Business Profile: Ben Gleason, Gleason Grains
Ben and Theresa Gleason bought their farm in Bridport in 1979 and began growing organic wheat just two years later. In 1982 they milled their first wheat berries—the dried seed of the wheat plant—in a small facility on their farm. They have been selling whole wheat flour, whole wheat pastry flour, and wheat berries ever since.
Over the course of the past 29 years, the Gleasons have become well-known across New England for their grain-growing expertise. They own 75 acres of land and rent an additional 40 acres from neighboring landowners. In order to protect soil fertility and to reduce weeds and pests, they annually rotate their tillable land through a succession of crops: black beans, seed clover, soybeans, hay, and wheat. Ben grows around 40 acres of his own wheat each year to mill in his facility and has recently begun contracting with nearby farmers to grow wheat for the business, allowing Gleason Grains to expand without having to expand the land base.
Until 2010, Gleason Grains ran out of a small millhouse and only operated for about 12 hours each week. However, in 2009, Ben milled a record crop of wheat—35 tons—and demand was so high that he sold the entire inventory by March of 2010. This dramatic increase in production, along with a desire to expand into production of a more refined flour, led Ben to write a business plan and apply for an agricultural infrastructure grant from the Vermont Farm & Forest Viability Program. His plan focused on expanding his facility and increasing marketing in order to develop a new product, a sifted whole wheat flour made through a process called bolting that results in a flour closer in use to white flour, yet with higher nutritional content and minimal processing. He was awarded $15,500 towards an approximately $100,000 construction project, allowing him to double the footprint of his millhouse and install an additional mill and sifting equipment. The addition is two stories tall to allow for the use of gravity in the sifting process. Also, there is now room for storage and the new addition can accommodate a forklift.
Without the Farm & Forest Viability grant, Ben would not have been able to complete an expansion of this scale. The increased capacity of the mill, coupled with the contracts from other farmers to grow wheat for him, has expanded production to almost 140 tons of wheat per year—a 400% increase. This setup will require a time commitment from Ben in educating other farmers how to grow the wheat. The new equipment has also resulted in a more diverse array of products—in addition to his whole wheat bread and pastry flours, he now offers both of these flours in the sifted version. These distinctions are particularly relevant to commercial bakers, who make up a large percentage of his clients, as each of his flours is suited to a different use, from sourdough to biscuits to pie crusts.
Gleason Grains is located just outside Middlebury, where the bustling Middlebury Co-op has been purchasing Ben’s flour for almost fifteen years. In fact, Gleason Grains whole wheat flour is the only bulk whole wheat flour sold at the co-op and sales of the new sifted flour are very strong. Says bulk foods manager Reiner Winkler, “The whole wheat flour has been a huge seller all along and it is a very good price…anyone who discovers his flour becomes very fond of it!”