I enjoy watching it grow. I enjoy harvest.”

Grain augers and a storage silo at the Port of Skagit are part of the existing facility leased by Cairnspring Mills. The legislature allocated $125,000 this year to help expand and update the granary. The first phase will include a grain dryer and conveyance. Longer-term plans include expanding silo capacity in the area seen here. (Adam M. Sowards / Salish Current © 2024)

Its value remains lower than other crops such as potatoes, so wheat is only one part of the Hughes Farm operation. “Partnering with companies like Cairnspring is getting me closer to being able to consider myself a wheat farmer,” said Hughes, “and that kind of makes me happy.”

Although more famous for tulips and potatoes, Skagit Valley has an excellent climate for growing wheat.

Yields there are about double the national average and do not require supplemental irrigation, said Hughes. The wheat also produces particularly nutritional and flavorful flour.

Farmers have grown grains in Skagit Valley since they diked and drained the deltas in the late 19th century. But much of the time, farmers “are just hoping to cover the costs” of growing wheat, said Hughes.

As a cover crop, wheat returns organic matter to the soil, protects the ground from erosion and works as weed control. When farmers plow it back into the ground, they may receive only the indirect economic benefit of an improved potato harvest.

Farmers receive higher economic benefits when they grow for the commodity stream. For Skagit farmers that means trucking it to Eastern Washington where it is combined with wheat from elsewhere. But transportation costs are rising. Over the last five years, freight costs have doubled for Hughes Farm to ship their wheat there, eating into their profits.

Local milling opportunities change the economics even more.

Because Cairnspring Mills specializes in regenerative agriculture that demands higher growing standards and practices, it pays farmers a higher premium. Hughes estimated that they receive up to 50% more. And because the mill is in Burlington, transport costs are minimal, which increases the profit farmers keep.

Someone purchasing Cairnspring Mills flour is only “two steps away from the grower,” said Hughes.

Opportunity for growth

Grain growers are increasing in Skagit County in part because of this opportunity.

According to the most recent agricultural census, Skagit County produced more than $3.5 million in wheat and barley across nearly 7,000 acres.

At Hughes Farm, they have expanded their grain growing operation to about half their acreage. This started when canneries left the area two decades ago.

That departure removed a local market for high-value vegetable crops and left farmers in a bind that required adjustments.

This sort of dependence on large corporations is something that Morse thinks harms communities and makes farmers vulnerable.

“As soon as those big guys leave, there’s nobody else there to buy your product,” said Morse.

A locally-sourced, value-added market for wheat adds a layer of resilience to the system.

For the community

Today, more people want to know where their food comes from, said Hughes, and Cairnspring Mills helps make that easier.

The evolution of wheat farming and flour milling in Skagit Valley is all about adding value and keeping more of it close to home where customers can see the impact on the land, in the community and even on their tastebuds.

“A big thing for us is getting people’s hands in the dough and giving them the taste and hear the story,” he said. “And then they become customers.”

— By Adam M. Sowards

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