West Wind Milling Co. more than just your neighborhood gristmill!
By Kait Keim
How do you describe yourself: Herbivore, Omnivore, Carnivore, Locavore? Wait now there’s a word we didn’t learn in biology! Interestingly enough, Locavore is a word newly created, and recently made official by The New Oxford American Dictionary at the end of 2007. A term used to describe not only a dietary preference; it also describes a whole new level of environmental and economical awareness when it comes to what we eat. Originally coined in San Francisco, this term has spread nation wide and has been used to describe the movement to eat, shop, and grow as locally (and seasonally) as possible, the suggested range being within 100 miles. The simple reasoning being that local food can be bought and prepared without the need for extra preservatives, and shipping food over long distances often requires more fuel for transportation.
In that Locavore spirit I offer to you the following introduction to one of the Ypsilanti Food Co-op’s newest suppliers. West Wind Milling Co. has become our main supplier of bulk (local and organic) flour. You may have noticed the visual changes in the co-op layout, i.e. the bulk bins moving, but take a closer look at the labels on those bulk bins… we are even using their products in the River Street Bakery! Please enjoy getting to know Linda and Lee Purdy.
Lee Purdy grew up on the family farm, and in 1993, being newly divorced, he moved back to the farm with his two daughters. Lee’s dad originally bought the farm in 1950 and it was then 360 acres! In the 1960’s it was a dairy farm and they also grew crops of soybeans, corn, etc. His father had worked for Genesee Co. 4-H extension doing urban gardening programs in Flint and his mother taught 3rd grade in Gains. When she died his father moved to Texas. Their family farm is 12 miles north of the mill and is currently 160 acres. At the farm they grow organic grains: hard-red spring and some soft-white winter wheat, which they used as their main source of grain for milling until the demand grew too large. They also grow beans, corn and sunflowers, and they love doing farm tours in the warmer months!
Linda Purdy is originally from Detroit and moved out to the Linden, MI area in 1993 with her daughter and ex-husband. She has always loved animals, and for three years she was a zookeeper at the Detroit Zoo. She grew up camping and taking family trips to cabins and loves being in nature. At her first house in Linden she started growing an organic herb garden and selling at local farmers markets. During that time Linda and Lee met at local Organic Growers of MI meetings and became fast friends.
Linda taught high school special education (in Burton) and has a master’s degree from EMU that she worked on for seven years while; raising kids, running the farm, the mill, and store! For the past year and a half she has cleared her plate a little and has not been teaching at all and is finished at EMU! Lee worked as a carpenter, and for the village of Gains dept. of public works, all the while running the farm. Now he also runs the mill with Linda! Whom ever thinks being a farmer is easy is sadly mistaken. Having two or more jobs just to make ends meet seems to be commonplace for a lot of small farmers.
When Linda and Lee bought the mill in December of 2000, it had been for sale since 1993 and empty 7 years. It almost seemed as if the mill waited for them to buy it while they became friends and eventually engaged. They were married in July of 2001 and soon after they opened the mill for business, August 1st 2001. They set up the store, renovated (most of) the space and began milling by March 2002. Lee’s younger daughter (15 yr old Stevie) helps with the farming. Linda’s daughter (11 yr old Summer) has been helping at the store and with baking since she was 7 and also helps to run the farmers market booth. Who knew love stories could be connected with flour, but I guess when you do what you love, you will find those who share your passions in life.
Now a little history on the mill itself: Back in 1835 President Van Buren granted water rights to the mill, as part of a program began by President Andrew Jackson, which encouraged population growth and pushed to make Michigan an official state. Then in 1836 John Murray built the mill itself and the other buildings were added on later. The dam constructed to power the mill created a lake across the street, and in the 1950’s lakefront homes began being built. The Wolcotts owned the property from 1937-1993. Wolcott began draining the lake by opening the dam to create electricity, that he then sold Consumers Energy (this did not go over well with the lakefront association). A large feud ensued and when the mill owner put the property up for sale, the Lakefront association bought the water rights for half a million dollars. This left the property up for sale with very strict restrictions on water usage. The mill itself was in great condition, with almost fully working equipment. The monthly electric bill now runs around $800, just to operate the mill! I found this very ironic considering the now dormant electrical generators under the mill. They also rent space out to a Bookstore and a Cheesecake shop.
Why did they decide to buy the mill? Well at the time they could sell wheat for $3 a bushel and ground flour for $60 a bushel. Today organic wheat goes for $11 a bushel and they sell organic ground flour for $78 a bushel. The math seemed to make sense, even after the shock of the entire overhead required to run the mill. To meet increasing demand they sought out local Grain suppliers, which are all certified organic, and come from a Tri-county area: Dan Rossman – Gratiot Co. grows hard-red spring wheat (bread flour), Rod Keiger – Shiawassee Co. grows hard-red spring wheat, Craig Howard – Shiawassee Co. grows soft-white winter wheat (pastry flour).
They used to sell local meats, foods, and natural paper and health and beauty products, but the storefront required too much overhead and upkeep. They have since narrowed down to carrying Calder’s Dairy products, organic and local Al-Mar Orchard’s apples and cider, local honey and maple syrup, and other local canned products. Brenda is the store manager and Kim is the baking specialist. They make their own bread fresh daily, and package various mixes: cookies, muffins, breads, cakes, brownies, etc. (which the Co-op carries some of) in addition to all their flours: Graham, whole wheat, unbleached, multigrain, corn meal, spelt, rye, buckwheat, and barley. All grain milled is certified organic.
It was such a pleasure sitting down with Linda when I visited the mill and I feel so honored every time someone shares their story with me. It’s even more of a treat when I get to share these stories with everyone at the Co-op and connect them a little more with their community and their food. I leave you with a short letter printed in their brochure, so that in their own words you get a feel for the people behind West Wind Milling Co.
“Dear Friends. We’d like to introduce you to our very unique mill and general store, which we hope will help to bring communities together. By offering only locally and sustainably* grown foods, we want each visitor to take part in the amazing bounty their community can create.
As most food in America today comes from a far away place where the conditions surrounding its production involve exploitation, pollution, erosion, and the overuse of fossil fuels in getting it to you, people have become disconnected with what they eat, where their food comes from, and thus, with their ability to be connected with who they are.
We want to show this does not have to be. It is not the only way. We provide food that is healthy for your body, healthy for the environment, and healthy for the local economy.
Eggs and beef have been grown without hormones or antibiotics, our animals live with freedom of movement and in a setting natural to their species. Our produce has been grown in rich soil without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.
Whenever possible, we find food that has been inspected and certified by the organic standards of the USDA to be Certified Organic.
We are sure that this place is a resource that Michigan consumers want and need. Come take your own part in helping to create a healthier, sustainable world!
Lee, Linda and family
*SUSTAINABLY means: to be grown with a “natural input” that work in harmony with our ecosystem.”
Linda and Lee Purdy
West Wind Milling Co.
8527 Silver Lake Rd.
Argentine, MI 48451
(Tue-Sat 11 AM – 6:30 PM and Sun Noon – 5 PM)