|Jim Gerritsen (right) talks to Niels Mejnertsen about his organic mill in Denmark. Photo courtesy of Wood Prairie Farm.|
By Jim and Megan Gerritsen, Wood Prairie Farm, Bridgewater, Maine
Last October, 22 farmers, millers and researchers from Maine and Vermont traveled to Denmark to learn about local organic wheat production, processing, marketing and baking. The trip was part of a four-year USDA-funded grant project being led by Dr. Ellen Mallory of the University of Maine and Dr. Heather Darby of the University of Vermont that is focused on improving local organic bread wheat production and quality in northern New England through research and education. Having lived in Denmark for a year (2006-2007), Mallory was impressed with the Danes’ accomplishments in organic agriculture, particularly organic grains. (Denmark was the first country to introduce legislation to promote organic farming (1987) and over the years has made heavy investments in organic research, education and marketing. A recent government mandate aims to have 20 percent of all agricultural production be organic by 2020.) To organize the trip, Mallory received assistance from Dr. Anders Borgen, a freelance organic grain researcher who visited MOFGA in 2009. Over five days, the group criss-crossed the country to visit eight farms and mills, two research stations and one company cafeteria. The following article by Jim and Megan Gerritsen profiles the first stop of the trip – Viskinge Farm and Mejnerts Mill. Other articles are on the website for the Northern New England Local Bread Wheat Project: https://extension.umaine.edu/localwheat .
One of the larger organic (“økologisk”) operations that we toured in Denmark in October 2010 was Niels and Anna Mejnertsen’s Viskingegård (Viskinge Farm) in Svebølle, about an hour’s drive west of Copenhagen. Niels, 47, and his wife, Anna, run this combination organic farm and organic grain mill (“Mejnerts Mølle”) plus a sideline conventional confinement pig operation that has not yet converted to organic.
|Inside the mill. Photo courtesy of Wood Prairie Farm.|
The Mejnertsens have four children: 21-year-old Caspar is at agricultural college; 20-year-old Peter is at business college; and a 17- and 13-year-old are still at home. Eight employees – many with tenures of 10, 15, 17 years – are like extended family members.
Viskingegård is a well-designed, vertically integrated (“Soil to Mouth”) operation where significant value is added to homegrown organic grain crops through on-farm milling and savvy marketing. Its strong direct marketing component includes a modest on-farm store, Internet sales, and deliveries to stores and “canteens” (cafeterias) where progressive businesses provide healthy, on-site workday meals for employees. We watched a new, 30-minute, professionally produced video about Viskingegård that adeptly displayed all the steps in farming, growing, milling and using their organic crops – including Anna demonstrating the correct use of the bread machines they sell to customers.
“Brød for Livet” (Bread for Life) could be called their farm motto; it is embroidered onto their shirts. The phrase reflects the Mejnertsens’ focused dedication to excellence and health, from farming to milling to testing to packaging. The depth of enthusiasm and commitment for their products is apparent and effective.
Danes must attend four years of agricultural college before they can go into farming. Because Danish farmers are well educated, they are often in demand as workers worldwide, and recent graduates are encouraged to gain work experience in other countries. Such was Niels’ experience. In the early 1980s, he worked on large-scale grain operations in Peace River, Alberta, and then in Australia.
Niels bought his first farm in Denmark in 1987 (17 acres and 350 sows for $20,000). Later he bought his parents’ farm. In 1993 the Mejnertsens bought and moved to their current farm, where they now own 1,200 acres and rent and farm 400 more. They buy in grain from five other organic farms to supplement their own grain in their milling business. Farmland prices in Denmark steadily appreciated over the decades to a peak of US$16,200/acre two years ago. The world recession has hit Danish agriculture hard, and land values have dropped 40 percent to a current price of US$9,700/acre.
The Mejnertsens converted to 100 percent organic crops in 1999 and were first certified organic in 2001. They have a sophisticated, modern and very well capitalized operation (see a bird’s eye view of the farm buildings at https://viskingegaard.dk/gaardene/viskingegaard.aspx) – right down to GPS units on every tractor. All grain is cleaned with cyclones and filters before storage, which prevents grains from picking up an off-taste from weed seed. Weed seed is collected in 1-ton pallet boxes and sold as duck food. Niels uses computerized wireless sonar to determine grain inventories in his 60-ton bins.
A Focus on Quality
The Mejnertsens are passionate about quality. Niels says quality is of the utmost importance because he sells food to the consumer, not commodities to the market. The three pillars of his grain quality concept are:
year-round flour consistency and performance
He believes that growing crops organically places less stress on the plant and that as a result organic grain has superior quality and performance, even when common measures such as percent protein and falling numbers are off. (The falling number is a measure of sprout damage in grain. Sprouting (germination) is associated with release of the alpha-amylase enzyme, which converts carbohydrates to sugars. The falling number is the amount of time it takes a plunger to fall through a column filled with a heated paste of flour and water. A low falling number (<250 seconds) indicates a flour that will create a sticky dough with low mixing strength and loaf volume.)
Mejnertsen contrasts their quality-centered organic farm with conventional operations, which are getting increasingly specialized and which push for the biggest possible grain yields and accept lower quality.
The Mejnertsens harvest grain early (often at 19 percent moisture, sometimes even 22 to 24 percent) for highest quality, and commonly remove excess field moisture with oil-fired heat exchangers (typically at 140 F). After drying and before storage, grain is cooled in silos. Grain lots are sampled, tested and archived for possible future reference. Mejnerts Mølle Spelt bread mix is 100 percent spelt flour (10 to 13 percent protein; protein in Denmark is measured at 0 percent dry matter vs. standardized 12 percent moisture in the United States). The competition offers “Spelt bread” that is 7 percent spelt flour and 93 percent wheat flour. The Mejnertsens’ falling number norm for wheat is 300; others accept the minimum 150. (The minimum U.S. falling number for bread making is 250.) Rye is popular and a big crop for Viskingegård: one-third of the acreage is in rye and yields 2 tons/acre; their typical falling number for rye is 250 to 270, while commercial mills often accept 150.
A typical rotation at Viskingegård is winter wheat undersown with white clover, followed by winter spelt; then winter rye; then spring wheat. The Mejnertsens also grow oats for rolled oats; and sometimes faba bean seed, grass seed and clover seed. They grow about 500 acres of wheat. Niels looks to Sweden and northern Germany for hardy winter wheats; English varieties are not hardy enough in his climate. Hard Red spring wheat doesn’t seem to grow here. Manure is applied to fields every year. Fall seeded crops account for 70 percent of Viskingegård’s acreage. Spring grains usually yield much less than winter grains. For example, winter wheat yields 3 tons/acre (8 to 9 percent protein). Spring wheat yields 1.75 tons/acre but with considerably higher protein. Half of Viskingegård’s grains are undersown to white clover.
Chopped clover while still green and wet is collected and added to liquid manure tanks from the pig operation. The clover rots within one month. This effort more than doubles the benefit of the manure. Niels can apply 160 pounds of nitrogen per acre of this manure/clover slurry. (The Danish government strictly limits manure applications; in most cases farmers may not apply more than 62 pounds of nitrogen per acre from manure.)
Denmark, with a population of 5 million people, raises 22 million slaughter pigs annually, so pork export is big business. Niels purchases 5,000 tons of conventional grain at harvest, and another 7,000 later on for his nonorganic pigs. He used to keep sows and farrowed 500 piglets per week but now buys 55-pound feeder pigs and grows them out. He hopes to convert his pig operation to organic someday and to implement an on-farm, mobile butchering facility to reduce stress on the pigs and increase pork quality for his customers.
In 2010, the Mejnertsens harvested grain from almost 1,500 acres, sometimes combining 24 hours per day. Last fall Niels seeded winter wheat with a 4-inch air drill from September 28 through October 10. He uses a moldboard plow extensively to help with weed control. This region gets about 24 inches of precipitation annually, and the minimum winter temperature is +5 F (although winter 2009-2010 was unusually long and brutal).
Mejnerts Mølle is a complex, on-farm operation. Worldwide, most flour is produced industrially on mills with steel rollers that heat the flour and sacrifice nutrition. All the Mejnerts Mølle mills are Danish-made Skiold (www.skiold.com) 30-inch horizontal stone mills (each cost US$14,000) that keep the flour cool, maintaining quality and full nutrition. The Mejnertsens run six Skiold stone mills: two each dedicated to wheat, rye and spelt. The top stone is the bedstone; the bottom stone adjusts the grind.
Each mill is powered by a 50 horsepower electric motor. Running at 200 RPM, they produce 880 pounds of quality flour per hour. Flour is conveyed away from the mill pneumatically (using air pressure) in a 4-inch metal tube, and the flour cools as it travels. Before the grains are ground, a Westrup (German) de-huller (Niels called it a “shifter”) removes hulls from the spelt at a rate of 4,400 pounds/hour. The mill is efficiently set up, and a single miller does all the milling. Others do the bagging. In a typical week the crew produces flour from Monday morning until noon on Friday. They then spend Friday afternoon cleaning with vacuum cleaners. The mill is well designed, tidy and outfitted with rodent traps and UV-light insect traps.
Early on in our tour of Viskingegård, we were treated to a wonderful bread tasting in the farm’s rustic upstairs conference room. We sampled six types of organic breads, each made from Mejnerts Mølle organic flour bread mixes and baked on-site.
100 percent Spelt bread with Sunflower seeds. Fine texture. Light color.
100 percent Soft White Spring Wheat bread. Fine texture. Very light color.
100 percent Soft White Spring Wheat bread with Raisins and Cinnamon. Slightly heavier texture and darker color.
100 percent Soft White Wheat bread with Walnuts. Bluish tone from walnuts.
100 percent Rye flour bread. Heavy, 2 1/2-inch-high loaf, from unsifted flour.
100 percent Rye flour bread with cut sunflower seeds and cut rye berries. Heavy, from unsifted flour.
The breads were excellent and delicious without exception. Rye bread is big in northern Europe, but not so in the south. Rye represents 40 percent of the bread mixes the Mejnertsens produce, and the rye breads were definitely our favorites.
As if to summarize the overall striking excellence of his family’s farm and mill, and their passion and attention to detail, Niels observed, “Good quality bread is good and fresh today and tomorrow and the next day.” We’d say he clearly knows what he’s talking about.
About the authors: Jim and Megan Gerritsen have been farming organically on Wood Prairie Farm in northern Maine for 35 years. They grow organic seed potatoes and grow and mill organic grain. They market their goods directly to individuals on www.woodprairie.com.