BELLEVUE — Brett Stevenson is a farmer’s daughter with a passion for fresh, local food. This year, she put her ardor into action by opening Hillside Grain, a mid-sized flour mill she hopes will build upon her father’s business.
The mill was scheduled to be up and running April 13 to send its first batch of flour off to a lab for testing. Once fully operational, Hillside Grain will produce around 1.5 million pounds of flour each year, all milled from wheat and barley grown at Hillside Ranch southeast of Bellevue.
The end product will be a high extraction flour that will be sold wholesale to artisan bakeries around the region. Hillside Grain is the first flour mill of its kind in Idaho; somewhere in between a small-scale artisan and industrial-sized producer.
“I think that’s kind of absent in the landscape,” Stevenson said.
But a growing local-food movement is changing the playing field in several food production industries, from brewing to baking.
“People have a desire to know where your food came from and where it was processed,” she said.
Hillside Grain also employs an older style of milling that Stevenson says is more common in Europe, using a stone mill and a roller mill. In fact, much of the equipment was imported from overseas.
“You have the fresh pasta and fresh bread using fresh flour in Europe — and it tastes amazing,” she said.
Fintan Keenan, a milling engineer from Denmark, was making the final calculations on Friday to get the Hillside Grain flour mill up and running. Keenan designed the mill himself after Stevenson had reached out to him, having heard of him through a colleague.
“The whole artisan flour milling thing is a very small world,” he said. “Everybody knows everybody.”
Hillside Ranch sits atop a hillside to the south of the mill. After 45-plus years of producing crops, Stevenson’s father, John, continues to farm primarily barley. He’s added wheat to the fields in past years, in anticipation of adding the flour mill.
Growing up in the Wood River Valley, Brett Stevenson didn’t envision the future that lay before her. Milling didn’t even cross her mind.
“Nobody ever says, ‘I want to be a miller,’” she said.
Stevenson left Idaho for a boarding school in California, then earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Colorado and a master’s from the University of Montana — both in environmental studies. Her years in California helped her appreciate Idaho more, Stevenson said.
She later became a county planner before working for two nonprofits. But several years ago, she grew interested in processing her family’s own grain. As her vision for the flour mill grew stronger, Stevenson found she could no longer work apart from the farm. Now at 40 years old, she’s left the nonprofit sector to help her father’s business.
“I wanted to add to it — a little vertical integration, really,” Stevenson said.
She and her brother had already started their own farming operation about three years ago, growing food barley in a field adjacent to the site of the future mill. It was an unusual experience for her to finally taste what her farm had produced, she said, since Hillside Ranch has primarily grown another kind of barley for MillerCoors.
Wheat, meanwhile, is constantly ranked Idaho’s second largest crop in revenue generated, according to the Idaho Department of Agriculture — potatoes being the No. 1 crop. Forty-two of the 44 counties in Idaho grow at least some wheat, Idaho Wheat Commission Executive Director Blaine Jacobson said.
The state produces five classes of wheat, which go to make breads, cookies, crackers and pasta, Jacobson said. About half of Idaho’s wheat is exported to foreign countries, while the rest mostly goes to large flour mills to be combined with other sources and made into flour.
Hillside Grain will open up a new marketing channel in Idaho for artisan-type flour, he said.
“It’s the first artisan flour mill in the state,” Jacobson said. “It’s on trend with what is happening with some other food categories. … This is really a trend that is happening in other states, too – particularly, California.”
Going against the grain
At Hillside Grain, soft white wheat and food barley will be grown in the fields surrounding the mill, then stored for processing.
“We’re going to grow adhering to organic standards,” Stevenson said.
The grain is moved into a grain cleaner to separate out stones, chaff and other debris from the seed. The wheat or barley will then get milled through a roller mill and a stone mill. This is different than the standard industry practice.
“Flour production (in the U.S.) is generally done through industrial mills, which only use roller mills,” Keenan said.
But when flour is sent through several roller mills, it tends to eliminate the germ, Stevenson said.
“The germ is where the nutritional value is and where the flavor is,” she said.
The high extraction flour produced by Hillside Grain will have more germ in it. That’s because the roller mills are just used as the breaking stage before the flour gets sifted and sent to a stone mill with two custom stones shipped in from Holland. The composite stones are made of quartz, flint and emery, Keenan said.
“If you don’t have the right stone, you get cracks in your stone,” Stevenson said.
Each millstone weights 1.3 tons and is 5 feet in diameter. They are designed after the French Burr millstones, which were once widely used and don’t require sharpening as often, Keenan said.
The stone mill has a processing speed of 700 pounds per hour. Keenan said this type of milling, where everything is done under one roof, is unusual in the United States.
Stevenson feels a mill of this size will have more impact on the food system while producing fresh flour right at the source. Eventually, she may launch a retail arm of the business. But for now, Hillside Grain will sell 25-pound bags to bakeries around the region — and that may include a few in the Wood River Valley.