Speerville Flour Milling Co-Operative Ltd
Speerville Flour Milling Co-Operative Ltd. (SFM) began in 1982 with the belief that every community should have a local flour mill, as was historically the case. Forty years ago, the mill was a handful of people, with nothing to mill. Now, SFM is a bustling operation supporting numerous local organic farms and selling 150 commercial products across Atlantic Canada.
With 11 employees and based in Speerville, New Brunswick, the operation of the cooperative has grown, but the belief has stayed the same: grain should be local, organic and healthful. According to Richard Wetmore, assistant managing director of SFM, grain cannot only enhance the lives of those who consume it, but support local industry, small farmers and a regional workforce.
As the only commercial organic mill in its region, SFM is truly one of a kind and continues to find new markets in the Maritime Provinces for flour and grain products using ingenuity, determination and cooperative effort. Over the years, the cooperative has increased its customer base along with its product offerings and continues to do so today.
The Story of Speerville
Wetmore joined SFM in 2007. He grew up on a farm in the region and continued with his own modest farm in adulthood. Wetmore is proud to be a part of SFM, as well as the work it does to support local organic farming. “We’re very unique,” he says. “No question.”
The love and pride Wetmore has for SFM is evident, and with a rich history, it is no surprise. Wetmore goes on to note that in 1976, a group of people led by Murray Hubbard joined together to start a flour mill in Speerville. “Murray was a really neat guy, an eclectic fellow,” says Wetmore. “I knew him because he bought hay from my dad’s farm.”
Wetmore explains that the close-knit community heard the clarion call and joined the cause, which was able to garner start-up funds from the government. The mill makers built a cordwood style of building that is still in use today, though much expanded, with a larger grinder, sheet metal and insulation.
The mill was up and running by 1978, using reconditioned millstones from an abandoned gristmill operation in nearby Kirkland. However, commercial success came a handful of years later, when a group of farmers from the nearby community of Grand Falls came looking for a mill to grind their wheat. The cooperative found a store in Fredericton that would buy the ground product and so began the commercial operation as it stands today.
Expanding on Tradition
“It’s been a delicate balance through the years, getting everything done,” says Wetmore. Nonetheless, the hardworking employees of the mill and the board of directors have managed well to ensure SFM’s continued success.
“For two decades the mill was run by Stu Fleishhacker, principal miller and owner, who was succeeded by Todd Grant, the first paid employee, then just a kid in high school,” Wetmore details.
Originally solely grinding flour, the mill gradually increased its offerings over the years, which meant investing in more, and larger, equipment. Still, the mill continues to honor its rural roots and uses a traditional method of stone grinding, the technique used by the first settlers on the Eastern Seaboard four centuries ago.
Without resorting to modern commercial steel roller milling, SFM maintains not only its old-fashioned values, but the full nutrition of the whole grain and the healthiest part, the germ. The mill grinds out 65 products, including flour, cracked grains, cereals, cookie mixes, oatmeal and so on. Wetmore notes that SFM’s most popular items are healthful oat products: hulless oat, rolled/flaked and steel cut oatmeal.
The hulless oat, also known as the rice of the prairies, is in high demand by vegans due to being high in iron, protein and other micronutrients. The oat grows well in the region and is cheaper than quinoa, because it’s not transported from South America. Chia seed is another super food offering of SFM: it’s high in Omega-3 fatty acids, protein, antioxidants and fiber, and can be used as a replacement for fats and oils in baked goods.
Also harkening back to the past are SFM’s heritage and ancient grains, which are making a comeback as the grains are easy to digest for people with gluten allergies and/or sensitivity. Red Fife and Acadia wheat, which make wonderful flour, are heritage grains. Ancient grains are Spelt and Kamut, which is an old variety of durum wheat with a sweet nut like flavor and a beautiful golden color in baked goods, and was found enclosed in King Tut’s tomb.
The mill supplements its own products with 85 products from local companies, such as the Boates family who produces apple cider vinegar in the Nova Scotia tradition on an apple orchard in Annapolis Valley. SFM supplies these products in order to be a one-stop shop for local customers who form food buying groups, two or three families who bulk buy seasonally.
“This offering is truly reflective of our area,” explains Wetmore. “Way back when, it was a common way of existing in this region, banding together.”
Supporting the Community
SFM would like to see the number of food buying groups it services continue to increase. These groups have already doubled in the last few years. SFM currently has approximately 200 groups that are customers, the largest of which has 130 members.
“They are a good part of a values-based value chain,” says Wetmore. “They buy direct from us who get product direct from the farmer.”
There are three other customer bases for SFM in addition to food groups: small retail shops, large grocery stores and bakeries. However, although the mill is diversified, the loss of one of three big grocery customers in 2013 was an impetus to focus on smaller accounts. It’s in line with the mindset of the cooperative to support the small guys, as well.
Above all, SFM believes that people have a right to access quality food. “We have a very high quality product,” assures Wetmore. “Good food is what people deserve, and we have a great passion for what we do.”
Every year the cooperative’s goal is to grow the percentage of the population that is consuming healthful, local, organic food. In the process, SFM supports the livelihood of local organic farmers. “We feel very good about that,” says Wetmore. “Every time we get a new farmer, even if its eight or 10 acres, we see that as more acreage that is being managed in the correct way.”
In the last decade, due to the growth of the organic movement, SFM has been able to source most of its grain from the Atlantic region. The cooperative has achieved what it set out to do: support a farmer base and breathe life back into the rural community.
Farmers in Mind for the Future
Thanks to its considerable growth in three decades, SFM added a greatly expanded warehouse to its operation in 2008 and is in the process of breaking in a new mill with a 30-inch millstone grinder, a bump up from its longtime 24-inch grinder, to accommodate larger amounts of grain. These investments should facilitate SFM as it prepares for additional growth in the next five years alongside the growing demand for organic foods.
For Wetmore, who ran a CSA program with 21 customers before joining the cooperative, growing the operation and being able to support local farmers and families feels right. He also feels strongly about supporting the cooperative employees. “We pay them well because we want them to stay here,” he notes. “We’re happy to do it.”
Furthermore, as a member of Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network (ACORN), SFM attends the annual trade show for members in November, which will be in Halifax in 2014. Although SFM currently sells and distributes product solely in Atlantic Canada – New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland – the company is eyeing its southwestern backyard and could expand into rural Maine in the future.
Covering its bases in Atlantic Canada is first and foremost to SFM, but in order to support its regional farmers, it’s wise to eye the proximal New England market. Local is not only healthful and sustainable, but can be international, too, and Speerville Flour Milling Co-Operative Ltd. is setting out to pave the way.