Small Southern flour mills fight to find their bakers

Sifting Southern history

Take a tour inside family-owned Sanford Milling, one of six independently owned mills in NC.
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Take a tour inside family-owned Sanford Milling, one of six independently owned mills in NC.

If you’re looking for a sexy food experience, a flour mill isn’t it.

Usually located on the backside of a town near easy transportation such as railroad tracks and four-lane highways, they aren’t built for beauty. The towering silos, dusty loading docks and industrial buildings are shaped by what they do: Receive truckloads of wheat. Grind it up. Ship it out.

In tiny Henderson, 40 miles northeast of Raleigh, Scott and Hunter Hartness have staked their lives on their mill. As American flour has become a commodity that has been swallowed up by the drive toward conglomerates and giant food companies, the Hartnesses’ Sanford Milling stands as a rarity, one of a handful of family-owned mills left in the country.

With only 20 employees, they make three brands of low-protein, soft-wheat flour, crucial to the creation of traditional Southern specialties such as biscuits and pound cakes: Daily Bread, mostly used by home bakers, and Snow Flake and Hartness Choice, used in food service, including beloved restaurants such as Flo’s Kitchen in Wilson and Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen in Louisburg. If you’ve ever pulled through the drive-thru at a Biscuitville, you’ve eaten Sanford Milling flour.

“We’re making 19th-century flour,” says Hunter Hartness. “We’re trying to keep the technology simple.

“Simple is better.”

A culture baked into our souls

Flour seems so simple. It’s just ground-up, sifted wheat. You dump it into a bowl to make pie crust, scoop it into a cup for a batch of biscuits, beat it with butter, eggs and sugar for cake.

But there’s more to it than white powder. Our flour shapes our food, as surely as a baker shapes a loaf of bread.

In some parts of the country, the wheat that grows best is hard summer wheat. It’s high in protein, so dough made from it develops lots of the stretchy bands of gluten that are perfect for crusty breads.

In the Southeast, the wheat that grows best is soft, red winter wheat. Colonists brought it with them from Europe and planted it all along the East Coast, but especially in the South. It’s called winter wheat because it likes a little cold, but not too much. Plant it in November and it grows slowly, developing underground, until late spring, when it sends up waist-high shoots topped with heads of red kernels.

The kernels are so soft you can bite through them. Grind them and you get a flour that’s low in protein. With less protein, it develops less gluten, making it perfect for soft baked goods.

“Nobody said ‘protein’ in those days,” says Glenn Roberts, the grain historian and food entrepreneur behind Anson Mills in Columbia, S.C. “Farmers would say, ‘I’m growing biscuit wheat.’ 

To our grandparents, flour was what came from the nearest mill. People baked by feel, adjusting to each batch.

Every crossroad had a mill. Drive through the country and look at the names – ‘Something Mill Road.’

Scott Hartness, Sanford Milling

“Every crossroad had a mill,” says Scott Hartness. “Drive through the country and look at the names – ‘Something Mill Road.’ 

But in the last 60 years, that system has disappeared, swept up in the efficiency of consolidation. To stay cheap, flour got big, linking small mills into big companies. To make products that could be sold all over the country, they had to wipe away the idea of regional baking styles and create all-purpose flour, mixed from wheats with different protein levels.

It’s reliable. It’s uniform. But it definitely isn’t regional.

Keeping it in the family

From thousands of small mills at the end of the 19th century, there are now an estimated 119 mills owned by a small group of companies. There are only 35 independently owned mills in the U.S. North Carolina has six.

Scott and Hunter Hartness’ great-grandfather started with a wooden grist mill outside Shelby in the 1870s, grinding corn and wheat. Their grandfather moved to Sanford, in the center of the state, in 1924 and opened a bigger mill that burned down in 1947.

119: Estimated number of mills in the U.S.

35: Number of independently owned mills.

6: Independently owned mills in North Carolina

“My dad was 12, 13,” says Scott. “He thought it was the end of the world.” But it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. The next day, their grandfather got an offer to buy a newer, more modern mill in Henderson.

The Hartness boys spent summers pushing brooms and swinging shovels, their sweat mixing with the flour in the air, making dough on their arms.

By college, Scott wanted nothing to do with milling. He got an art degree and became a jewelry salesman. He’s goofy and talkative, a born salesman. Hunter is quiet and analytical. He loved the mill and its intricacies.

Hunter, now 50, got a degree in milling science and came back to run the mill. Scott, 53, eventually realized he could sell anything, even flour. They came together to run the business. Scott wrestles sales and orders while Hunter keeps the mill running, a six-floor collection of cast-iron equipment, wooden hoppers and nylon sifters.

Hunter likes to say that everybody knows how furniture is made: You start with a tree, saw it into boards, nail it together. Explaining flour is harder.

“Nobody knows how flour is made.”

No single person invented modern milling. It’s a collection of machinery and processes that vary from company to company. Even when you walk through the mill to watch, it’s hard to follow:

It starts outside on a loading dock, where trailers of red wheat arrive almost every day from all over North Carolina. (Even though wheat is harvested in June, farmers store it for months until they sell it, balancing commodity prices and customer demand.)

When wheat arrives, it pours through a grid and goes under the building, where it starts its trip through the mill: It’s sieved, to separate good kernels – smooth and red – from field trash and immature or broken kernels.

A small operation can’t afford to waste, so the hulls and rejected kernels get ground into animal feed, along with byproducts such as bran. (It also has a following among moonshiners, who like to mix it with corn to form a cap on mash, to hold in yeast.)

The good kernels are soaked in water for eight hours, to soften them so they don’t explode as they go through the rollers. Pneumatic tubes shoot the kernels up to the top floor, then down:

Past the rollers, heavy steel rolling pins that move at different speeds to roll open the kernels like a book. Blowing up and down through the tubes, separating the crushed wheat into streams of starch, bran and germ, called middlings. Through the sifters, big cabinets that hold stacks of screens with holes finer than a human hair. They shimmy like hula-dancing bedroom chests, shaking ground wheat through the screens to separate it into fine powder.

Hunter Hartness pulls out a miller’s slick, a palm-sized piece of metal polished as shiny as a mirror, and sticks it into different tubes, pulling out piles to show flour at different stages, from yellow to gray to egg shell, as different grades of flour are created.

“Our niche is that we make it slowly,” Hunter Hartness says. “You can see what’s being made here. It’s an art, it really is.” Hartness prefers to mill more slowly because it keeps down temperatures. Cool milling, he says, preserves more flavor.

Baking’s new day

In many ways, North Carolina is experiencing a baking renaissance. With more interest in local food and sustainable agriculture, there’s also more interest in artisan food production. Experiments are going on all over the state, from attempts to grow hard, high-protein wheats to stone-ground milling.

“There’s so much more viable activity in North Carolina,” says Glenn Roberts. “There’s a lot more forward thinking.”

The man who spread Carolina Gold rice and Anson Mills grits all over New York City, Roberts is now trying to bring back heirloom white wheats that disappeared from the Carolinas in the 1800s. He finds a lot of interest around the state in growing different wheats to create flours for specialized baking.

One of those mills is Carolina Ground, a stone-ground flour mill in Asheville. Jennifer Lapidus started it to create artisan flour for bakeries such as LaFarm in Raleigh and Carolina Artisan Bakery near Charlotte and for home bakers who care enough that they’ll order bags online and pay for shipping.

“We launched the mill to connect the farmer and baker in the Southeast,” she says. “What’s unfolded is, I spend part of every day interacting with people across the country who are trying our flours. They’re sending me pictures of what they’re doing.”

Baking trends are overturning the idea that you can create one kind of flour to work for everything. Wheat isn’t uniform, and neither is flour. While attention is being paid to organically grown wheats and stone-ground flours, older soft-wheat flour brands haven’t gotten as much attention. But some people are starting to appreciate the value of having a lot of kinds of products.

Having many varieties of plants creates biodiversity. Having many regional brands creates a kind of supermarket biodiversity, keeping the regional flavor of traditional cooking styles.

“Local is about transparency, familiarity with where your food comes from,” says Joe Lindley, who grinds organic flours at Lindley Mills outside Graham. “It’s better for the country to have lots of smaller producers.”

Hartness flours are hard to find in stores. Even some of their local stores don’t stock them. But you can find their brands in pockets around the state, especially in small chains such as Piggly Wiggly and IGA. They’re also used by commercial bakers. Chef Amy Tornquist of Watt’s Grocery in Durham only uses Hartness Choice, a habit that started when she worked for Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill in college.

“I am one of those people who’s so old-school,” says Tornquist. “I don’t use fancy-fancy flour. Flour is really particular. One of the things about Europe is that they have like 20 different kinds of flour. It really defines that gluten in a way that we don’t have.”

Finding smaller brands such as Snow Flake and Daily Bread in supermarkets is hit-or-miss. You might find Daily Bread self-rising in one neighborhood or Daily Bread all-purpose in another, based on how many customers still bake biscuits. Larger chains, Hartness says, only want national brands.

 ‘Flour’s flour,’ ” he says the store buyers tell him. “Well, it’s not, is it?”

The people who understood soft-wheat flours are disappearing, he says: “All the little old ladies are dying.”

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis

N.C. flour mills

ADM, Charlotte. Part of a nationwide network of mills that grind flour for Archer Daniels Midland.

Bartlett Milling, Statesville. Owned by a company based in Kansas City, Mo., it mills both flour and animal feed.

BayState, Mooresville. Part of a nationwide network based in Quincy, Mass., that makes a variety of flour styles, including rye, organic, and medium- and high-protein flours.

Boonville Flour and Feed, Boonville. A stone-ground mill northwest of Winston-Salem that makes Daniel Boone cornmeal and grits and Our Best plain and self-rising flour.

Carolina Ground, Asheville. A cold-stone milling facility that makes whole-grain bread, pastry and rye flour from certified-organic wheat from Southern farms.

Lindley Mills, Graham. Based on the grounds of stone-ground mill established in 1755 and now owned by descendants of the original builder, it makes organic specialty flours for restaurants and food companies, including most of King Arthur’s organic flour and the flour used in Newman’s Own pretzels. It also makes sprouted whole-grain organic flour.

Old Mill of Guilford, Oak Ridge. A restored water-powered, stone-ground mill that dates to the late 18th century, it makes cornmeal and flours, including spelt, whole wheat, rye, self-rising and all-purpose.

Renwood Mills, Newton. Formerly Midstate. Maker of short-patent (low-protein) flours and baking mixes, including Southern Biscuit and Tenda-Bake brands. Southern Biscuit is most often found in local supermarkets as a self-rising flour, although all-purpose is also made.

Sanford Milling, Henderson. Maker of Daily Bread, Snow Flake Short Patent and Hartness Choice self-rising and low-protein flours, both for supermarkets and for commercial baking. Daily Bread self-rising is found at some local stores; Snow Flake is mostly found in Eastern North Carolina.

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