Hayden Flour Mills: The intersection of crops and community

Jeff Zimmerman presenting information about the flour mill with a sheaf of wheat in the foreground.

By: Nicholas Benard, ASU Food Systems graduate student. 

As our group from ASU’s Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Cohort gathered in front of Jeff Zimmerman, founder of Hayden Flour Mills, you could feel his excitement begin to build up. He almost seemed to hum with energy. Part of that excitement came from having our group visit his mill in-person at Queen Creek, Arizona, as last year the visit was conducted virtually due to the pandemic.  “I had also come down with Covid,” Jeff added, explaining how last year he pulled himself from bed and roused himself to still give his Zoom talk about growing heirloom grains in the desert. As our visit and conversation with Jeff continued, it became clear that there are few forces in the world that could deter Jeff from sharing his passion and vision for these crops.

Jeff and his daughter, Emma, co-founded Hayden Flour Mills in 2011, but the crops they grow are from a much older time. As a benchmark, Jeff defines “heritage grains” as crops grown prior to the 1950s, when the Green Revolution ushered in an era of intense cultivation driven by mechanization, high-yield crop varieties, and widespread use of pesticides and fertilizers. This was also the time when dwarf wheat became the standard wheat crop in the US due to the ease of harvesting, higher yields, and tolerance to large applications of chemical fertilizer. The problem, Jeff explained, was that since dwarf wheat was close to the ground it was easier for the wheat heads to encounter pathogens or pests from the soil. This led to more frequent applications of chemical pesticides. To Jeff, this seemed like a constant, cyclical struggle. “Technology creates problems that we try to solve with more technology,” he explained.

At the start of his journey into growing wheat, Jeff began by looking at modern wheat production. He counted 32 different chemicals applied to wheat, from planting to harvest. Even if there are only trace amounts of residual chemicals on the crops, it was learned that Americans consume an average of 110 pounds of wheat annually which made Jeff uncomfortable exposing his family and customers to such a wide array of chemicals. In growing wheat, he will occasionally use one chemical in the post-harvest cleaning process, but only when warranted. Instead, Jeff puts his energy into sourcing heritage crops that don’t require so much chemical and mechanical support. As he puts it, Hayden Flour Mills focuses on “traditional methods with automation where possible.”

Heritage grains, like Hayden Flour Mills’ white Sonoran wheat, grow as tall as a person, with a strong network of roots that support the taller plant and seek out water deeper in the soil that is unreachable by dwarf varieties with shallow roots. Their towering height also lifts the wheat heads far from soil-borne pests and pathogens. While these crop varieties do have smaller yields, they have the advantage of being more nutritionally dense than modern varieties.  This concept of “nutritional density” would come up time and time again in our discussion with Jeff. After harvesting this heritage wheat, Jeff found that large commercial millers had a minimum run of 150,000 pounds for a single batch – a staggering amount that would equal what Hayden Flour Mills produces across all their lines of grain.  

Undeterred, Jeff decided to become the miller himself and purchased a much smaller stone mill.  This allowed them to mill different grains in small batches, while also retaining more of the grain’s nutrition. When refined wheat is stripped of its bran and germ, it loses several health benefits: loss of fiber, vitamins, and protein being three of the biggest.  Hayden mills the entire grain for their flour, including the oil-rich wheat germ that gives their flour “living flavor,” as Jeff calls it.  This does make their flour much more perishable, as it is still a living food, unlike the dead bags of refined flour one finds in the grocery store.

With all these challenges, are heritage grains worth it? Jeff introduced us to Debbie La Bell, his general manager, who invited us to try our hands at one of their newest products: a tortilla flour mix. Debbie recounted how this was a collaborative effort with Masienda, who was working with small-scale farmers in Oaxaca, Mexico to revive heritage breeds of corn.  This tortilla mix was a 50/50 blend of Hayden Flour Mills’ white Sonoran wheat and Masienda’s olotillo blanco corn.

Debbie guided us through pressing out the masa dough and cooking the fresh tortillas on the hot griddle. As the aroma of the cooking tortillas filled the room, it was remarkable to watch the tortillas puff and balloon up. For those less familiar with tortilla making, this “puff” is a testament to the quality of the tortilla flour, one that has been lauded as the benchmark of a well-made tortilla by chefs ranging from the classic Patricia Quintana to more recent writers like Hank Shaw. That a box mix could produce such a beautiful puff was extraordinary.

As we dressed the tortillas with roasted cauliflower, cabbage, radish slices, and salsa verde, what truly stood out was the taste of those tortillas.  The sweetness of the corn blended with the slight nuttiness of the wheat produced a full-flavored tortilla, with a slight resistance in the bite. Thanking Debbie for the delicious demonstration, we continued to follow Jeff’s plans for the future of Hayden Flour Mills.  As it turns out, that future may include growing rice.  A rice patty in the Arizona desert might sound like a doubtful proposition, maybe even impossible. Jeff explained that he was collaborating with Glenn Roberts, founder of South Carolina’s iconic Anson Mills, to develop rice fields that don’t require a water-intensive patty. 

What’s especially significant about this partnership is that Glenn helped Jeff get Hayden Flour Mills started by providing two-tons of white Sonoran wheat that would be planted for Jeff’s very first crop in 2011. Jeff recounted how when he originally met Glenn, he was nervous that he would not be able to compete with the already-established Anson Mills.  But Glenn pushed those fears aside and explained, “I am here for you,” and he welcomed Jeff’s enthusiasm in continuing to grow and market these nearly forgotten crops.

As our trip concluded, it was striking to think about the strong network of collaboration Jeff had assembled around Hayden Flour Mills. This brief post only touched on a few of the many characters in the Hayden Flour Mills story, but it was also made possible by interest from local chefs, the farmers who grow Jeff’s heritage crops, Arizona breweries looking for local grain, and of course, the strong consumer demand for local, nutritious grains and flours. Thinking about this diverse community coming together around the mill, seeking out a better-tasting, more wholesome grain, it made me thankful that Hayden Flour Mills is here for us.

This blog is part of a series from the December 2021 Arizona immersive component of the MS in Sustainable Food Systems Program. Students toured the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff, and non-profit leaders.