It’s lunchtime when I arrive at Brian Severson Farms in Dwight, Illinois, about 80 miles southwest of Chicago. The country roads leading up to the property are slick with ice and snow on this frigid January day, but inside the Severson home, it’s warm and filled with the comforting aroma of freshly baked bread. Brian welcomes me into the kitchen, where his wife, Karen, and their oldest son, Luke, are sitting at the table.
As a fifth-generation farmer, Brian is carrying on the legacy started by his great-great grandfather, Lars, who immigrated to Illinois from Norway in 1866. When Brian first started farming on his own land 30 years ago, his grandfather, Harold, brought him iron tracings of horses that had hung in his barn. Harold told Brian to hang the tracings in his barn, as well, just has his father before him had done.
His reasoning was simple: “The answer is tradition,” Brian says. “Doing things the way our grandfathers and their fathers did them. To try and grow the crops and varieties they grew, that tasted good, without chemicals or GMOs – because that’s what they fed their families – using methods that have been used for hundreds of years.”
This story is now featured on the back of several of Severson’s packaged products, including the white popcorn and pastry flour, and serves to explain the farm’s emblem: a horse.
Karen gestures toward a vintage pastel Crock-Pot on the buffet. “Are you hungry?” she asks me. “We have chicken soup, bread and cornbread made with our blue cornmeal.” The four of us sit down at the table, but before we dig in, Karen asks Brian if he’ll say a prayer. He thanks God for the family’s many blessings, including this food, and says he’s hoping that our conversation here today goes well. Faith, even more than tradition, guides the Severson family.
It was that faith and tradition that brought Brian back to the farming methods practiced by his forefathers and later to milling his grain into stone-ground flour, cornmeal and other value-added products. Today, his organic and chemical-free fields are barren – winter is the family’s “down time” – although during the height of the growing season, they’re lush with non-GMO heirloom oats, wheat, corn, popcorn, peas, soybeans and buckwheat. It’s a scene much closer to what you’d have expected back in 1866 than anything in much of rural America today.
Like many farmers of his generation, Brian came of age after the Green Revolution, also sometimes called the Third Agricultural Revolution. In the 1940s, American scientist and agronomist Norman Borlaug began experimenting with plant breeding to produce a wheat strain with more disease resistance and higher yields. His goal was to feed more people across the globe, especially in developing countries, and it worked: Borlaug is credited with saving more than a billion people from starvation worldwide and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. This slowly led to the global proliferation of genetically modified crops, more commonly called GMOs.
At a time when GMOs were heralded as the future of agriculture, Brian took a different path. After earning an agronomy and crop science degree at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1988, he bought the land he farms today. He started out as a sharecropper and has never grown GMO crops, yet he did farm with chemical herbicides and pesticides, which is what he’d learned in school. By the 1980s, this is the way that the vast majority of corn, wheat and soybean farmers operated in America, and also in many countries across the world. For the better part of 10 years, this is how Brian farmed.
“You start having kids, and I didn’t want them around the chemicals,” Brian says. “We started raising sweet corn, and I didn’t want my kids around all the [chemicals] with conventional sweet corn. And we enjoyed [organic farming].”
The first certified organic crop Brian harvested was 20 acres of sweet corn. Other crops, like alfalfa, had to be transitioned from conventional to organic; farmers must grow organically for 36 months before their crops can be eligible for organic certification, so after that first year, his alfalfa was considered a transitional product – farmed organically but on soil that was still in transition.
By 2007, he’d raised his first certified organic sweet corn, and slowly began incorporating other grains. Today, Brian grows his crops without chemical pesticides and herbicides, and farms in crop rotations, meaning that a field of wheat may grow next to a field of corn next to a field of legumes in sequenced seasons. This helps reduce soil erosion and improve soil fertility and crop yield, all without the use of chemicals.
The family now grows so many different crops that they’re in the field as early as March, when oat season begins, through November and sometimes into early December with their blue corn. In between, they’re in the process of either planting or harvesting everything else, from heirloom Turkey Red hard winter wheat to buckwheat.
Farming organically makes sense to Brian – it’s a return to the traditions of past generations. In that spirit, he’s now teaching his oldest son, Luke, the family business. Since earning a degree in business from Bob Jones University last May and moving back home shortly after, Luke’s been partnering with his father to run the farm while also working to help improve and expand it. In January, he redesigned and relaunched the farm’s website, debuting a sleeker look, home-cook-friendly recipes for Severson’s milled grain products and a more user-friendly online store.
“I’m proud – it’s what I’ve grown up doing my whole life, and I’m really glad that I get a chance to still do it,” Luke says.
Not everything grown on Brian Severson Farms comes from heirloom seeds – including the corn and soybeans grown for animal feed – and Brian admits that heirlooms are a lot more work. His blue corn seed, for example, a Hopi variety he purchased from a farmer in Arizona, can cause havoc during harvest season. Because the seed hasn’t been modified or bred for selection in more than 600 years, the plant has a weaker stalk than modern corn varieties and is more sensitive to weather conditions and temperature variations.
This past fall, Luke was in charge of the blue corn and popcorn harvests, which are both done with a special picker machine instead of a combine, as the crops are delicate. Heavy rainfall had made the fields muddy, which could put stress on the picker and potentially kick up mud and dirt onto the plants. Preserving the quality and cleanliness of their product is among Brian and Luke’s top concerns, so they waited to harvest the corn until after midnight, when the mud had frozen.
“The stalks were weak and starting to fall over, so we needed to get them in before they gave way completely,” Luke recalls.
The blue corn doesn’t produce a yield comparable to commercial varieties, but that’s not why the Seversons grow it – their concern is preserving the seed and producing products with exceptional flavor. After harvest, the blue corn is made into cornmeal and corn flour, two products that number among the farm’s most popular with consumers. Like all of the farm’s products, the whole-grain corn is stone-ground on-site, including the germ, which means none of the grain’s natural nutrition is milled out of the cornmeal and corn flour.
“Having a softer starch, if you make it into grits, it’s a creamy texture,” Karen says of the blue cornmeal. “I was packaging orders this week, and when I opened the lid on the blue [cornmeal] bucket, it smelled like sweet corn. The grits are the main thing [we make with the blue cornmeal] – we like the flavor and texture.”
Another unique best-seller is the farm’s hulless oats, which easily shed their hulls, unlike more common varieties, which require expensive equipment to remove that outer layer. “Originally, we raised hulled oats and sold them for [animal] feed, but [hulless oats] just seemed to be a way to get a food-grade oat that we could afford to get into [farming],” Brian says. “And it’s a market niche – I don’t want to try to compete against Quaker Oats. I’m looking for a market where I can do something different from what they’re doing, and tastes better, too.”
There are a couple of other key differences between commercially produced oats – like what you’d find in a tub from Quaker – and what the Seversons sell. Most commercial processing facilities steam the oats, which softens the grain and removes the bran, or fat, to lengthen the products’ shelf life. Brian’s hulless rolled oats, on the other hand, retain the natural bran, resulting in a richer bowl of oatmeal than many consumers may recognize.
The Seversons have seen increasing interest in their organic oats in recent years, with online orders coming in from across the country. They attribute this at least in part to rising concerns about the allowable levels of chemicals like glyphosate, a chemical found in herbicides like Roundup, in conventionally farmed wheat and oats. Wheat, oats, corn and soybeans aren’t washed after harvest, which means that chemical residue can linger on those crops. Because wheat and oats are grown organically at Brian Severson Farms, this is not a concern – something that Brian and Karen say matters to many of their customers.
Still, it’s ultimately the flavor that ensures that repeat orders keep coming in. “Taste is the main thing,” Karen says. “The difference in taste.”
Whatever the crop, most of it ends up being processed and milled on-site, except for the majority of the whole-kernel Pennsylvania Dutch butter-flavored popcorn, which is not ground (a small amount is popped for sale at farmers' markets). For safety, Brian houses his Meadows stone-grist mill in a shipping container inside the same barn where Karen packages products. With so much combustible dust and airborne flour particles interacting in close proximity, it’s a potential fire hazard, which is why the mill is housed in a shipping container.
The walls of the shipping container are coated in a fine layer of flour; as Brian walks me through the various steps to mill whole grains, he keeps accidentally leaning up against them, dusting the back of his shirt with powder. Luke taps Brian on the back periodically as a reminder to not touch the walls. “If all his shirts are covered in flour, he takes mine,” Luke says with a laugh.
Unlike high-speed roller mills, which process out the bran and germ of whole kernels, stone-ground mills like the ones used by the Seversons preserve that nutrition. The Meadows mill features two large stones – so heavy that a forklift has to be used to move them – positioned vertically inside the mill. The stones can be placed closer together or farther apart depending on the desired grain size. Brian thinks the vertical placement is better for operations where different grains are being milled periodically; instead of the rigorous cleaning required on horizontal stones, gravity does a lot of that work for you.
On a busy run, the mill will grind 200 to 300 pounds of wheat flour or 500 to 600 pounds of cornmeal in an hour; it takes less time to mill products with a coarser grind, like the grits. The Seversons mill everything in small batches weekly. The majority of their orders are placed online, either directly through their website or via Amazon, where the farm operates under the name Quality Organic. The family’s closest market is Chicago, where they vend at the Green City and Oak Park farmers’ markets and sell into specialty marketplace Eataly.
“I remember the first time we sampled [products] at Green City [Farmers’ Market], and everybody was coming up and saying, ‘Hey, somebody told me about these grits!’” Brian remembers. “We weren’t really advertising it, but people left and tasted them and they told their friends. It’s neat that the product can be so much different and surprise people.”
Products are also available in the St. Louis area, including at Larder & Cupboard in Maplewood, Missouri; Toasted Coffee House in High Ridge; Fair Shares St. Louis in St. Louis; and Mr. Meowski’s Sourdough in St. Charles. Chefs and bakers across the Midwest have taken a shine to the products, including Josh Galliano at Companion in the St. Louis area.
Galliano first got connected with Brian Severson Farms through Fair Shares St. Louis, a community-supported agriculture cooperative that sources the farm’s products. At the time, Companion was in the early stages of its local grains project, which supports Missouri and Illinois grain farmers by making select breads almost exclusively with locally grown and milled grains.
“We started talking to Brian to figure out what type of stuff he had, and we were just really impressed with the variety, from wheat flour to corn to oats,” Galliano says. “We weren’t expecting him to be so diversified.”
The very first bread Companion released made with Brian Severson Farms’ grains was an oatmeal-porridge loaf that used both the rolled oats and some whole-wheat flour, as well as sorghum molasses from a farm in Ava, Illinois. Galliano says the bread required some trial and error to refine, as the whole-wheat flour doesn’t bake exactly the same as most of the flours you’d buy at the grocery store, because the bran and germ are still intact.
“In one instance, it was a little bit coarser and had more bran in it,” Galliano says, “and that worked a little differently from what we were used to, so we had to adjust for that. It [required] adding more of his flour into it, because it wasn’t hydrating the same way we were used to with normal whole-wheat flour.”
The second project was a hoagie roll made with a ciabatta formula using Brian’s Bloody Butcher heirloom corn and his whole-wheat pastry flour. Because Brian operates his own mill, Galliano was able to request a specific grind on the cornmeal for his desired texture.
“The really nice thing about Brian – we could really select the grind we wanted,” Galliano says. “It wasn’t just one size fits all. We could dial it in; we could ask him to spread his stones a little farther apart to get this nicer product.”
Since joining Companion in 2015, Galliano says he’s seen a sea change happening with local grains, even if slowly. He likens it to the farm-to-table movement in the restaurant industry 15 or 20 years ago: Although groundbreaking at the time, it’s now the rule instead of the exception. If you want quality food, you buy it closer to home and support the local economy. He hopes to see that same approach applied to local grains as well.
“We haven’t supported the use of the local grain economy enough yet, and I think that points to where we’re at right now; we’re supporting it more and we’re changing it more through our purchasing power,” Galliano says. “You don’t see that often enough – that people have purchasing power that can change the way we eat. We’re at that point where if we start to change it a little bit at a time, maybe we’ll see more local flour on a grocery store shelf or at the farmers’ market.”
At Larder & Cupboard, which specializes in regional and artisan food-and-drink products, owner Cindy Higgerson has seen a similar shift.
“More consumers are asking the question about where the ingredients are sourced,” Higgerson says. “Just because a product is local doesn’t mean that all the ingredients are local – they can be a local company sourcing ingredients from wherever. I’m seeing a lot more consumers questioning where the ingredients are from [and] how it’s made.”
In addition to selling six Brian Severson Farms products at her shop – organic sifted soft winter wheat pastry flour, transitional organic soft winter wheat pastry flour, transitional organic all-purpose wheat flour, organic Turkey Red hard winter wheat, whole-wheat bread flour and organic rolled oats – Higgerson also uses the pastry flours in retail packages of biscuit and pancake mix. As she does with all of the products in her store, Higgerson periodically hosts cooking demos using the biscuit and pancake mixes and is quick to offer customers advice for how to cook and bake with the flours and oats at home.
“I think the pancakes and waffles that you get when you use his whole-wheat pastry flour or all-purpose flour have a nuttier flavor, even biscuits have a nuttier, heartier flavor,” Higgerson says. “I prefer those biscuits in something like biscuits and gravy, because the biscuits stand up to a really nice sausage gravy.”
Higgerson first met Brian and Karen several years ago at the Good Food Expo in Chicago, which brings together chefs, farmers, entrepreneurs, investors, buyers and consumers from across the Midwest. It was at this same festival that the Seversons first met Amy Halloran, author of The New Bread Basket, which documents the revival of regional grain production in North America. Halloran recalls meeting Brian, engaging him in a conversation about his farm and mill and watching his face light up.
“I understand what he's doing, and I don’t think that he gets that kind of reception often,” Halloran says. “Even in states that are predominantly agricultural, the awareness of farm work is negligible. So he was kind of blushing at how excited I was about his whole enterprise. You know, it’s so hard to see all of this work – this work is so invisible to people. So to be able to have a stranger appreciate your effort… I think that was really rare.”
Halloran says that farmers and operations like Brian’s are helping to bring back those local and regional mills and grain economies – to help us recover something we’ve lost – and in that way, helping show other farmers what’s possible.
“I think Brian’s got a critical role for a lot of different reasons,” Halloran says. “Farming is a real spectator sport. These growers are going out on a limb and direct marketing [their] grains, and other farmers are watching them, because it’s a big risk. Doing this is really good for him and his family, and their own sustenance and future as a farm, but it’s also a model for other people to look to for how to make a go of it.”
For Brian, the future of the farm rests in Luke's hands, as is tradition in the Severson family.
“That’s really why I started farming initially – it’s a neat way to raise your kids and something you can pass on to them,” Brian says. “It’s a neat tradition. That’s been my goal from before Luke existed, because that’s what’s going to last.”
Brian Severson Farms, 8430 S. Dwight Road, Dwight, Illinois, qualityorganic.com