Choteau craft miller combines conservation, ancient grains

Kristen Inbody
Great Falls Tribune
A tractor pauses along a pond developed on Conservation Grains farmland near Choteau, Minn. Grain from the farm, and sourced from other farms, is used in a craft milling venture.

CHOTEAU, Mont. (AP) - Farming is a 23,000-year-old experiment, so it's only suitable that Judy Cornell's Conservation Grains is experimental in spirit and practice, too.

Cornell, formerly an accountant, started farming 11 years ago between Choteau and Dutton.

Lately, Cornell has added a craft milling business to Conservation Grains.

"It's a lot more interesting flavor-wise with a blend," she said.

"Everything is all whole wheat," she said. "You get the bran and germ — where the nutrition is."

The mill produced up to 28 pounds of finely ground flour an hour. It's softer somehow than conventional flour. It's flavorful.

A Bozeman baker is using rye flour she's milled, but most of what she sells in stores and through is flour blends.

Her micro-mill uses local grains, some from her farm, and creates flours from a blend of grains, hard white, hard red winter wheat, hard red spring wheat, rye, kamut and spelt.

She split a tote of rye from Fairfield with Farm Power Malt, a craft malt operation in Power. Finding rye growers has been challenging. The crop can be weedy, but it's a beautiful sight in the fields.

Farmer/craft malter Ryan Pfeifle sent malted purple barley her way, which she's added to bread and milled and passed on to bakers to experiment with.

Grain ripens on the Conservation Grains farm between Choteau and Dutton, Minn. Grain from the farm, and sourced from other farms, is used in a craft milling venture.

"There's a lot of things he and I could collaborate on," Cornell said. "A lot of what I do is experiment, and of course he's all into that.

"This is fun synergy," she said. "People involved with these grain enterprises are very willing to help, to share their enthusiasm and exploration."

She recently added to her milling schedule Einkorn wheat, the most ancient variety. It's hard to dehull. She seeded this week a micro test plot of the grain, too.

A small former Helena lumberyard office, hauled to Choteau, has found new life as the home of Cornell's craft mill.

"I hope to outgrow it, but it works for now," she said. "I'll need a bigger mill, but not yet."

It's somewhat noisy, but the mill isn't dusty, thanks to skirting and ventilation.

The bags of flour have the milling date, variety of grains involved in the blend and where the grain was grown. That was customers can enjoy freshly milled flour.

She pitched her wheat to a Helena distillery, which now uses it.

"I had 10,000 barrels of spring wheat in the bin. I said, 'Want to try my wheat?'" she said.

Cornell also sold them black currents from her farm's shelter belt for a specialty vodka they made for Big Sky Pride.

Selling the wheat to the distillery got her thinking about what else she could do with it. She found a mill used for cracking corn for chicken food in a barn in Paradise and had the stone redressed. Around Christmas, she started milling.

Cornell needed a test baker, and her husband, Jeff, a rare bookseller, offered to learn how to make bread, with some assistance from their son, Jack.

"You have a sourdough starter, water and flour, and with atmospheric conditions, it's never the same two times. It's a very uncontrolled experiment," she said.

Cornell's farm, Spring Coulee Farm, is where the conservation aspect of Conservation Grains comes in. She's built ponds, which help organize the irrigation water and produce bugs for pheasant chicks to feast on, and she's planted "brood strips," brush for pheasant habitat.

"I've loved it," she said of farming.

Eleven years ago when she bought the land, she rarely saw anyone at farmer gatherings who wasn't a man in a baseball hat. Now women are a more visible part of agriculture in north central Montana, she said.

She's interested in polycropping (planting multiple crops together), and she's growing hemp for the first time this year, perhaps with clover. She's sowing black chickpeas into a former stand of flax.

"In just one year, the flax really changed the soil," she said. "I'll always grow it."

She does worm surveys and "they're in those (flax) roots like crazy," she said.

The farm includes wildlife conservation efforts, such as planting shelter belts and nesting covers.

"For the milling, I wanted to source grain from farmers who also are concerned with wildlife habitat and soil health," she said.

Customers have been "very enthusiastic," she said, though the world doesn't have as many bakers as it used to. Customers have found her from both coasts, in Wyoming and her flour was in a recent Last Best Box subscription box.