BURLINGTON — Nearly a year after its opening, Cairnspring Mills has become a local success story.
Last April, owner Kevin Morse opened the mill, which was then known as Watershed Mills, with one goal: to create a better tasting, more nutritious flour made from Skagit County grain that would appeal to the niche foodie market.
He did just that — finding huge demand from high-end bakers and exceeding revenue goals in the process.
“We’ve been pleasantly surprised that some of the best bakers in this area and this country have found us and have told us that we’re making some of the best flour that they’ve worked with and they’re making some of the best bread they’ve made,” Morse said.
Scott Mangold, owner of the Breadfarm bakery in Edison, said Cairnspring Mills’ flour reminds him of European flours.
“It’s fine enough that we can achieve really nice loaves of bread that are light and soft textured but at the same time bring more nuance of flavor and more nutrition,” Mangold said.
In the milling process, Morse includes parts of the wheat berry that large-scale industrial mills take out in an effort to create the whitest and cheapest flour possible.
“Industrial white flour that our generation is used to is made almost entirely from the white starch,” Morse said. “It’s primarily carbs. It wasn’t like that 100, 200 years ago — most people ate whole-grain bread.”
Morse includes the bran and germ portion of the wheat berry in the flour so it retains its natural protein, fiber, fats and minerals, but processes it to act like white flour in the baking process.
There are two categories of farms that are doing well financially, Morse said — huge growers such as those in Eastern Washington and the Midwest, or small specialty crop farmers.
Skagit farmers are in-between, Morse said.
“We’re working at a scale that’s a good match for Skagit-size growers,” Morse said. “I think this country is in for a shift from the centralized, industrialized food systems back to what we’re building here in Skagit.”
Being close to Seattle, Morse said Skagit County has a lot of potential to tap into the farm-to-table food market, which consists of locally-grown ingredients. But he finds many of his urban buyers aren’t aware of the food sources right up Interstate 5.
“It’s amazing that there’s that divide,” Morse said. “I like to say this mill is nondenominational. I can have a right-leaning, conservative farmer standing in here with a far-left urban person and it’s like there’s no barriers. It’s all about keeping farming here, good, clean healthy food and creating something that’s special and unique.”
Morse partially attributes the divide to a lack of processing plants in Skagit County, which forces growers to ship their products to processors in the Tri-Cities and beyond.
Washington State University Skagit County Extension Director Don McMoran said the county used to have a multitude of processors, but most left in the 1980s for higher profits elsewhere.
“If you don’t have processing, you end up in a race to the bottom,” Morse said of farmers.
Morse pays farmers premium prices for growing specialty grains developed by the WSU Bread Lab.
Historically, farmers in Skagit County haven’t made money on grain crops. They’re normally planted as a cover crop to increase soil nutrients and maintain topsoil.
For specialty grain, Morse pays farmers $1 to $2 more per bushel than commodity prices. Farmer Dave Hedlin said he’s earning 40 to 50 percent more from grain crops by growing for Morse.
“Farmers aren’t getting rich off this,” said Andrew Miller, director of business retention and expansion at the Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County. “But it could make the difference. Margins are so small right now that what used to just be a cover crop they would just throw out there to keep the topsoil, now is turning into a net gain for the grower and for the entire economy.”
Miller calls this “value-added agriculture,” and said it may be a business model that can work for other crops in Skagit County.
“I think there’s unbelievable processing potential for vegetables and fruits in this valley,” Morse said. “Everything from dehydration to freezing and pickling.”
Cairnspring Mills’ success has prompted more businesses to locate nearby, said Andrew Entrikin, community outreach administrator for the Port of Skagit, which houses Cairnspring Mills.
“It has definitely created a spiral effect,” Entrikin said. “We’re getting calls all the time from businesses in this sector, like breweries.”
But with no vacancies at the port, Entrikin said the port is having to look at expanding to accommodate demand for space.
“It’s a huge economic driver not just from the farmer’s perspective, but they employ the welders, the tractor companies, the granaries, seed and fertilizer companies,” Morse said. “The whole process is a huge contributor to our economy.”
Businesses seeking to locate here want to get into that cycle, Entrikin said.
From the Bread Lab to the farmers to the mill, a bag of Cairnspring Mills flour is a product of the community.
“By working together, we’re getting value added in here and it’s allowing us to stay on the trail to sustainability,” Hedlin said.
Morse said he’s focused on taking care of his current customers and making great flour, but that it’s possible expansion may be in the mill’s future.
“What’s happening here has been growing from the ground up,” Morse said. “But there’s also this great market where consumers are asking for this. They want to know where their food comes from. They want to know who’s growing it. They want to trust that it’s clean. They want to know it’s high quality, and there’s just not a level or button or computer program in the big food systems that we have today that can provide that.”