Mill man: Local farmer who is preserving a lost art of milling grains
Special to The Union
Fridays at Early Bird Farm are Volunteer Days, when friends and neighbors help Speroni and his family work the land from 9 AM until noon. Then everyone enjoys an afternoon barbecue.
“It’s become a mission community over the past couple of years,” said Speroni. “We pray for people, form relationships, and God transforms people’s lives. We take vegetables to people in need and reach out to neighbors, and do anything we can to reflect what it means to be a follower of Christ.”
Speroni is asking friends to donate money to Interfaith Food Ministry and write Early Bird Farm in the memo line of the check. Speroni has an agreement with Interfaith Food Ministry in which those earmarked donations will be set aside to purchase the farm’s fresh produce, which will then be distributed to people in need.
He hopes to work out a similar arrangement with Meals on Wheels.
Drew Speroni and his Early Bird Farm in Nevada City have a reputation for nutrient-dense produce grown in a one-acre no- and low-till market garden.
Speroni hopes he’ll soon be renowned as one of only two whole grain mills in Northern California.
“We need to reintroduce 100 percent whole grains in people’s diets,” said Speroni.
He believes many maladies — gluten intolerance, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease — can be traced to processed white flour and its dearth of nutritional value.
White flour is usually refined so that the inner germ layer and outer bran are stripped away. In the process, much of the fiber is lost, as are essential nutrients such as vitamins and minerals.
White bread is a simple carbohydrate, and a slice has a half-gram of fiber. In contrast, whole grain bread is a complex carbohydrate, and a slice has 3.6 grams of fiber.
“I mill white corn, hard red wheat, soft white wheat, and a few various heirloom grains including red fife and frassinetto,” said Speroni. “Those heirloom grains are the most flavorful and nutritious. We sell whole grain flours, corn polenta, and corn meal that we mill on-site with our natural stone mills. We also make a great pancake mix.”
Speroni purchases his whole grains and corn from farms in Wheatland and the Capay Valley.
“I will grow some demonstration grain crops, but it’s not feasible to grow grains here,” said Speroni. “You need 50 acres and a combine for that.”
Speroni’s milling operation is housed in a 50-foot refrigerated trailer that he moved onto Early Bird Farm last fall. It contains three electric mills and a storage area brimming with sacks of whole grains and corn kernels.
He constructed the trailer to meet California Department of Food and Agriculture regulations, and spent much of the winter writing his business’s food safety plan. His grain mill received state certification last month.
“It’s a lost art and not a lot of people know how to do this any longer,” said Speroni, who completed countless hours of training at specialized milling workshops.
Speroni purchased his first two mills last fall, and recently bought a third mill that he imported from Denmark.
Two of the mills boast 12-inch stones and five horsepower motors, and the third has smaller eight-inch stones and a two horsepower motor. The special stones rotate within the mill and crush the grains.
Speroni also has a special sifter which he uses to give his polenta just the right consistency. He said he’s invested more than $50,000 in his milling operation so far.
Because polenta is his biggest seller, Speroni buys corn kernels by the ton.
“We sell $2,000 worth of polenta each month to Produce Express,” he said. “I need to land three or four more wholesale distributors like that. If I’m running the mill 40 weeks a year, four days a week, and eight hours a day, I could gross $500,000 annually and net $300,000. The potential is there as long as I can land the accounts.”
He personally calls on potential business clients, and when he does, he takes off his trademark suspenders.
“If I’m going somewhere out, you’ll see me with a collared shirt,” he said. “I’m a one-man operation. Well, one man and volunteers.”
Speroni, 37, and his wife live on their nearly five-acre farm off Newtown Road. Their three children help with farm chores.
Speroni is the first to admit his milled products are expensive.
“The cheapest white flour is about 40 cents per pound, and I’m selling our whole grain flour for $1.45 a pound. The price reflects the cost of being a small operation, and the fresh whole grains being stone-ground by hand. It’s labor intensive.”
Speroni said his products are worth the price because they are fresh and nutritious, even more so than commercial whole grain flours lining grocery store shelves.
“If you buy a bag of Bob’s Red Mill whole-grain flour, within two weeks it’s lost 70 percent of its nutritional value and within one month it’s rancid,” Speroni said. “Mine will stay fresh three months in the refrigerator and one year in the freezer because you’re buying it where it’s milled.”
While anyone could add the grain and flip the switch on Speroni’s mills, the art of milling is knowing when and how to “dress” the stones in each mill. Every three months, Speroni uses a hand dremel to rough up the stones, which become smooth as they pulverize the grain.
“You have to rough up or ‘dress’ the stones so they will cut the grain,” he said. “It takes me three to five hours per mill. It’s an art. I work on the angles and widths of the narrow gullies called furrows, and the raised flat parts called lands.”
The stone-milled flours and polenta are available in bulk bins at BriarPatch Food Co-op in Grass Valley and other grocery stores. The products are also available to purchase at Early Bird Form in fived-pound minimums.
Speroni’s stone-milled products are also ingredients in various dishes served by Ike’s Quarter Café, Three Forks Bakery & Brewery, Matteo’s Public and other restaurants and caterers.
Lorraine Jewett is a freelance writer who lives in Nevada County. To suggest a business news feature, contact her at LorraineJewettWrites@gmail.com.
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