Coming home to Meadowlark Granary
|Stephanie Blumehagen has started a business--Meadowlark Granary--processing grain from her family's farm.|
The sweet aroma of bread baking in the oven fills Stephanie Blumhagen’s kitchen as she works at the counter, kneading more dough to place into pans to rise. The freshly baked loaves she soon draws from the stove are plump and the golden color of wheat itself.
Stephanie’s home in Bottineau is the birthplace of her fledgling business, Meadowlark Granary, launched in the summer of 2014. Planning to soon transition into a commercial facility, Stephanie bakes weekly for a growing list of local customers who buy her trademark Meadowlark Bread and other specialty baked goods.
Made from an aunt’s recipe calling for whole-wheat flour, flax and a touch of honey, the bread is steeped in Stephanie’s personal heritage. Wheat for the flour comes from the fields of grain grown by her father, Arlo Blumhagen, Drake. This whole grain Stephanie cleans by hand and mills through a Magic Mill II, an older-model kitchen grain mill just like the one used by her mother, Karen Blumhagen.
The home milling of farm-raised grain marked Stephanie’s childhood. “All of my life, Mom has milled flour from our own wheat,” she says. “Some of the wheat harvest was always squirreled away in the pantry, and any baking session began with running wheat through the Magic Mill. As a child, it never occurred to me that other people got their flour from the grocery store.”
So from the fields of the Blumhagen family, members of Verendrye Electric Cooperative, comes the wheat for the bread and other baked goods produced and sold by Stephanie through her Meadowlark Granary. It’s work she pursues in the time off from her primary employment working as a grant writer at Dakota College at Bottineau.
Between the two enterprises, Stephanie finds herself immersed in a vibrant, creative world of young ag entrepreneurs she never imagined she’d discover in the heart of North Dakota. What she has found here is the gold she had hoped to mine from more distant places when she left home eight years ago.
Seeking dreams further afield, Stephanie moved to Washington state soon after graduating from Minot State University with a four-year degree. There, she worked for nonprofit organizations and obtained a master’s degree.
But the heritage of her home, the rolling prairie vistas and the timeless skies of Dakota tugged at her. “I missed the land and the sky,” she says. “And I came to understand that the people who helped shape me – the people who I grew up with – are mortal; they won’t be around forever. I wanted to spend more time with them.”
Her sense of rootedness in the farm was a compelling, enduring constant. “I have always wanted to be involved in the farm in some way,” Stephanie says. “I’ve always envisioned my life coming full circle and finishing up on the farm.”
Still, fleshing out the vision of a possible return to North Dakota and the role she might play on the farm presented daunting uncertainties. What work would she find? How would she discover a sense of community, especially since many of her childhood and college-age friends had moved away, as she had?
Yet despite the uncertainties, Stephanie packed up and came home in the fall of 2013. She immediately set out to find every shred of information she could about the entrepreneurial opportunities that might exist in North Dakota relating to her passion: the producing and marketing of locally grown foods.
“In Washington, there were all these beautiful little organic farms and these incredible farmers markets,” she says. “I thought North Dakota wouldn’t have that. But when I went looking for a local foods network here, I found that there was much more going on than I had assumed. I discovered that there really are people in North Dakota who care about local food and where their food is grown.”
Her groundbreaking discoveries led her to such programs and organizations as the Leadership for Local Foods project, the N.D. Department of Agriculture’s Local Foods Initiative, the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society (NPSAS) and FARRMS. Enrolling in a FARRMS Farm Beginnings program helped her think more clearly about her potential role in her family’s farm.
Soon came her employment at Dakota College, where her work as a grant writer showed her more opportunities for ag entrepreneurs.
“I found that if someone has a real desire to have a small-farm enterprise, there’s a wealth of resources to help them succeed,” she says. “For instance, from the college’s Entrepreneurial Center for Horticulture, you can earn a two-year degree in sustainable vegetable production or even aquaponics right here in North Dakota. Beyond formal education, there are learning and marketing opportunities through organizations like NPSAS, FARRMS and the North Dakota Farmers Market and Growers Association.”
Inspired by other small-ag entrepreneurs and motivated by her Farm Beginnings course sponsored by FARRMS, Stephanie began fleshing out a plan for a farm-related business. “I wanted to find a business niche that reflects who I am,” she says. “While thinking about that, I saw that what was native and unique to my experience was Mom milling flour for our own bread all my life.”
From these thoughts came Meadowlark Granary. Bread sales at the Bottineau farmers market followed. While expanding her product line to include specialty baked goods and freshly milled flour, she began taking orders as well as selling by the honor system from a table at a Main Street community center.
“It’s a lot of fun when someone tracks me down to place an order, or when I get a call from someone I don’t know who has heard about my baking and wants to place an order,” she says. “I get a lot of comments from people who perceive wholesomeness in my bread. They often say it reminds them of the bread their mother or grandmother baked.”
Stephanie is also developing dry-mix products making broader use of her milled flour. To help support the product development, she applied for and was awarded a USDA Rural Development value-added producer grant.
As Stephanie builds her business for the future, she envisions possibilities such as her own commercial kitchen, a milling shed on the farm, and a diversification into educational activities highlighting the heritage of wheat.
In the meantime, she has her hands full keeping pace with the present.
“The life I found back here in North Dakota is far more vibrant and abundant than I had imagined it could be,” she says. “I’m thrilled to have found the people that I found, and it has been amazing the way people have responded to Meadowlark Granary.”
Visit Meadowlark Granary at www.nodakbread.com.