Soft white snow fell as I drove along Salt Point Turnpike in Clinton Corners, passing picturesque farms dotted with red barns with white trim. I stopped at one of them: Wild Hive Farm. Pigs and chickens waddled around the yard, but here it was all about organic grains milled for people.
Inside, it was as if the snow had blown indoors and settled gently on the milling equipment, dusting all surfaces – including three electric mills of various sizes – with a lovely coat of silky white powder. I admired the unique dark-gray coloration of the friendly cat before I realize that he was really a black cat, his fur lightened with flour.
This flour is one of many products milled by affable expert Don Lewis, who showed me the workings of his elegant mill, which at one point was renovated into a home with majestic wooden staircases and high ceilings, but never lived in, he told me. Lewis knows his product so well that he can look at a pile of flour and touch and taste it and tell you the protein content, how much of it is red and how much is white wheat and how it will behave in baked goods.
Lewis is part pioneer, part revivalist in his mission to bring area eaters and cooks products that are super-fresh, made from locally sourced and grown raw materials and full of the flavor that springs from the unique terroir of the Hudson Valley. Even people who are sensitive to the gluten in commercial processed grains – rolled rather than stone-ground, with all the good nutrients removed and too long on the shelf – can often happily tolerate and enjoy Wild Hive’s fresh flours in their baked goods.
Lewis was a beekeeper before he was a baker, and then for 28 years he sold his baked goods at farmers’ markets. Over a decade ago, he met farmer Alton Earnhart of Lightning Tree Farm in Millbrook, who was growing natural grains – mostly for animal feed at the time. This area has a history of grain-milling, and many old mills dot the region – including the former Tuthilltown Gristmill in Gardiner, which stopped milling flour in 2003. But about 80 years ago, many grain farmers and millers migrated westward and bred the beginnings of today’s commercial flours, mass-produced with the goals of high yield and long shelf-life rather than good taste.
Lewis began milling grains from Lightning Tree Farm on a very small scale, and gradually increased the scope of his milling operations, eventually developing an impressive product line and using grains from about a half-dozen local farms. Currently he has gotten away from baking, in part because it’s tough on the wrists and also because there are many fine bakers in the area now using locally grown grains, he said.