Where There's a Mill, There's a Way
July 10, 2009
Update: Ridgecut Gristmill is no longer in the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.
By Becky Tsang.
Erin Sweet’s connection to agriculture goes way back. The owner of Ridgecut Gristmills grew up in Davis surrounded by fields of corn, canning tomatoes, and sunflowers. Erin spent her college summers working on a tomato farm, and what little free time she has now often goes toward the Young Farmers’ and Ranchers’ Committee of the American Farm Bureau.
As the one-woman force behind Ridgecut Gristmills, Erin mills, mixes, and hand delivers her stone ground cornbread and buckwheat pancake mixes and sells them at several small stores and farmers’ markets.
The idea to start milling her own grains came to Erin when she realized that her home County (Yolo), once the number one corn-producing county in California, was losing much of its corn fields. It was 1999 and agriculture in the county fell on hard times; many of the crops she knew and loved were moving abroad or to other parts of California.
At the time, says Erin, “corn didn’t pay enough to justify growing it on its own, so many growers gave up.” She soon began brainstorming solutions with her father, who was raised on a farm in the Midwest and felt similarly passionate about the issue. “We had to figure out a way to make corn pay for our local growers,” she recalls thinking, “but how?”
When the idea to mill the corn and sell mixes came to Erin, it was at least partly motivated by nostalgia. Cornbread made with fresh cornmeal plays a big role in her memories of her father’s hometown in southern Indiana.
“It was truck farm country,” she says. “And each town had a mill. The cornbread had a texture and flavor like no other.”
In recent years, corn prices have gone back up, due mainly to ethanol production, but Erin has stuck to her original goal of sourcing locally. All the corn she uses comes within 80 miles of the mill, and all is non-GMO.
While teaching agriculture at a local high school, Erin tweaked her recipe for months to get the perfect “just add water” mix. Her students unwittingly played guinea pigs; she had them taste and critique as she swapped wet ingredients for dry and played with corn and wheat proportions. On top of recipe testing, Erin says she was offering students an opportunity to hone their critical thinking and description skills. “I was teaching them how to give reasons by tasting my cornbread,” she says.
She purchased her mill in January of 2006, and by that summer had started at her first farmers’ market in Napa. She says she prefers stone milling to steel milling because “it generates less heat, allowing for more nutrients, vitamins, and minerals to remain in the grains.” She also mills all of her grains the week before she sells them to ensure freshness.
By the end of the same summer, Erin developed a gluten-free buckwheat buttermilk pancake mix. Erin originally milled only organic buckwheat (grown in North Dakota and Minnesota), corn, and rice, choosing to outsource wheat to retain her gluten-free status. In her gluten-free* products, Erin substitutes Calrose medium-grain white rice for wheat. Recently she has purchased a second mill for the purpose of milling Massa Organics’ wheat.
Finding a supplier to will deal in the 1,000 pound increments Erin works in was a challenge. Because corn is a major commodity crop, it’s not easy to get small amounts. A thousand pounds may not seem small, but many distributors only offer 26 tons at a time. Finding the right dry egg and dairy products was another difficulty. Not only are the suppliers hard to find, but some ingredients, such as butter powder, use artificial and filler ingredients like wheat.
Erin says it wasn’t long before she was “yelled at by enough Southerners” with strong opinions about how cornbread should taste; now she sells a second cornbread mix with less sugar and more cornmeal texture.
In addition to the mixes, Erin also grinds fresh corn for grits (or polenta) every week. In honor of her father, she’s named it “Jimmy’s Cracked Corn,” and recently made polenta with it for Father’s Day. “He’s Mr. Midwestern, so he’s very much a corn boy,” she says.
*Due to the transitions with the new mill, Sweet will be unable to offer gluten-free corn products until approximately September.