John and Halee Wepking have had lots of different experiences in their relatively young lives, from cooking in New York City restaurants to running a restaurant in southwest Wisconsin to working on an organic grain farm in Iowa County, Wis.
Now the Wepkings, both in their mid-30s, are taking the next step, purchasing milling equipment to erect on the farm they are buying into near Ridgeway, Wis. Their goal is to purchase small grains from area farmers and create stone-ground flour and other value-added products to sell to bakers, chefs, retail outlets and consumers in the region.
Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin
The Wepkings will pursue their goal with the help of a Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin grant from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. The $50,000 grant will help them recruit and provide technical support to farmers who can grow small grains to be processed on their farm, as well as build a marketing and distribution plan to sell their products.
The Wepkings are in the process of buying the milling equipment that has been used for several years by Gilbert Williams at Lonesome Stone Milling in Lone Rock, Wis. Williams is transitioning out of the milling business, and the Wepkings are transferring the infrastructure to their farm just west of Ridgeway in Iowa County.
The Wepkings grew about 250 acres of small grains in 2019, including several varieties of wheat, spelt, rye, buckwheat and open-pollinated corn. Their grains have been processed at Lonesome Stone in the past but will soon be ground at their on-farm business, Meadowlark Community Mill.
“We’re calling it Meadowlark Community Mill because we want to convey our ambition to support other farmers with more equitable markets for small grains,” Halee Wepking says. “If farmers don’t have a market for a crop, they’re not going to grow it, and they have to know they can get a decent price for it when it comes time to sell it. Our goal is to provide that market for them and help increase the diversity on the agricultural landscape.”
The Wepkings have hired local foods veteran Rink DaVee to help in the milling aspect of their operation. DaVee is currently learning the milling basics from Williams in Lone Rock during the transition.
Meadowlark Community Mill is blossoming on land owned by Paul Bickford, who transitioned from running a large dairy farm to a dairy grazing operation to an organic grain farm over the years.
“I’m just happy that I’ve got some equity, and I’m able to help them out in this way,” Bickford says. “It’s an exciting time for the young guys.
“[Stone-ground flour] is really high-demand stuff right now, and personally, I don’t see where it’s going to end. People who want to eat healthy are not going to settle for eating garbage anymore.”
Bickford says there isn’t another similar facility within a few hundred miles doing what Meadowlark Community Mill is gearing up to do, so he believes the opportunities are endless.
Wepking says with COVID-19, the company’s online sales have “gone through the roof.” Besides tapping out their local growers, they are purchasing more grain from Minnesota and Iowa farmers to get them through this busy time.
Their two biggest markets are Madison Sourdough and Origin Breads, both in Madison, Wis. Origin Breads bakes exclusively with grains sourced from Meadowlark Organics, the sister company to Meadowlark Community Mill also owned by the Wepkings.
Williams had built a loyal following with Willy Street Co-ops and the Metcalfe Sentry Foods stores, so the Wepkings expect to supply more flour to those markets in the future, too.
“Gilbert was a little ahead of his time with the milling business, but he built a very solid base that will help us make this transition,” Wepking says.
The Wepkings hope to have their milling operation up and running by September, so they can process this year’s harvest through the fall and winter months.
On their Iowa County farm, they will do everything from growing the grain to grinding it into flour, bagging it, and delivering or mailing it to their various customers. They are also considering opening a monthly storefront on the farm at some point in the future.
Wepking says when they moved to rural Ridgeway about five years ago, they went “all in” on small grains. She says they were fortunate to have Lonesome Stone Milling nearby to help them get started in the business.
“These mills are the linchpins,” Wepking says. “They’re the leverage for change.”
Meadowlark Community Mill is one of nine Wisconsin local food projects selected to split $300,000 in grant money this year through the Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin program. The funds are designed to help farms and businesses more efficiently process, market and distribute locally grown food products.
Massey lives near Barneveld, Wis.