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How Janie's Mill became an Illinois flour powerhouse

Today on Food Trek: We're heading over to Ashkum, Illinois, to hear from Harold Wilken and Jill Brockman-Cummings about the origins of Janie's Farm and Mill, an organic flour powerhouse that has worked against the grain of the conventional farm and food system to bring a locally produced staple baking ingredient to restaurants, groceries and home pantries throughout Illinois.

In 2003, organic farming pioneer Herman Brockman found out that Wilken was interested in organics, and Brockman offered him 30 acres to transition so he could see for himself the changes in the soil.

“And by 2004, I knew that's what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” said Wilken, co-owner of Janie’s.

Wilken went from 700 acres of conventional farming to 700 acres of transition.

“It was a little rough there in the beginning. Really rough, actually, to get the land and change over. And I took a lot of peer pressure from other farmers. If you think schoolgirls have a lot of peer pressure, you ought to try farming organic in a conventional world. For me, it was the way that I felt I needed to go,” Wilken said.

The farm has since grown from 700 acres to 3,300 acres.

More change was coming. One day Wilken was preparing to send product to New York for chicken feed, and he thought, “This is nuts. We’ve got a whole food shed in the Chicagoland area that eats bread. Why aren’t we feeding people instead of chickens?”

“So that started the conversation. How do we take our farm another step closer to the consumer? And there really was not a stone mill doing stone-ground flour in the Midwest.

In 2016 they decided to do it.

Jill Brockman-Cummings, Herman’s daughter, was a stay-at-home mom with four daughters. Her return to the workforce brought her to the mill, where is now manager overseeing day-to-day operations.

“I love good bread. That was the first thought that came to my mind. Wonderful. I always wanted to be a baker. Now I'm going to have really good flour to make good bread. So I took the job,” she said.

They ended up buying a commercial building 3 miles down the road from the farm in Ashkum, which is about 20 miles south of Kankakee off Interstate 57.

“Harold and the team got the mills installed. And I came on, and we started milling,” she said.

They didn’t have any experience doing it.

“It was a disaster,” said Brockman-Cummings. “In the beginning, we milled sand. We did not know what we're doing. Then we quickly reached out to some bakers in the area. And from that we came up with the first six flours.”

They just kept adding more and more on once they got the hang of it.

“It's just been a whirlwind ever since,” Brockman-Cummings said. “We grew slowly, in the beginning, prior to the flour shortages in March and April of 2020. I think the week or two before the flour shortage, we were like really excited if we got five to eight orders out a day.”

All of a sudden, they were getting 25 orders per day. Then 200, then 500.

“We were milling around the clock, producing approximately 7,000 pounds of flour in a 24-hour period. That required hiring a huge amount of people from the community to come in and just start running three shifts,” she said. “90% or so of the grain that we milk comes from Janie's Farm. Janie's Farm is 3 miles down the road. So every day they would bring truckloads of wheat, and we would mill it. We never ran out.”

Wilken said they’re proud to be feeding people.

“We feel that what we're making is a quality food,” he said.

The operation is named for the family’s daughter, Janie, who died in 2001.

“I just feel like, I've gotten these nudges where it's like she's on the other side kind of helping guide this thing,” Wilken said. “Because it's like, how did that work? How does that all come together? And that's the spiritual aspect with my daughter. We're just very blessed.”

One thing Food Trek learned by visiting Janie's Mill and Farm is there's a lot happening there and within their community, so there will definitely be more to come down the road.

Today’s episode was co-produced by Tory Dahlhoff and Allison Walsh, with music from Guitars.

Tory Dahlhoff is a freelance reporter based at WCBU. He's also the host of the food and farming podcast Food Trek.