Whole Grain Milling in Welcome, Minnesota, has been a supplier of People’s Food Co-op since the 1990s. Doug and Lin Hilgendorf are third generation farmers in western Minnesota and they’ve been certified organic since 1989.
The family has been farming in Martin County since the 1880s—though Lin is quick to tell you that they’re still the “new people” in the neighborhood. They brought their organic grain flour and pancake mix into the Rochester Good Food Store in the ’90s and now supply People’s Food Co-op of both La Crosse and Rochester with grain products including organic, non-GMO tortilla chips.
The chips started out as a side project, but now the chip business has become a big part of Hilgendorf’s operation. As Doug tells it, they were simply looking for a market for their organic corn, and one thing led to another. They now grow the corn, mill it, process and cook the chips, and manage distribution. In other words, they’ve built a complete, vertically integrated, farm-to-store chip—without really intending to.
Over cookies and coffee at their farmhouse table, Doug and Lin sat down to talk about their journey to become the makers of Minnesota’s finest tortilla chip.
While the chips are delicious, the Hilgendorfs didn’t set out to make chips because they loved Mexican food. As Doug explains: “In 1989 we went organic, and we started our mill in 1990. We were selling our organic corn at the conventional corn price. We needed a better market. We started milling corn meal; we were looking for any way to use our corn. We tried a couple of things, but decided to do chips. We found a good plant in Denver and went with them. They made a good chip with our corn, but then the plant was sold and the new owners wanted to use a cheaper, non-organic oil when making the chips. We had trouble.” So Whole Grain Milling stopped making chips.
“But by then our customers were clamoring for the product,” Lin says. “‘Where’re the chips?’ Is all we heard. So we decided to make the chips ourselves. It’ll be easy! Ha. Not so much.”
“We’re Hilgendorfs,” Doug says. “We’re trying to convince the Germans that chips go well with beer. We should have stuck with popcorn. Chips are harder to do.”
The Hilgendorfs bought an industrial oven and built or bought used all the equipment they needed and set up a tortilla chip factory in town. “Every day at the plant is different,” Doug says. “Daily changes in humidity will affect the quality of the chips. If you know anyone who wants to buy a chip factory—tell them to come talk to us.”
The chips have been very popular. The Hilgendorfs have relied on word-of-mouth for advertising and besides People’s Food Co-op, you can find Whole Grain Milling chips in every co-op in the Twin Cities and in stores in New York and California.
“It’s not our goal to get real big and sell the business,” Doug says. “We started it to keep the farm viable.”
“And to provide good, clean food,” Lin adds.
They had no help from university extension workers or mentors who’d been in food manufacturing. “University people expect you to have a business plan,” Doug says. “We never stopped to put that together.”
Back in 1989, the Hilgendorfs did find some organic farmers around Wells, Minnesota, who helped them with information on converting to organic production. Like many organic farmers who supply People’s Food Co-op, Doug cites the health hazards of working with chemicals as a big reason they decided to go organic. “My dad started farming in the 1920s—when everything was ‘organic.’ In the ’70s, my dad started seeing changes in the soil. We started seeing more animal diseases. I’m old enough to remember what the soil around here was like in the ’50s, and it had changed by the ’70s.”
“My dad died of cancer in 1978,” Doug says, “and that made me look at clean food. We started looking at the relationship between health and nutrition and then we started looking at what’s in the grocery store and thought, ‘we could do better.’”
There are now four other organic farms in Martin County, but it’s not really a concept that’s caught on in western Minnesota. “We stopped doing soybeans. We’d have one weed in the field and the neighbor panics. But you can’t find kids to walk your beans anymore,” Doug says. (“Walking beans” means to take a hoe and manually weed the rows of soybeans. At one time, this was regular summer employment for rural kids.)
|They have two grown sons who work with them on the farm, a part-time office worker, and seven or eight other employees to help out. They’ve cut back the number of acres they have in grain from 750 to 400. In addition to making the chips, they still grow and mill flour and rolled oats, and produce various pancake and bread mixes, popcorn, and more. They’ve also added barley and ancient grains, such as teff.|
|Oat groats coming out of the huller.|
After a tour of the grain-cleaning facility and the mills, we drove over to town to visit the tortilla chip factory. As Doug drove, he pointed out the fields still brown in mid-March. Considering the observation that Whole Grain Milling has a lot on its plate, Doug allows that the farm is up to a lot of different things, but he says, “You know what would be a lot of work? CSA farming. Imagine all the different types of vegetables those people have to figure out. That would be a tough learning situation, a hard business.”
At the factory, the cleaned grain is soaked in water with lime to remove the corn’s waxy pericarp. This is the traditional Meso-American method of nixtamal. The corn is drained and the pulp is ground into dough, which is then fed into a conveyor that extrudes the dough into a flat sheet from which the triangular-shaped chips are cut. No, it’s true: the chips don’t start out as round tortillas. The oven, salter, and bagging machines are all automated, but when the factory’s going, about six people are on the floor.
“Over time, we’ve gotten more efficient,” Doug says. “We run five cookings a week.” While the chips have solved the Hilgendorfs’ problem of finding a market for their corn, Doug isn’t so sure about their process. Looking back on his career as a chip-maker, Doug shakes his head and laughs. “If I’d known then what I know now, would I have decided to make chips? Well, it’s gotten to be a big part of our business now, but if I’d known about labor, I don’t know that I’d have done it. It’s hard finding and keeping good people.”
Now to market
Whole Grain Milling also does its own distribution. They tried working with co-op distributor UNFI but found the paperwork daunting. So as demand for the chips grew, the Hilgendorfs got into the trucking business. They started out with a pickup truck, then got a one-ton truck, and now they’re running two 24-foot trucks. Doing their own delivery also has some advantages for a producer. “It’s worked well to work directly with the stores. If there’s a screw-up we can fix it right away,” Doug says.
As we’re saying goodbye, I notice a yellow school bus standing next to the barn. “No, we’re not driving kids to school, too” Doug laughs. “We had an engine in one of the trucks we didn’t like, and so we’re taking the engine out of that bus for the truck. A neighbor up the road has an old engine he wants to put in the bus. It all works out.”
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of the Co-op Shopper.