Articles by the Travelers - Viskinge Farm & Mejnerts Mill
By Jim and Megan Gerritsen
One of the larger organic (“økologisk”) operations that we toured in Denmark in October 2010 was that of Niels & Anna Mejnertsen’s Viskingegård in Svebølle about an hour’s drive west of Copenhagen. Niels, 47 years old, and his wife Anna run this combination organic farm and organic grain mill (“Mejnerts Mølle”) plus a sideline conventional confinement pig operation which has not yet converted to organic.
The Mejnertsens have four children: 21 yr old Caspar is at agricultural college, 20 yr old Peter is at business college, and a 17 and 13 yr old are still at home. Eight employees help them; many have long tenures of 10, 15, 17 years and the relationships are more like that of extended family.
Viskingegård is a well-designed, vertically integrated operation (“Soil to Mouth”) where significant value is added to home-grown organic grain crops through on-farm milling and savvy marketing. It has a strong direct marketing component which includes a modest on-farm store, internet sales, and deliveries to stores and “canteens” (cafeterias) where progressive businesses provide healthy on-site workday meals for their employees. They had us watch a newly completed 30 minute professionally produced video about Viskingegård which adeptly displayed all the steps in farming, growing, milling and using their organic crops – including Anna demonstrating the correct use of the bread machines which they sell to their customers.
“Brød for Livet” (Bread for Life) could be called their farm motto and it is embroidered onto their shirts. The phrase reflects the Mejnertsens’ focused dedication to excellence and health, from farming to milling to testing to packaging. The depth of enthusiasm and commitment for their products is apparent and effective.
Farmers in Denmark are required to attend four years of agricultural college before they can go into farming. Because Danish farmers are well educated, they are often in demand as workers worldwide and recent graduates are encouraged to gain work experience in other countries. Such was Niels’ experience. In the early 1980s, he worked on large scale grain operations in Peace River Alberta and then in Australia.
Niels bought his first farm in Denmark in 1987 (17 acres and 350 sows for $20,000). Later he bought his parents farm. In 1993 they bought their current farm and moved to this location. The Mejnertsens now own 1200 acres and rent and farm an additional 400 acres. They buy in grain from five other organic farms to supplement their own grain in their milling business. Farm land prices in Denmark steadily appreciated over the decades to a peak of US$16200/acre two years ago. The world recession has hit Danish agriculture hard and land values have dropped 40% to a current price of US$9700/acre.
The Mejnertsens converted to 100% organic crops in 1999 and were first certified organic in 2001. They have a sophisticated, modern and very well-capitalized operation (their website’s homepage http://viskingegaard.dk/gaardene/viskingegaard.aspx has a good bird’s eye view of the farm buildings) – right down to GPS units on every tractor. All grain is cleaned (cyclones and filters) prior to storing which prevents grains from picking up an off-taste from weed seed. Weed seed is collected into one ton pallet boxes and sold as duck food. Niels determines grain inventories in his 60-ton bins with the use of computerized wireless sonar.
A Focus on Quality
The Mejnertsens are passionately quality-minded. Niels says quality is of the utmost importance because he sells food to the consumer not commodities to the market. The three pillars of his grain quality concept are:
- good taste
- year-round flour consistency and performance
- organic integrity
He feels growing crops organically places less stress on the plant and that as a result organic grain has superior quality and performance even when common measures like percent protein and falling numbers are off. He contrasts his quality centered organic farm with conventional operations which are getting more and more specialized and that push for the biggest possible grain yields and accept lower quality.
They harvest grain early (often at 19%, sometimes even 22-24% moisture) for highest quality, and commonly remove excess field moisture with oil-fired heat exchangers (hot air targeted at 130° F and on up to 210° F). Following drying prior to storage, grain is cooled down in silos. Grain lots are sampled, tested and archived for possible future reference. Mejnerts Mølle Spelt bread mix is 100% spelt flour (protein 10-13%; protein in Denmark is measured at 0% dry matter vs. standardized 12% moisture in USA). The competition offers “Spelt bread” that is 7% spelt flour and 93% wheat flour. His falling number norm for wheat is 300, others accept the minimum 150. Rye is popular and a big crop for him: one-third of his acreage is in rye (yield 2 ton/ac); his typical falling number for rye is 250-270, commercial mills often accept 150.
Niels’ typical rotation is Winter Wheat undersown with White Clover > Winter Spelt > Winter Rye > Spring Wheat. He also grows oats for rolled oats. He sometimes grows Faba bean seed, grass seed, and clover seed. He grows about 500 acres of wheat. Niels looks to Sweden and northern Germany for hardy winter wheats. English varieties are not hardy enough in his climate. Hard Red Spring wheat doesn’t seem to grow here. Manure is applied to fields every year. Fall seeded crops account for 70% of his acreage. Spring grains usually yield much less than winter grains. For example, Winter Wheat yields 3 ton/acre (8-9% protein). Spring wheat yields 1.75 ton/acre but with considerably higher protein. Half of his grains are under sown to White Clover.
Chopped clover while still green and wet is collected and added to his liquid manure tanks from the pig operation. The clover rots down within one month and this effort more than doubles the good he gets out of his manure. He is able to apply 160 lb nitrogen/acre of this manure/clover slurry (Danish farmers are strictly limited by government regulation in applying manure and in most cases may not apply more than 62 lb nitrogen/acre attributable to manure).
Denmark with a population of 5 million people raises 22 million slaughter pigs annually so pork export is big business. Niels purchases 5000 tons of conventional grain at harvest, and then another 7000 tons later on for his nonorganic pigs. He used to keep sows and would farrow 500 piglets per week. But now he buys 55-lb feeder pigs then grows them out. He has hopes of sometime converting his pig operation to organic and implementing an on-farm mobile butchering facility that would reduce stress and increase pork quality for his customers.
This year they harvested grain from almost 1500 acres, sometimes combining ‘round the clock 24 hours per day. This fall he seeded winter wheat with a 4” air drill from Sept 28 through Oct 10. He uses a moldboard plow extensively to help with weed control. In this region they get about 24” of precipitation annually and the minimum winter temperature is +5°F (though last winter was unusually long and brutal).
Mejnerts Mølle is a complex on-farm operation. Worldwide, most flour is produced industrially on mills with steel rollers that heat up the flour and sacrifice nutrition. All the Mejnerts Mølle mills are Danish-made Skiold (www.skiold.com) 30” horizontal stone mills (each cost US$14,000) which keep the flour cool maintaining high quality and full nutrition. They run a total of six Skiold stone mills: two each dedicated to wheat, rye, and spelt. The top stone is the bedstone; the bottom stone adjusts the grind. Each mill is powered by a 50 horsepower electric motor. Running at 200 RPM they produce 880 lb of high quality flour per hour. Flour is conveyed away from the mill pneumatically (air) in a four inch metal tube and the flour cools as it travels. Prior to grinding, the hull from the spelt is removed with a Westrup (German) de-huller (Niels called it a “shifter”) that de-hulls at a rate of 4400 lb/hour. The mill is efficiently set up and a single miller does all the milling work. Others do the bagging. In a typical week the crew produces flour from Monday morning until noon on Friday. They then spend Friday afternoon cleaning up with vacuum cleaners. The mill is well-designed, tidy and outfitted with rodent traps and UV-light insect traps.
Early on in our tour of Viskingegård we were treated to a wonderful bread tasting in the farm’s rustic upstairs conference room. Six types of organic breads were sampled each made from Mejnerts Mølle organic flour bread mixes and baked on-site.
- 100% Spelt bread with Sunflower seeds. Fine texture. Light color.
- 100% Soft White Spring Wheat bread. Fine texture. Very light color.
- 100% Soft White Spring Wheat bread with Raisins and Cinnamon. Slightly heavier texture and darker color.
- 100% Soft White Wheat bread with Walnuts. Bluish tone from walnuts.
- 100% Rye flour bread. Heavy, 2½ inch high loaf, from unsifted flour.
- 100% Rye flour bread with cut sunflower seeds and cut rye berries. Heavy from unsifted flour.
The breads were excellent and delicious without exception. Rye bread is big in northern Europe, but not so in the south. Rye represents 40% of all the bread mixes they produce. And the rye breads were definitely our favorites.
As if to summarize the overall striking excellence of his family’s farm and mill, and their passion and attention to detail, Niels observed “Good quality bread is good and fresh today and tomorrow and the next day.” We’d say he clearly knows what he’s talking about.
– Jim & Megan Gerritsen have been farming organically on Wood Prairie Farm in northern Maine for 35 years. They grow organic seed potatoes plus grow and mill organic grain on their Wood Prairie Farm. They market their goods directly to individuals on www.woodprairie.com.