By Jennifer Barber
How one Alberta couple built a value-added future with thousand-year-old tech
Viewed from the road, Steve and Joanne Van Assen’s 1,650-acre grain farm in Barrhead, AB, looks like many others in the region. But on closer inspection you’ll notice an inviting and charmingly landscaped shed tucked to one side of the yard. Inside stands a stone flour mill — a modern version of an ancient process — that the couple uses to add value to their farm.
“We mill about 500 pounds of flour a week, and we purchased our mill with growth in mind,” says Joanne Van Assen. “We can process around 150 pounds of flour in an hour. Currently we make enough for our orders, and we always have a few extra bags around to have on hand for those who come to the farm just to purchase the flour.”
Bags of Van Assen Farm Stone Milled Flour can also be found on the shelves of three local Co-op stores, plus it’s used in commercial bakeries in Barrhead, Westlock and Edmonton. Those bakeries also sell bags of flour to customers who have shown a preference for the fresh taste of stone milled flour, and who want to support local business.
Making flour seems like a natural offshoot for a grain farm, but getting there was definitely a journey and, still in the early stages of this venture, the two are still figuring a few things out.
WHERE DO YOU GET A MILL?
Joanne Van Assen mills about 500 pounds of flour a week with the 40-inch stone flour mill purchased from New American Stone Mills based in Vermont (top). Currently the Van Assens mill two varieties of flour; hard red spring wheat used for bread making and Canadian Prairie spring wheat, for general use (bottom).
The Van Assens purchased their farm in 2010, and the stone flour mill came online in March of 2022. The whole idea was a year in the making, says Joanne. “We had been providing clean seed to several people we knew so they could mill their own wheat. One day we thought, what if we milled our wheat to produce a better flour product than what people could get in the stores?” she explains. “It took a while to go from that idea to producing the flour. We had to learn the process, source the equipment, learn about food safety, get the permits, and then market our product, which is still a work in process.”
The first and most important obstacle they had to overcome when starting their business was sourcing a mill, says Steve. “There aren’t any stone flour mills manufactured in Canada, and while there are many options in Europe, it made sense to use an American supplier for shipping and for servicing issues if required.”
Ultimately, they purchased a 40-inch stone flour mill for $30,000 (not including shipping) from New American Stone Mills based in Vermont. This includes the steel frame, motor, hopper, bins and so on, but the business end of the mill is two large millstones sourced from Vermont granite quarries.
The other cost outlay was the 16 x 20 ft. shed Steve built on the farm property where the mill is kept. When it arrived from Vermont, Steve and Joanne set up the mill in a day with the help from family and friends, plus some advice from New American on how to get the best work flow within the shed. There is minimal upkeep, other than standard greasing and tensioning belts, and once or twice a year the millstones need to be “re-dressed” to keep them sharp. The Van Assens expect they can do most of the maintenance themselves.
Before they could start, the mill and flour were inspected and certified by Alberta Health and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency — certifications Joanne says need to be renewed yearly and bi-yearly, respectively.
BUILDING A MARKET FOR A PREMIUM PRODUCT
The most common form of milling involves roller mills where two revolving corrugated steel rollers crush the grain to separate the bran and germ from the endosperm. While more efficient, rolled flour changes the flavour profile, whereas stone-grinding retains the bran and germ, keeping the flour’s nutritional properties and flavour intact.
Joanne is the head miller and grinds grain into flour two to three days a week. She bags, labels and stores the flour in the shed, and she and Steve deliver the products themselves. Despite the rustic, no-frills vibe of the simple brown paper packaging, Van Assen flour is definitely a premium item: a 2.5 kg bag retails for $10 to $12, depending on flour type, and a 5 kg bag goes for $18 to $20. And it’s selling steadily, even in today’s tight times.
The Van Assens only mill wheat grown on their own farm, and currently mill two varieties: hard red spring wheat, which is used for bread making due to its higher protein, and Canadian Prairie Spring wheat, which is a general use flour.
“We hope to expand to specialty flours such as rye and spelt to meet the requests of our customers,” says Joanne. “But as it is our intention to only mill what we grow, we need to grow those crops in coming seasons. As we become better millers, and better marketers, we can target our seeding to meet our customer needs.”
Not quite a year into the venture, Joanne says they need to up their marketing game. In the beginning they did make sure there was a market before making any investments by approaching local bakeries and stores to assess potential interest in a premium stone milled flour product. Once they had samples in hand, they visited local grocery stores, farmer’s markets and bakeries to have them try the flour. Now they are looking at different ways to spread the message that their flour is different from what people usually see on supermarket shelves.
“Stone milled flour is a fresher flavour and because it is milled at slower speeds the grain stays cool, maintaining the nutrients and flavour,” says Joanne.
“Bakers can taste the difference and that is what we are selling, better tasting baked goods. We are growing by word of mouth as people try our products at bakeries or at Co-op. And we are getting more interest on Facebook and Instagram. We hope to find a few more markets by the end of the year.”
The Van Assens have recently added pails of wheat berries to their product line, for people who have tabletop mills and want to grind their own flour at home, and Joanne says that a pancake mix is currently in development. She adds that if sales and expansion plans continue as planned, the mill should be cost effective in about two years’ time.
“I think we’re like a lot of growers in that we are always looking for ways to diversify and to add value to our farm,” says Steve. “We thought about this a long time before we took the leap. There’s a lot more to it than just buying a mill. With the help of our friends and family, this first year has been a success. We’ve been excited with how this has been going so far and we are excited to see where it’s going.”