Gluten-free mill rises to demand
Owner says he prizes building relationships with buyers, suppliers
By STEVE BROWN
BURLINGTON, Wash. -- To meet the growing demand for organic and gluten-free flour, the Fairhaven Organic Flour Mill recently moved from its Bellingham birthplace to bigger quarters a few miles to the south.
It's not the market growth that got Kevin Christenson into organic flour in the first place. He said it was his concern about feeding his children food containing preservatives and antibiotics.
He also enjoys the relationships he has built with his customers and suppliers.
About 60 percent of his grain comes from small farmers.
"I enjoy getting input on what they're growing ... and I pay the farmers a fair price to support the whole industry," he said. "I ask, 'What can we all do to make a living instead of speculation?'
"I don't always try to beat competitors. These are loyal customers, not just short-term relationships. Farmers need that edge."
From farms as far away as Walla Walla, Wash., Christenson brings in barley, buckwheat, blue and yellow corn, brown rice, rye, spelt, millet and oats.
He was also handling soybeans, but said he had issues with genetic modification.
"Testing was expensive," he said.
He said he stopped carrying buckwheat because it was too expensive, but he's going to start again soon with a Walla Walla grower.
He'd like to get it from northwestern Washington growers, too.
"I could sell a lot of buckwheat if I can get it," he said.
With four people working at the mill -- two of them part-time -- Fairhaven sells about three truckloads of flour a month. That's between 100,000 and 150,000 pounds. About 45 percent of the business is retail; 15 to 20 percent goes to local companies and the rest goes to distributors.
Fairhaven has three mills: one old stone mill and two hammer mills. Christenson's goal is to dedicate one of the hammer mills to gluten-free flour by the end of June.
Flours are milled to order, he said, and delivery is within five to seven business days.
Moving to the larger location not only provides more space, but he now has a loading dock instead of a garage door opening onto an alleyway.
"This is a tough little business margin-wise," Christenson said. "Big companies have created a cheap-food industry they can dominate, and they compensate the farmer unfairly.
"My flour has to compete with a megabrand that isn't the same flavor. And mine has 13 percent minimum protein -- most is 13.5 to 15 percent," he said. "Others' flour is 11 to 11.5 percent spiked with gluten."