Corn: Homegrown, stone ground a new old-fashioned way
Mill produces organic specialty products on the farm
PANORA — Corn isn’t unique to Iowa, but the corn grown on the Hafner farm near Panora is — starting with the production system and ending with an array of stone-ground products from corn meal to polenta to grits.
“We’re organic and non-GMO,” said Jeff Hafner, 49, who runs Early Morning Harvest with his father, Earl. “Our highest priority is caring for our land so the food we grow and offer to our community is fresh and healthy.”
Corn is one part of the Early Morning Harvest operation, which also includes vegetables grown in an aquaponics greenhouse, two 1,250-head confinement barns for finishing pigs, pastured poultry for egg production, grass-fed beef from a 200-head cow-calf operation, honey, a flour mill and more.
“While we’re vertically integrated, we’re also diversified,” Jeff Hafner said.
The farm’s certified organic grains, including corn, soybeans, wheat, rye, oats and buckwheat, provide the raw materials for Early Morning Harvest’s stone-ground flours, meals, cereals and mixes that are processed on the farm in the Hafner’s certified organic mill.
“To our knowledge, we’re the only farm in Iowa with a system like this,” said Jeff Hafner, who works with food distributors and maintains a website to connect Early Morning Harvest products with customers.
From farm to table
The Hafner’s farm reflects a transformation that began to take shape around 1999. Back then, a neighbor offered the Hafners the chance to farm her land if they would use organic farming methods.
“We hadn’t been organic before, but it fell in with our ideals,” Earl Hafner said. “It also fit with things we’d be researching like soil health.”
Through the years, the Hafners not only switched to organic production on the land they farm in Dallas County and Guthrie County, but they began experimenting with different crop varieties to suit different end users’ needs.
Among the corn they grow is GEI 2318, a high-carotene corn with bright-orange kernels. This corn seed is supplied by Genetic Enterprises International (GEI), an Iowa-based company in Luther that offers specialty and non-GMO corn hybrids. Not only is GEI 2318 adapted to the central Corn Belt, but it’s nutrient dense.
“This corn tests three times higher on carotene, 1 percent higher on oil and 2 points higher on protein,” Jeff Hafner said.
This high-carotene corn is processed through Early Morning Harvest’s mill, while most of the rest of the corn grown on the Hafner’s farm is sold to end users nationwide. The mill is housed in a shed behind an early 1900s-vintage barn that once sheltered dairy cattle when Jeff Hafner’s grandfather, Dwight, was farming.
The barn also contains a no-frills office and Early Morning Harvest’s small retail shop where customers can buy flour and more. Chefs and home cooks rely on Early Morning Harvest for high-quality products like corn meal, which can be purchased in 1.75-, 4-, 25-, and 50-pound bags.
“The corn is from the whole kernel, un-sifted, with nothing added, so you get the full flavor of Iowa organic corn in this cornmeal,” Jeff Hafner said. “It’s great for baking or adding to your favorite cereal.”
Early Morning Harvest also offers corn flour ground from the whole kernel. The product is then sifted to give it the texture of a general-purpose flour, Jeff Hafner said.
While the corn flour works well for cooking, it may not rise well in baked goods like bread, he noted.
Corn doesn’t have to be limited to traditional corn meal or corn flour, though. Early Morning Harvest offers polenta, a type of cornmeal that’s distinguished by its coarse grit. Polenta works well for slow-cooker recipes and other dishes, according to the Early Morning Harvest website.
Want a taste of the South in the Midwest? Early Morning Harvest offers corn grits. Like the farm’s corn meal, the grits are ground from the whole kernel with nothing added.
Vertical integration on the small scale
The decision to go from milling small quantities of grain for personal use took a big leap forward after the Hafners started getting large orders from people who heard about their organic products.
“About six or seven years ago the Maharishi community in Fairfield wanted to buy 1 ton of flour a week from us,” Earl Hafner said. “We decided to expand and have a certified-organic mill.”
Since there aren’t many experienced, small-scale grain millers in Iowa, Hafner has relied on lots of online research, along with good, old-fashioned trial and error, to learn the best ways to transform grain into high-quality food products.
Two stone wheels that each measure 20 inches in diameter and 6 inches thick produce Early Morning Harvest’s stone-ground grain. A 10-horsepower motor drives the system, in which one stone wheel turns while the other remains stationary.
“You can set the system for fine flour to coarse products like grits,” said Earl Hafner, who also uses screens in a variety of mesh sizes.
Early Morning Harvest’s products can be found across Iowa in various Hy-Vee stores, as well as Wheatsfield Co-op in Ames and the New Pioneer Food Co-ops in eastern Iowa. While some people choose to shop at the farm, others want to tour the farm. The Hafners have hosted many visitors, including FFA chapters, high school and college classes, World Food Prize participants and mystery tours hosted by banks.
People are often amazed by the farm’s diversity and wide selection of products grown on the farm, Jeff Hafner added.
“For us, quality and consistency are king,” he said.