Shagbark Seed & Mill is changing the way restaurants use grains

Beth Stallings, Columbus Crave

Brandon Jaeger and Michelle Ajamian sit across from each other at the center of a long table they've haphazardly strung together from four-tops at Athens' hippie Mexican eatery Casa Nueva. One by one, as their friends arrive-a recent college grad in a maxi skirt, a toddler-wheeling couple sporting dreadlocks-Jaeger and Ajamian jump up and smile with arms outstretched. Every guest is treated with an enthusiastic hello or a strong-armed embrace that lingers with familiarity.

The convivial air carries through dinner. Familial teasing is directed at the father figure of the group. Remember that one time Jaeger had to learn to drive a combine on the fly, and then it ran out of gas on a hill? Or when, having never operated a forklift before, he had to reverse it off the bed of a truck?

The goateed Jaeger laughs along as he takes it in stride, adding to the stories with hand gestures that mimic gear-shifting. Amused, Ajamian sips on a can of Jackie O's beer as she good-naturedly disputes small details in every tale.

Among the baskets of tortilla chips and sauce-covered enchiladas that decorate the table, the real reason for this dinner takes shape. The staples of this meal-chips, black beans, tortillas-would not be possible without this ragtag group of community do-gooders who learned how to run an organic grain and seed mill on the job. Since opening in 2010, Shagbark Seed & Mill has become a source to which organic farmers can sell corn that turns into food, not feed, and from where area chefs find grains, beans and flour grown and processed in Ohio.

That's a tougher feat than it may seem. Until Shagbark began selling black turtle beans, Northstar Cafe had to look to the West Coast to buy the essential ingredient for its veggie burger. One corn farmer confesses he had never tasted his own crop in a product before Shagbark began making tortilla chips.

"Brandon and Michelle are really, in a very direct way, changing the world and Ohio for the better," says Darren Malhame, partner at Northstar Cafe. "People like to talk about organic like it's some sort of elitist thing. There's nothing elitist about providing healthy food for everyone. They're using corn for really what it should be."

Sustaining the masses is exactly how the idea of the mill started. At the peak of the local food movement, as consumers began obsessing over heirloom tomatoes and kale grown nearby, Jaeger fixated on a single question: Why are we looking elsewhere for staple foods like corn and beans?

"We're just not going to survive on tomatoes and lettuce and kale and heirloom squash. We're going to need to rebuild our staples," says Jaeger, who calls this conundrum his existential anxiety. "Someone needs to be focusing on organically producing the foods that have been a staple in our diets for so long."

That someone, it turned out, is Shagbark.

Shagbark Seed & Mill was never intended to be a business. It was an experiment that started with a two-year grant application to Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, a U.S. Department of Agriculture organization that promotes agricultural innovation.

At the time, Jaeger was on a monastic training retreat at the San Francisco Zen Center. Ajamian, a community activist with a design background, came out to stay with Jaeger-planning the getaway to work on a grant proposal to support a perennial-annual education lab. But after Jaeger first uttered the phrase "existential anxiety," Ajamian suggested a second proposal.

The question that won them the $5,800 grant in 2008: Could they create a model staple food system that would make high-nutrient grains and beans local again? It started as test plots on four farms to identify which ancient grains-quinoa, amaranth, millet-and beans would grow well in Appalachia. But as they conducted studies and consulted with members of the collaborative they'd created, Jaeger and Ajamian found one glaring piece missing from the staple food network: a processing facility. Even if a farmer wanted to grow black turtle beans, Jaeger says, he'd have no outlet through which to process them.

"We were ready for a blissful life with our hands in the soil and walking through test plots with clipboards noting pollinator activity and stem girth," Jaeger says. "But we realized there are plenty of farmers around us with the soil and equipment and know-how to grow the right crops. But they need a reason for it."

If you wanted to open a coffee shop, you could walk around a single city block, find a handful of java-slinging storefronts and get a feel for how the business is run. But, five years ago, if you wanted to start a regional organic grain mill, you'd come up short with examples to follow.

That was a big challenge in the beginning as they launched their prototype regional mill, Ajamian says. They consulted with any experts they could find, cobbling together the necessary equipment. An organic farmer in Oregon recommended the kind of French mill they needed. They found a seed cleaner for sale in Westerville. The wooden Austrian sift box they use now to grind polenta, grits, spelt flour and buckwheat flour is still technically on loan from a farmer.

And of course, they needed to persuade area farmers this would work-and it would be worth working with the little guy who needed a few hundred pounds, not tons, of corn.

Thankfully, the right farmer followed Ajamian out into the hallway. She had just delivered her stump speech to a group of grain farmers at an Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) meeting.

"I'd like to come down and see what you're doing," said the anything-but-shy Chris Clinehens. More than a decade earlier, the third-generation Bellefontaine-area farmer had his conventional 210-acre farm certified organic. Shagbark intrigued him.

That first trip, he brought 150 pounds of corn. Now, he supplies the more than 100,000 pounds of corn needed annually to make Shagbark's signature tortilla chips and corn crackers. Talk to him about his commitment to Shagbark, and he speaks as if he's a partner in the business, wishing his farm wasn't 250 miles away so he could help more day to day.

"They've got a lot of guts," Clinehens says, admitting he's given them a lot of leeway on when they pay for product. But it's worth it, he says, because he believes in their mission. "I can see where they're headed. It's pretty outstanding that they've accomplished what they have."

For a company that runs on part-time employees and volunteers, Shagbark's growth has been explosive-from selling corn meal and spelt berries at the Athens Farmers Market to tortillas and chips at Columbus-area Whole Foods. Clinehens is one of eight farmers-a mix of certified organic and Amish-who supply the mill with high-nutrient organic goods to produce roughly a dozen products, including buckwheat flour, spelt, popcorn, stone-ground grits and polenta and pinto and black beans.

Shagbark went from selling $10,000 worth of product its first year to $125,000 the next. By 2013, they reached $321,000 in sales. It's leveled out a bit, Jaeger says, but is still on an upward swing. This year, they'll go through about 150 tons of Ohio bean and grain crop-with corn for chips, crackers and tortillas making up 60 percent and black beans another 30 percent.

Much of this growth is owed to Shagbark's ability to diversify products and adapt a wholesale business that distributes product around the state.

Jaeger and Ajamian created their three-ingredient tortilla chips (corn, sunflower oil and sea salt) in 2011 to help one of their favorite restaurants, Casa Nueva, which didn't have the manpower to make chips in house. Now lovingly referred to as their "gateway product," the chips have become their most recognized creation.

The chips first attracted Katalina's owner Kathleen Day to Shagbark in 2012. After sampling their chips at a Dine Originals event, Day persuaded them to sell her individual-sized bags she could serve alongside sandwiches at her Harrison West cafe.

"Once you eat their chips, you are a convert for life," says Day, who also uses Shagbark black beans. "You can taste the difference in the corn. It's what Michael Pollan would call heritage corn. It's much more filling and good for you, and it's not overly processed. It's what real corn chips should taste like."

Shagbark's latest product is just as everyman-friendly-corn tortillas, which they started producing at the Koki's Tortillas plant in October 2014. Shagbark tortillas stand out not just because organic corn is used, but also because the corn is soaked in an alkaline solution before it's hulled-an ancient process known as nixtamalization that's been proven in some scientific studies to increase nutritional value, flavor and aroma in corn. (The corn for their chips is also nixtamalized.)

It's also a nod to the way corn has been treated in Mexican culture for centuries, Ajamian says. The two had a chance to experience this process first hand. Earlier this year, she and Jaeger traveled to Mexico with the owner of Koki's to visit her family. There water was electric blue, rich with limestone. This is the water in which corn is soaked before it's ground into maize for tortillas.

When the food culture relocates, Ajamian says, swiping through pictures of her trip on her phone, a lot of people bring the food, but not the cuisine. "We're doing our tortillas the traditional way-calcium added into the water and pressed into the tortillas," Ajamian says.

"It was a really nice reinforcement of the concept-how important food is to culture," Jaeger adds. "Maize is the perfect example of culture of food. Nixtalimization in tortillas and chips-it's a process that's community-oriented."

The tortillas, which will be on retail shelves later this summer, are becoming popular with chefs at area restaurants including Skillet, Casa Nueva, Acre and The Worthington Inn.

The product is twice as expensive as conventional tortillas, admits chef Tom Smith of The Worthington Inn, but it's worth it. "You can taste they're doing the right thing," Smith says. "It's good corn they're using. It's processed well and fresh. Like in the tortillas, you don't get that fresh corn flavor unless it's just been milled."

When he started using Shagbark tortillas on his pork tacos earlier this year, Smith says the whole dish came together. "It's very rare you bite into your own food and go, 'Wow.' "

It's no surprise why Jaeger is so trim as he effortlessly limbers up and down a flight of wooden stairs. He disappears into the scaffolding, and then re-emerges with a gray tub of heirloom corn. Tipping it over, the red and yellow kernels buzz loudly like a hive of bees down into the funnel at the top of a blond wooden mill.

He bounds down to the concrete floor, flips a switch and put his nose to the now-grinding mill stone. Soon, granules of corn that have been pumiced into grits and corn meal begin to fill up large bags. This is the most processing any of Shagbark's products receive. There's no stripping of nutrients for shelf stability, or re-enriching. To ensure freshness, they mill and bag products to order.

It's Tuesday, and a big production day inside the Athens mill. The warehouse space they rent might be small, but it's efficient, Jaeger says. With gravity on their side, they could unload a ton of grain in 30 seconds if they're not careful.

Today, a few part-time employees will help sort and bag 2,000 pounds of black beans as Jaeger grinds corn. On the floor at his feet are a few scattered red hulls, remnants of the buckwheat flour freshly milled for Taste of Belgium the day before.

Two years ago, when Whole Foods stopped carrying the brand of flour the Cincinnati-based restaurant needed to make their signature buckwheat crepes, owner Jean-François Flechet turned to Shagbark.

"I didn't realize you could mill things so many different ways," says Flechet, who expects to source up to 20,000 pounds of buckwheat flour this year. "Brandon sent us maybe 15 samples of buckwheat flour with different coarseness. It's like a custom mill."

Flechet speaks highly of the quality. He brought in the best flour he could find in France, and then made two crepes-one with the French flour, the other with Shagbark's. The result was a draw. "For our application, it's perfect," he says.

Chefs throughout Central Ohio share similar experiences of Shagbark's willingness to produce the product they need-and they say working with the company is as much about believing in the people behind the concept.

"They're just characters. They are amazing, unique people, and they have these wonderful, optimistic, energetic personalities," says Malhame, of Northstar, which has been buying Shagbark black beans for all its restaurants for three years and committed to buying 14,000 pounds this year. "They are just really great people who want to change the world for the better."