Our Way of Life / The ancient craft of stone milling grain and biodynamic agriculture
On Milmore Downs Farm in the Scargill Valley, the Henderson family are experts in the ancient
craft of stone milling grain and biodynamic agriculture.
The Henderson family have been on their North Canterbury property for three generations, with Matt and Alice, who have three children, now running the day-today farming operation, while Matt’s father Ian and his wife Eva handle the marketing, administrative and compliance side of the business. Due to the ever-increasing workload, the Hendersons employ a miller, Sam Whelan, to manage the milling operation.
The farm today is a very different one to when Ian’s parents Mac and Ngaire bought the property back in 1960 when Ian was at primary school. Mac, who had been a banker in Christchurch, bought the split 360-hectare property and transformed it from a treeless farm with only two fences to a productive business with the addition of an irrigation pond in 1973. The pond, which harvests winter flow from a small stream running past the property and stores the water for the dryer months, opened the door for cropping on the flat typically dry 160-hectare home block, a staple of the Henderson’s current income.
Mac’s forward-thinking laid the path for the future of Milmore Downs. ‘My grandfather was a magnificent man,’ says Matt. ‘He was a great guy.’ Mac and Ngaire have since passed away, but their legacy can be seen, not only in the foundations they laid in the early development of Milmore Downs, but also for the community as a whole, as Mac was heavily involved in getting both the Scargill Golf Club and the Greta Valley Tavern operational in their early stages. The Scargill Golf Club has since suffered damage in the 2016 Scargill earthquake, and the community hall was decimated.
The Hendersons were lucky to come away relatively unscathed, although Matt and Alice’s daughter Emily, only 12 months at the time, narrowly escaped getting hit by a falling bookcase. Some neighbours lost their homes, or had significant damage, but the small settlement pulled together, helping clean up and rallying around those in need. ‘The whole community came together to support each other,’ says Alice.
In 1978, Ian and his first wife Gita returned from a stint in Europe inspired by the biodynamic farming techniques and philosophies being practised there, and were keen to implement those practices on Milmore Downs, taking the property from a conventional farm to a certified organic operation. Mac was generally supportive of his son’s vision, giving Ian a five-year window to make the organic farm a success, after which the farm would return to more standard farming methods if the organic experiment was a failure. Ian and Gita worked hard developing the cropping side of the business, and gained BioGro certification, being only the
19th property to be certified in New Zealand, and one of the few early certifications still operating today.
Hard work has paid off, with the organic farm both an environmental and economic success. ‘Having the organic grain and the mills makes 300 hectares able to support two families,’ says Matt. ‘If we were just sheep and beef, it would be harder to stay viable.’
The farm is not only BioGro certified (a necessary certification for the export market), but also Demeter Certified. Demeter is a worldwide certification system with its roots in Germany, founded on the philosophies and
beliefs of Rudolf Steiner, a philosopher whose interests lay in the synergy between science and spirituality. The system allows farmers to use various minerals and herbal sprays but prohibits the use of artificial sprays and fertilisers.
‘We can’t use fungicides, herbicides and insecticides, or synthetic fertiliser,’ Matt explains. Named for Demeter, the Greek goddess of grain and fertility, and with around 4500 members worldwide, the certification requires farms to follow ecosystem preservation, soil husbandry, livestock integration, and prohibits the use of GMOS, whilst viewing the farm as a holistic organism in itself. ‘It’s nice to know we are looking after the land for our children,’ Alice says.
While a small component of the farming operation is sheep and beef based, with Milmore carrying 70 head of cattle and composite sheep (850 mixed age and 250 hoggets), the focus is very much on the grain: predominantly spelt (otherwise known as dinkel), wheat, barley and rye. ‘There have been lots more: it’s been a case of trial and error,’ Matt says. ‘The four grains we grow are the staple grains when it comes to flour. Your wholemeal wheat flour for your wheat flour breads, your rye corn is predominantly for sourdoughs, or to be mixed with wheat to make sourdough, and the spelt – Dad started growing that 25 years ago; he had to get machinery in from Germany to process it.’
Spelt is an ancient grain which can be tolerated by some who have an allergy to wheat. All grain is milled onsite, with two different methods operating on the farm. A wooden mill imported from Austria produces stoneground flour. ‘It can produce wholemeal stoneground flour, but it also has a sieve box attached which can separate a portion of the bran to leave a semi-white flour,’ explains Matt. Milmore also has six Zentrofan mills used for wholemeal flour, which instead of being stone on stone, uses an airstream to carry the grain against the stone, which is cut from a single piece of basalt.
‘It creates a much finer wholemeal than stone on stone,’ Matt says. Zentrofan mills are rare in New Zealand, and this gives Milmore a point of difference. ‘The only limiting factor is volume,’ Matt says. ‘Because it’s a slow process, that’s why we have six of them, to keep up with the demand for flour.’
Milmore barley goes to Canterbury Seed, an organically certified plant in Ashburton, to be pearled. ‘All of our crops are autumn-sown, apart from barley – that’s a spring-sown crop,’ Matt says. ‘The wheat and the rye and the spelt are all autumnsown, and harvested the following summer. Once it’s harvested, it can basically go straight into the mill. It comes out of the silo, through a screen and into the mills. We are not growing any wheat currently; we are buying in from other growers, because we can’t grow enough to keep up with demand. This year we grew spelt, barley and rye corn. Everything we bring in is fully certified, there are no grey areas.’
Milmore sells flour online nationwide through their website, as well as to health food stores across the country, and around 15 artisan bakeries. ‘The flour is milled to order,’ says Alice, ‘so it’s all fresh.’ Jeremy MacCormack from
Bellbird Baked Goods in Christchurch is a loyal customer of Milmore. The traditional milling process is a natural fit for Bellbird, whose sourdoughs are naturally leavened, meaning the fermentation process causes the bread to rise without the addition of packaged yeast, and makes the gluten in the bread easier to digest, and more nutritionally beneficial due to the overnight fermentation process. ‘Traditional milling lets us make bread the way they made it thousands of years ago,’ says Jeremy. ‘For me, it’s not just because it’s organic, or local. It’s a unique business that allows us to make a unique product. It’s characteristic of Canterbury. It’s authentic.’
All grain is milled onsite, with two different methods operating on the farm. A wooden mill imported from Austria produces stoneground flour.
ABOVE & RIGHT / Bellbird Baked Goods Sourdoughs, made from Milmore Flour. BELOW / Spelt Flour, freshly milled at Milmore Downs. OPPOSITE RIGHT / Matt with his wooden mill imported from Austria.