June 08, 2023 15 min read

On Monday May 22nd, four members of the BSM team and myself met at the mill at 7am. We packed in our luggage and supplies for a three-day whirlwind tour. This included 50 lbs of Butler’s Gold ‘00’, a Kitchenaid mixer, Ooni pizza oven, peels, and all the equipment needed to make pizza dough on the road for pizza tasting in Alva, OK. (More on that later.) In the next three days we would travel from Dripping Springs as far north as Alva and back, covering more than 1400 miles and 22 hours of driving. Including the time to be spent at each farm, these were going to be long days. This would be the first time I brought staff along to experience these farm tours firsthand. I was excited for them to see what the old guy does when he leaves for days on end. There is something quite remarkable about standing in the middle of a field of wheat that stretches in all directions to the horizon. The enormity of it. The smallness of humanity, engulfed in the vast expanse of the Texas Panhandle. I wanted my team to have the opportunity to meet our farmers in the field and hear their thoughts about the year’s crop. Hear their concerns, their guarded optimism. Begin to understand the enormous undertaking it is to take a one-ton tote of wheat seed and turn it into as much as 44,000 lbs each June. I wanted to share all this with them.

Our traveling team consisted of Keith, our lead miller, Kelly, our head of retail operations, Kimberly, our education director, and Pam, our recipe developer and R&D specialist. We loaded into two cars and headed for our first stop, Ralph Hoelscher in Miles, TX.

Ralph is a third-generation farmer and an early adopter of organic techniques. He has been raising organic wheat and cotton for more than 30 years! I like to tell the story about our relationship. When I first started scouting for farmers to grow BSM wheat, I set out on a statewide tour, meeting with ten farmers who had some experience growing organic grain. I was hopeful that out of the ten, I could talk at least one into giving it a go. To my surprise (and dismay), all ten said “yes.” As a new business, BSM could not afford to employ them all, so I would have to choose. I had collected all sorts of data about years of experience, history of disease and pest pressures, inches of annual rainfall, etc. In the end, I had to go with my gut, and I didn’t pick Ralph. When I called him to say he hadn’t made the cut, he remained adamant that he wanted to try his hand at growing an older grain variety. Feeling somewhat bad about my choice, I agreed to give him some Turkey Red seed to grow.  I told him if it went well, he was free to do with it as he pleased, but I couldn’t make any commitments to buy it. The next June, I got a call from Ralph, saying “I have two truckloads of Turkey Red. It turned out great, where do you want it?” Out of the farmers that grew for me that year, he had the best results and highest protein levels. He also had been growing TAM105 for more than 30 years. This wheat has become a cornerstone of our business, particularly among our wholesale customers. We took all the wheat he grew that year, and most of what he has grown each year since. 



Ralph and his wife Noemi live in a modest 1930s one-story, asbestos shingle clad house between two irrigation pivots that produce our TAM105. Noemi also recently inherited some additional farmland just outside of Eden, TX. Suffice it to say that Ralph and Noemi’s families have a long history of farming in this part of Texas. Ralph’s sons are also farmers, although they only farm conventionally. Ralph tells me that when he is done farming, they will likely revert his property back to conventional. As he is approaching 80, I don’t know how many more years of farming Ralph has in him. It will be a huge loss when he retires. I hope I can prevail upon his sons to keep farming these acres organically. 

 The BSM crew thoroughly enjoyed their time visiting with Ralph, and I think he enjoyed the visit. Apart from his work as a county commissioner for Tom Green County, I don’t think he gets that much interaction with folks outside his immediate family and community. We found the TAM105 growing strong and looking quite healthy and almost ready for harvest. It looked to be about three to four weeks ahead of schedule and the team realized that we might start receiving wheat much sooner than we expected. It is a good thing we are in a good state of readiness back at the mill, with all equipment having received preventative maintenance and repair, and inventory moved and consolidated to maximize our storage capacity. The critical element with Ralph’s harvest is always waiting for the custom harvesters to make their way to Miles. Ralph does not own a combine and is at the mercy of the harvesters to get to him when they can. This has been an extremely rough year for wheat production nationwide. En route to Ralph’s we saw farm after farm that had mowed over their wheat fields and claimed on their crop insurance because there simply wasn’t enough precipitation at the right times to support the crop. Fortunately, Ralph’s farm is under irrigation pivot, and he was able to deliver much-needed well water to the wheat when it needed it most. With less overall crop volume in the area, it is harder to get the attention of the harvesters, and as of this writing we are still waiting. Every day wheat stands in the field after it is ready to be harvested is a risk. This year has been especially perilous with unprecedented rains, high winds, and hail. No, as Ralph likes to point out, the wheat doesn’t get any better just sitting there in these conditions. So, we wait and hope…

Our next stop was Aaron Vogler’s farm 20 minutes from Lamesa, TX. We’ve been working with Aaron since the first days of the mill, six years ago. Soft-spoken, tall, blonde, with straw hat and cowboy boots, Aaron is the archetype of what most folks would imagine to be the Texas farmer. Aaron not only draws on the wisdom of his farming parents and grandparents, but has a degree in agriculture and brings all this knowledge to bear in the production of wheat, cotton, maize, and peanuts. This year he was responsible for our Purple Straw wheat and Danko rye. The Purple Straw has been a passion project for me and I count myself extremely lucky to have anything to show for our efforts. Initially a project of Glenn Roberts and the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, we sourced 100 grams of seed from the U.S. Gene Plasm Bank the same year they started their work. Glenn and CGF have suffered from serious setbacks due to weather and we hope they will fare better this season. As of this writing, we are the only mill in the U.S. offering this Colonial Era soft wheat.


This was the first opportunity for the team to wander out into a “tall straw” landrace variety of wheat. It was great to see their reactions. The Purple Straw lives up to its name, with a purple to bronze colored straw or stem, only evident in the transition from green to gold. Regrettably, after harvest it does not retain its bronze coloration. Aaron estimated the Purple Straw would be ready well ahead of schedule and would likely beat the Danko rye by as much as four weeks. So far, he looks to be spot on. He harvested 22,300 lbs. of the Purple Straw on May 31st. We received it at the mill the next day. By Wednesday June 7, it had been cleaned and put into totes filled with C02 for long-term storage. Yields were lower than expected, but quality was extremely high with protein levels around 17%. We are still learning what this variety will do here in TX and we will be tracking yield and performance over the next few years.


From Aaron’s, we pressed on to Henry Marten’s farm, located between Brownfield and Tokio, TX. Google and Apple maps are so unreliable out in this part of Texas that Henry has to send GPS coordinates for us to find “our” specific fields. Additionally, in the previous days this part of the panhandle had received more than two inches of rain. Here the county roads are nothing more than miles and miles of graded red sandy loam, which in these circumstances can be impossible to travel in anything less than the tallest four-wheel drive vehicles. And when a large volume of rain falls, these roads can become dangerous. Henry had sent us coordinates to avoid the worst of it, and we set out to meet him. And the roads were bad. Really bad. I was driving my Lincoln Navigator, which frankly is a glorified grocery getter and vacation cruiser more than a farm vehicle. It has four-wheel drive but would be severely tested almost beyond its capability before the day was done. Kimberly followed in her Subaru Crosstrek, perhaps the better all-terrain vehicle for this outing, except for its short stature. We slipped and slid along roughly ten miles of red muck from the interstate to find the fields where our Rouge de Bordeaux and Marquis stood. We found Henry on the adjacent cotton field gently turning the soil over between the rows. He wanted to place moist soil on top of dry, as high winds were forecast for that afternoon. He wanted to take every precaution so he didn’t lose precious inches of topsoil to wind erosion. Even though it had rained the day before, low humidity and wind had already dried out the top inch of soil, which In this part of the panhandle could be blown away in a matter of minutes.

Both the Rouge and Marquis crops looked to be in excellent shape and plant populations were high, indicating there would be high yields and an excellent harvest. About five minutes into our visit, the forecasted dust storm descended on us, followed by a brief rain squall. You really get the sense of the power and volatility of nature out here in the panhandle. This would prove to be a harbinger of things to come.







We said our goodbyes to Henry and headed for our evening lodgings in Amarillo, about two and a half hours away. I made a grave error in judgment when I entered Amarillo into my car’s GPS. Rather than backtracking the way we came in back to the interstate, I allowed the GPS to provide us the most direct route to Amarillo, taking us down untested roads. The roads got worse, much worse. And then worse still. We narrowly escaped getting stuck time and time again. We had to get out and plot our path of travel on several occasions. At each obstacle, we considered turning around, but agreed that we were beyond the point of no return. In addition to high water, there were deep gashes cut into the road by rapidly traveling water. One wrong move and we would bottom out the vehicle and be stranded until someone could retrieve us. And that was unlikely to happen quickly. After more than an hour, I could see the interstate on the GPS. Only one more turn in the road and we would reach the safe, solid, grippiness of asphalt. We turned the corner to find the last section of road, over 100 yards, completely underwater. After staring at that obstacle for what seemed like an eternity, we (truthfully I) decided to go for it. The water was deep. Really, really deep. We made it about halfway, when the car began to slide sideways off the crown of the road and into the deepest mud and water I’ve ever seen from inside a vehicle. And we were stuck. Really stuck. The water was almost halfway up the driver side door. After much rocking, weaving, and spewing of mud up over the windshield, we finally made it to terra firma. (Public Service Announcement: turn around, don’t drown! I have promised my employees, my wife, my insurance agent, and my car detailer that I will make better decisions in the future when it comes to rain-soaked roads.) 



It was clear there was no way Kimberly’s diminutive Subaru was going to make it through. Keith hopped out of my car and walked back through the adjacent field to assist in plotting a new route. They managed to drive through the recently harvested field on the wheat stubble and make it to the road without event. Later at dinner we all marveled at the power of nature to thwart work and progress out in the panhandle. Here, rain is always counted as a blessing. But even then it always seems to come at a price. In recent years particularly, the rain comes disproportionately, and at times that aren’t conducive to successful farming. Worse than no rain at planting time is large amounts of rainfall around harvest time that can cause spikes in vomitoxin or sprout damage.

We finally arrived at our hotel around 10:00 pm. Poor Pam still had to mix two batches of pizza dough for our pizza tasting in Alva the next day. We are really enjoying our dialed-in method for pizza dough from the website. We knew that if she mixed it the night before, cold-proofed it overnight, then divided it into dough trays the next morning (at 6:00 am!), the dough balls would be proofed and ready to fire by the time we arrived in Alva at noon. That also meant that Pam wasn’t getting as much sleep as the rest of us.

The next morning, we were out the door and on our way to 4 Generations Organic at 7am with dough boxes full of future pizzas. We arrived a few minutes before noon, to be greeted by farmer Bob Baker and his team at 4 Gen. We set to work immediately, getting the pizza oven up and running and preparing the prep station.

Some executive staff from the nearby Value Added Products (or “VAP”) joined us for tasting. Bob has a distinguished history as a farmer and businessman. As the name “4 Generations” implies, he is a fourth-generation wheat farmer, working the same land his ancestors won in the Oklahoma land rush. He can still point to an irregularity in the topography where his great grandfather built the first dugout. Bob was dissatisfied with the amount of maintenance and repair that his cultivating machines required, so he designed and built his own and founded Baker Implements. He successfully ran and then sold that business and parlayed that into an organic farm with cleaning and storage facilities that are unsurpassed. Bob has built a farming business where no expense is spared and compromises are never made. When Bob and I first talked by phone, I told him he was too far away and that I was only interested in working with farmers closer to the mill. But after making my first site visit and seeing how he does things, I changed my mind. And, after all, Oklahoma used to be part of Texas, right? Bob is the only farmer we work with that has appropriate storage capability for more than just a few days, generating his own nitrogen to fill the grain bins, thereby keeping them free of pests. This allows us to effectively increase our storage capacity at the mill, and for that we are grateful. This year Bob grew Butler’s Gold (the 00 flour we used in the pizzas), Durum, and Yecora Rojo. Last year he also grew our only hard white wheat offering, Big Country.





We were joined for our crop inspection tour by faculty from the University of Oklahoma. It was great to see and hear their assessments of how Bob is doing and to get answers to some of our nerdier questions. Everyone is impressed with Bob’s fields, with the excellent plant populations, and the absolute absence of weed and disease pressures. It really  is a textbook operation.

Bob then invited my staff for a tour of Value Added Products. Bob and several other local farmers formed VAP to create local demand for their wheat and as a way to increase their farms' profitability. We suited up in lab coats, hairnets, and beard nets to watch as pizza dough was mixed, formed, proofed, and then flash frozen. We also brought along some of the dough balls from earlier in the day and the staff at VAP produced a couple of pizzas using their process. Everyone agreed that there was measurable improvement in flavor, aroma, and texture when they used our dough. The question then was how to fill in the missing piece…milling the local grain into flour. Alva lost its only mill (a roller mill) in the 1960s, so the team at BSM will be exploring how we might assist them in revitalizing their regional grain economy.

Bill treated us all to a BBQ dinner that evening, where we got to share stories and information about selling and marketing grain (4 Generations currently sells whole berries). My team got to dig deeper into Bob’s motivation for what he does and his quest for quality. These types of discussions always energize the BSM team, even at the end of a very long day.

The next morning, we were on the road by 7am heading home, with a planned stop in Rule, Texas to look at a new farm that may provide our first Texas-grown certified organic, certified sustainable einkorn! Unfortunately, it had rained around 3 inches there, and no one could get in or out of the farm. I hope to make a visit there in the next week to ten days.

The day after we returned, I received a text message from Henry Martens. “Hey James, I’m afraid I have some bad news. We had a terrible hailstorm come through last night. It nearly wiped out all my crops, including the wheat.” The accompanying video made me sick. It looked as if the field had been mowed to the ground, not a single stalk standing. That’s approximately 80 acres, some 80+ tons of wheat we won’t see this harvest. Fortunately for us, we grew Rouge de Bordeaux in a couple of other locations, but there will be no Marquis this year. Several of our largest wholesale clients use Marquis, so it will be a hardship for them as well. While Henry was fortunate to have crop insurance, it will only pay pennies on the dollar for what he would have received from us. So, it will be a financially tight year for Henry and his family.  But he assures me he will be back at it again during the next growing season. There’s always next year…


Observations from the BSM Team:

Pam Thibodeaux (Recipe Developer):

As a baker, the view of rustling stalks as far as the eye can see in every direction was nothing short of an intrinsic encounter. To witness a dutiful act that mankind has tended for ten millennia in the present day evokes true meaning behind what it is that I create with my hands. From gaining new knowledge on various botanical terms regarding wheat to engaging conversation about current unpredictable weather patterns, my time spent with these four individual farmers doing what they know best was of great significance for me. Generation after generation the dedication to their craft was clear despite the many odds against them with the inevitability of climate change. I am perplexed at the notion of those who scoff at food prices considering the years of knowledge and skill it takes to create the source behind a loaf of bread or that simple afternoon cookie treat we all take for granted. It is the cultivation of crops that has brought civilization to where it is today and my experience in those fields, shaking those worn tired hands only proved that to be more apparent.


Keith Koehler (Lead Miller and Head of Wholesale):

I was honored to be asked to join James on this year’s farm tour. With my sixth harvest season with BSM approaching, it was an incredible feeling to finally meet the farmers out in their fields of organic wheat and rye, rippling under big cloud-filled skies. The resilience of the land and of the people who tend to it is inspiring. I look forward to seeing what the 2023 harvest brings, or doesn’t… There’s always next year!


Kelly Pacuk (Head of Retail):

How can we put this into words? Under the vast expanse of the blue sky, surrounded by bounty, I was reminded of the preciousness of our home and how far removed humans have become from their food sources. The knowledge and care our farmers have for their work is nothing less than amazing! I eagerly anticipate each grain arriving into our space so we can continue to spread joy amongst tables across the country. 



Kimberly Krebs (Education Director):

It can become too easy to regard our personal routines and repetitive work tasks with boredom and apathy - the mundane is, all too often, uninspiring. For me, traveling to these farmers’ fields in Texas and Oklahoma was quite the opposite of mundane - though the farmers might not stand in awe in front of their harvests, I was pretty overcome with a sense of gratitude and renewed appreciation for how Barton Springs Mill, along with these incredible farmers have connected the central Texas community (and beyond) to their local grain economy. People talk about the mammalian dive reflex triggering a set of biological processes that can induce a sense of calm and, I gotta say - after this experience, I’m convinced there’s a connection between the human nervous system and standing in front of wind-blown grain. I can only hope that everybody can have an opportunity like I’ve had to see where their food comes from, and I feel honored to be a part of making that a reality at BSM.