By: Tim Sullivan, ASU Sustainable Food Systems graduate student.
Our ASU graduate cohort arrived at Hayden Flour Mills, our last stop of the second day on our Arizona food and farm immersion, as the sun was gently moving downwards towards the western horizon. It was peacefully quiet while we soaked in the ambiance and awaited our tour.
Soon enough, the front door to a giant barn opened and a welcoming woman named Debbie La Bell invited us in. The immediate smell of whole grain and flour filled our nostrils as we were led inside to learn about the history and impact of Hayden Flour Mills.
Jeff Zimmerman started Hayden Flour Mills in 2011 with the dream of restoring the historical method of stone milling using heritage grains. Inspired by Dan Barber, renowned chef and author of “The Third Plate,” Jeff’s goal was to create flour for his local community that was healthy and beneficial for the planet. By leaving the germ, bran, and endosperm together, stone milling leaves the end-product packed full of nutrients, vitamins, and flavor that the conventional process of milling does not.
Heritage grains are traditional varieties of wheat, corn, rye, barley, and oats that have not been altered by intensive plant breeding and genetic modification. Hayden Flour Mills promotes them as a more sustainable option because they have low water requirements, support biodiversity, and sequester carbon with deep roots. Additionally, their heritage grains require little to no inputs of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, further reducing their environmental impact and fostering healthy soil.
Jeff’s excitement and passion for his business was immediately apparent. Jeff introduced himself to each student individually, creating conversation and genuinely engaging each of us. When it was my turn to meet him, I asked him a question that was puzzling me. Historically, the reason for using the status quo method of milling was because it prolonged the short shelf life of grain and flour in the face of an ever-sprawling population. How was he able to extend the shelf life of his grain and flour? He explained that at Hayden Flour Mills, they nitrogen flush certain granular products (polenta, cracked oats, dried pasta) that typically have an extremely short shelf life. This process replaces oxygen with nitrogen gas in the packaging to prevent decay and the growth of bacteria and fungi. The remainder of their whole grain flours can be stored at room temperature for up to one year with no problem.
After talking with everyone individually, Jeff spoke to the group and told us about the history behind the name of his operation. Hayden Flour Mill originated in Tempe, Arizona in the late 1800’s, and closed in the mid-1990’s as the city became more urbanized. The popular Mill Avenue in downtown Tempe is named after this historic flour mill which still stands there today as a historic building. Feeling inspired, Jeff had a mission to capture the essence of the region and honor the Hayden family for the quality of flour they produced. However, his wife was worried that there would be copyright issues with Jeff repurposing their name. To their surprise, her worries were quelled when Jeff received a call from a member of the Hayden family thanking him for honoring their family business and reinvigorating their vision of supplying local, healthy flour to their community.
After Jeff finished his remarks, he generously allowed us into the milling room to give us an insider look. Debbie gave us a detailed explanation of the various machines and processes that are used to get to the final product. As we left, I felt extremely grateful for the surreal experience and being able to witness the passion and uniqueness behind Hayden Flour Mills.
This blog is part of a series from the December 2022 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.