CARP — Sometimes following a dream isn’t as important as jumping at an opportunity.
That’s how entrepreneur Jennifer Stewart and her Canadian soldier husband Kevin found themselves running fourth-generation grain mill, Ottawa Valley Grain Products, in Carp.
Jennifer grew up a Wilson not knowing a whole lot about the mill: her parents were busy people — mom was a judge and ran a law firm, and dad ran a fuel business alongside the mill — but they weren’t much for talking business at the dinner table. Jennifer went her own way as an entrepreneur, and in fact many of the stories the couple now knows about the mill came from the farmers they work with, who visited the mill as children.
It wasn’t until her father told her in 2016 that he might have a buyer for the business that she balked at losing the family legacy. She said: “Hold on, you gotta talk to us first.” Kevin thought she might have gone crazy. But he was at a career crossroads himself: a soon-to-be-retired army engineering officer, he wasn’t sure what to do next. A few months of shadowing Jennifer’s father convinced him this was a fascinating and viable business. So they bought it.
These days the mill runs six days a week, 18 hours a day, with the fall and winter the busiest times. They take about 5,000 tonnes of barley a year from over 50 growers in the Ottawa Valley; small by mill standards but plenty to keep their small crew of five busy. Byproducts from the mill sell for animal feed but the main business is food for people.
And they’re growing. The vast majority of their business — about 95 per cent — is supplying barley for third-party packers for major chains like Wal-Mart and Bulk Barn, but they also send products overseas. They even found a new niche this spring. Like many businesses that offer food-grade products, when COVID-19 hit they saw an opportunity in local markets. But unlike the many farms with infrastructure already in place to supply to consumers directly they put it together from scratch. Fortunately Jennifer’s other business — a marketing company — was well-equipped to do that, and they had an online store and social media marketing active within a couple of days.
In March alone they sold $30,000 in flour. The local side of the business kept humming until about June, when baking fatigue set in. But recently it’s started to creep back up, she said.
It’s just the latest twist on an old business that’s seen plenty of ups and downs. Started in 1929 by Jennifer’s great-grandfather Nat Lindsay, it had at one time four locations: three grain mills and a feed mill. The current-day mill still sits on the grounds of the original flour mill built in Carp back in 1827.
While much of the original spirit of the original mill is intact, the building isn’t, destroyed by fire in the early 1990s. Their milling equipment is from the 1970s, although they still have a few of the original millstones in storage.
But they still use traditional, hands-on methods. The mill was one of the first in the area to use electricity, and it still relies on machinery to grind grain. But it’s not computer automated. Much like the difference between a manual and automatic transmission, the millers manually manage the movement of grain. Three millers use 12 to 15 machines, firing them up in the right sequence to get the grain flowing at the right rate and in the correct volumes.
And, of course, there’s only so much you can modernize the basic milling process: a combination of mobile stones and stationary screens grinds off the outer layers of the grain. Leave it alone and it’s a whole grain. Take it down to the bran layer, and that’s pot barley. Grind it right down to the endosperm and it’s pearl barley. Grind it all the way down and you have flour.
Little differences in hull thickness can make a big difference, which is why the mill tends to grind one farmers’ grain at a time. Before drop-off, the mill gets samples to test-run through the mill and get a feel for how the grain will perform. As a result they don’t often have to turn down grain, but one deal-breaker is low test weight: if the grain isn’t dense enough it won’t survive the milling process.
The business model of a small mill includes reliability and predictability. Kevin found that out by polling farmers in the early days. So he offers fixed pricing and a premium if local farmers store the grain for him. That way he can cut out the grain elevator middleman and split the savings between the mill and the customers. And being so small there’s room to flex, depending on what his customers are growing: while barley is their bread and butter they also take multiple varieties of wheat, as well as oats, spelt and rye. “So it is a niche market. But it’s an underserved market,” Kevin said.