As a surge in shopping has emptied grocery store shelves and strained the supply chain, Skagit Valley’s two flour mills are ramping up production to meet demand and feed the community.
“We’re getting more and more calls looking to purchase directly from the mill,” Kevin Morse, CEO and co-founder of Cairnspring Mills, said last week. “It’s been a little overwhelming. We’ve been set up to sell bulk commercial (flour), but we are quickly pivoting to sell more direct here.”
At the mill’s location at the Port of Skagit west of Burlington on Friday afternoon, the mill was using a drive-thru model to sell flour. Morse said the mill sold 3,000 pounds of flour — about 60 50-pound bags — in two hours.
“Right now people aren’t flinching when we say we have 50-pound bags (for sale),” Morse said. “They say ‘we’ll be there with cash.’”
He said only 50-pound bags are available, but the mill is working on stocking 5-pound bags at local grocery stores in the coming weeks. The mill has limited hours — from 1 to 4 p.m. Fridays — for retail pickup and advance orders are required.
Fairhaven Organic Flour Mill north of Burlington has also seen an increase in demand. Mill co-owner Andrew Miller said the mill has received twice as many orders from wholesalers and distributors than it did a week ago, and had 10 times as many customers who have bought 20 times more flour.
He said the mill — which is open for retail from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the week — is allowing one person at a time at the retail counter to maintain social distancing.
Miller said most popular are the mill’s whole grain bread flour, and all-purpose white flour. The mill also makes rye, spelt and barley flours, and buckwheat and millet flours, which are non-gluten options.
To meet increased demand, the mill has brought on new employees.
“If people need flour now, we have grain now,” Miller said. “We can staff to meet the immediate need. These are our neighbors, our co-ops and small grocery stores.”
Both facilities mill grains grown in the Pacific Northwest, including in Skagit County.
The Bread Lab, Washington’s State University’s research facility west of Burlington, has developed varieties suited to Skagit Valley’s climate to give farmers maximum yield.
“Right now yield is more important than ever,” Stephen Jones, the Bread Lab’s director, said in an email. “Highest yield should mean lowest cost. We need to keep the price down to make this all work. Our job is to get the farmer the highest yield that they can. That has always been our mission and now it is more important than ever. We can’t price our communities out of what is grown here.”
When grain is turned into flour, there’s also an opportunity to increase yield by making whole wheat flour instead of refined white flour, which uses only 70% of the wheat, Jones said.
“Eat the whole thing,” he said. “We will all benefit from that.”
Morse said part of the company’s reason for starting the mill in 2016 was to make the community more resilient during disasters such as a pandemic.
“It highlights how critical it is to keep farmland protected, support local farming, and bring back local processing,” he said.