Lonesome Stone Milling
By Mary Bergin | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
Shortly after lunch, the UPS driver delivers 50-pound containers of baking powder and salt in downtown Lone Rock, population 888. “You keep me busy, man,” he jokes with customer Gilbert Williams. “Where you want ’er?”
For years, the lives of these two men have intersected briefly but often. Pickups and deliveries involved boxes of cheese, rennet and starter cultures when Williams’s job was to oversee quality control and wastewater recycling at Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain, 15 miles northeast of here.
Since 2009 he has operated Lonesome Stone Milling, whose near-dozen organic and conventional flour products are made with grains—wheat, corn and rye—harvested from nearby farms. Think “breaking bread,” “amber waves of grain” and “the staff of life.” Within agriculture are many iconic images of the raw product and its influence on the American diet. “We’re taking on a pretty mundane product—flour—but it’s a big part of us,” Williams acknowledges. “Bread is something we eat almost every day.”
The work of turning grains into whole wheat flour, pancake mix, cornbread mix and more commences in and near a 1912 building that began as a general store, then assumed other identities. Before Lonesome Stone moved in, the building was home to Gorman’s Meat Locker, which once processed organic meat.
“So this place is built to be food safe; it’s up to USDA standards, and it has coolers,” Williams explains, and all are important in his quest to produce quality merchandise for farmers markets, grocers and bakers.
The enterprise also addresses a practical need.
“There was a hole in the [local flour] market that you could drive a combine through,” he deadpans. His nearest major competitor is Great River Flour Mill in La Crosse. A smattering of farm-based businesses also produces organic products from locally-grown grains, but on a much smaller scale.
Williams, whose grandparents cultivated 200 acres in New Jersey, was fascinated with farming as a kid. He learned about growing potatoes, raising chickens and living off the land around the same time Earl Butz, the Nixon-Ford ag secretary, began his 1970s preaching that farmers should “get big or get out” so Americans could stay well-fed at a reasonable price.
The Butz mantra led to commodity farming with chemical enhancements, a surge in fast food dining and Williams’s decision to earn degrees in chemistry and agronomy at the University of Maryland at College Park.
“We are now the generation who wants to know— and cares—where our food comes from,” he says. “I think people want to eat healthy local foods, but it’s not just about vegetables and cheese.”
Williams is the kind of guy who gets restless when challenged too little or stuck behind a desk too long. Work as a pesticide residue chemist at Hazelton Laboratories (now Covance) brought him to Madison decades ago. He headed process control at the Sun Prairie wastewater plant, also taking the lead on landfill and groundwater remediation. He supervised sanitation and bacterial analysis at Richland Hills, the apple slicing and processing plant in Richland Center.
During a recent year of gardening at Taliesin—“my days of creative underemployment”—Williams learned that Lone Rock Milling, a longtime farm feed-and-seed company, was going up for auction. That led to a business deal with Gary Zimmer, owner of Midwestern Bio-Ag and Gorman’s Meat Locker.
“Gary was influential in my decision to go into business,” he says. “At the auction, he paid for the seed mill and I agreed to manage it for him. Since then the business has gone way beyond that.”
Williams began cleaning rye seed for farmers. Then a local, organic wheat crop was cleaned and stored. Soon Zimmer became a silent partner and Williams’s mission grew and shifted. Products emerged and continue to be refined.
The early purchase of 8.5 acres of wheat (about 1,000 bushels) from Taliesin’s front yard provided a nice cache for marketing, but the quality of flour from this grain was compromised for bread baking because of the crop’s river valley location.
When your days begin with a layer of mist, thanks to the Wisconsin River, the result is wheat that is lower in starch, which makes it harder for yeast to interact properly. The result? Unpredictable breads, some “heavy like a brick, or full of big air bubbles.”
Now Williams seeks and finds wheat from ridge-top farmland, not river valleys.
The Spring Green resident has learned that having the right soil in the right location produces the best product. David Lohrentz, co-owner of Madison Sourdough, agrees.
“We really love the quality and fine-tuning that Gilbert has done with his flours,” Lohrentz says. They are used “in some of the highest-quality breads sold at our bakery.” That includes toasted barley, cracked wheat and the French miche (baked in four-pound loaves, but also sold in smaller portions)."
Williams describes flour production as a two-step process. A series of vibrating screens made of white oak inside his enormous 1947 grain cleaner shakes away weeds, chaff and dust. Then bins of the clean grain are dumped, by hand, into a 1992 gristmill for pulverizing.
The flour is stored by the ton in 40-bushel polypropylene bags. Because wheat germ—a tiny part of the kernel—is not sifted out, Lonesome Stone products are best when consumed within six months after the packaging date. Hard wheat turns into bread flour. Soft red wheat becomes pastry flour. The pancake mix is a 50/50 combo of soft red and rye. Product labels recognize the grain sources, month and year of harvest, plus the intimate nature of the business. The labels state,
“When enjoying this product, you are supporting 3 family farms, 3 hard working employees, 2 family investors, 1 entrepreneur, 1 community bank and 1 small town.”
Williams describes the wording as his reaction to the Occupy Wall Street movement. “Wall Street has nothing to do with these products,” he says, and the labels serve as a reminder.
The three farmers—Tom Martin of Wauzeka, Dave Dolan and Dennis Dochnahl, both of Dodgeville— provide the grain from land their fathers farmed, and it is fertilized by the manure of grass-fed and/or certified organic cattle. The three employees are Williams, miller Dick Sadler and seed mill operator Jesse Watts. The investors are two families: Gary and Rosie Zimmer, and Williams and his wife, Judy Ettenhofer, an editor at The Capital Times in Madison.
“So much of this is a food chain,” Williams says. It’s field-to-fork work that touches many lives en route.
Lonesome Stone’s weekly sales include around 500 pounds of flour and 200 pounds of pancake mix, which was the first packaged product. Newest is a hot cereal that takes 10 minutes of stovetop prep. During beta testing, “the people in my yoga class were my guinea pigs,” Williams says.
His first retail outlets were Metcalfe’s Market and the east-side Willy Street Co-op in Madison. Leah Caplan, chief food officer at Metcalfe’s, describes Lonesome Stone products as “fresher than most flours you can get, with a great flavor.” In the store’s bulk section are the pancake mix, whole wheat flour, soft winter pastry flour, sifted spring wheat flour, rye flour and cornmeal.
“Wheat flour (or any other small-grain flour) was the most obvious hole in our local food net during last year’s Eat Local Challenge at Willy Street Co-op,” Lynn Olson, director of cooperative services, wrote in the co-op’s August 2011 newsletter. “We had lots of great bakers, but not enough local supply of local flours for local breads, which posed a big challenge for those willing to stick to a local-only diet for one month.” Olson continues telling the Lonesome Stone story, and writes that their customers “are fortunate enough” to now have Lonesome Stone flour among their options.
Now Williams hopes to diversify products, adding gluten-free grains to his stock of conventional and organic versions of wheat, corn and rye. That means eventually adding oats, buckwheat, barley and quinoa to the product mix.
“If I have a personal hero in all of this, it is Gary Zimmer,” he says. “I couldn’t do it without him as a partner.”
Although 2011 brought a bountiful harvest, Williams knows there is no guarantee of an encore performance. Even in perfect soil with excellent drainage, much of the gamble depends upon rainfall, temperature, timing and luck. So goes the business of farming. Some things never change.
Inside the Lonesome Stone entrance is a centuryold, hand-powered grain cleaner that Williams picked up at a farm auction. He shows how the dusty equipment works, noting that modern-day techniques are more automated but based on the same general concepts. It’s a history lesson, a teaching tool and a reminder that you can avoid waste with patience and insight.What about the Taliesin wheat, grown on Wisconsin River lowlands? That which remains warehoused “will go for chicken feed when the price is right,” Williams says.
Look for Lonesome Stone Milling on Facebook, or call 608-583-2100. Products are sold at the mill, 304 S. Oak St., Lone Rock. You can also find Lonesome Stone Milling products in Madison at both Willy Street Co-ops and Metcalfe’s Market and in Spring Green at the Spring Green General Store and Driftless Depot.
Check out Terese Allen's recipe for Maple Almond Pancakes, which features Lonesome Stone Milling's pancake mix.