“IT’S TOAST THURSDAY,” says Kevin Morse, as he slices a loaf of naturally leavened bread that he made. Wearing a plaid shirt and baseball cap, he puts slices in the toaster.
The crust crunches nicely, and the latte-colored bread is chewy. Specks of grain are visible — Gazelle rye and two hard red spring wheats, Yecora Rojo and Expresso. Wonder Bread this certainly is not.
In industrial Burlington, next to a wholesale lumber mill and a fiberglass supplier, sits unassuming Cairnspring Mills. The brown building is rather generic — there’s not even a sign out front. But what happens inside has caught the attention of some of the top bakers in the country.
Inside is a revolution in flour milling. Using high-quality grain from sustainable farms in the Northwest, Cairnspring makes fresh European-style flours with amazing taste and baking performance.
Morse explains why Cairnspring flour is better than mass-produced — or commodity — flour. “Our grain is minimally processed. Just two grinds and two sifts.” That way, the nutritious, flavor-packed bran and germ stay in the flour. (The tasteless white industrial stuff is stripped of bran and germ.)
Morse beams behind his glasses and dark beard as he explains that each batch of Cairnspring flour can be traced to one farm. With commodity flour, you don’t know where or how it was grown. Just like with wine or coffee, terroir matters.
A few years ago, the Port of Skagit, the Washington State University Bread Lab and Patagonia were talking about bringing a mill to the Skagit Valley. The winds of serendipity caught Morse.
The time was right, and the Skagit — home to fertile fields and the innovative Bread Lab — was the place.
“All my professional life, I’ve cared about reviving natural resource communities,” says Morse, who has a background in conservation, farming and economic development. “A mill is one of the best ways to rebuild the local food system and help communities become more prosperous, healthy and resilient.” Cairnspring, which opened in 2017, pays farmers fair prices for wheat — about $2 more a bushel than the commodity market.
As CEO and co-founder, Morse runs the 5,000-square-foot mill, with a capacity to produce 5 million pounds a year. All the grain comes from trusted farmers in Washington and Oregon.
He emphasizes “rebuilding” the food system, because 100 years ago, farmers would take their grain to a nearby mill, where it was ground into flour for local use. There used to be 24,000 mills in this country, according to Morse. Only 183 remain.
The Cairnspring production facility is clean and well-lit, with soaring ceilings, forklifts, and machinery from five countries — a roller mill from South Africa, a sifter from Poland. Fifty-pound bags of flour wait on wooden pallets, destined for customers such as Grand Central Bakery in Seattle and Tartine Bakery in San Francisco.
Mel Darbyshire, head baker at Grand Central, is an ardent fan. “To have a mill in our backyard is brilliant.” She is phasing in as many local ingredients as possible and likes Cairnspring for its consistency, high nutritional value and flavor.
As for retail availability, three organic flours are sold at local food co-ops and Metropolitan Market stores. Not surprisingly, they are more expensive than flour of unknown origin. But as the demand and infrastructure grow to support a local grain economy, prices likely will come down.
Meanwhile, Morse is happy to provide the link between Northwest farmers and consumers, baking bread every week with local grains and a heap of passion.