Heartland Mill Inc.

Making grain distribution a family business
Written by: 
Aimee St. James
Produced by: 
Elizabeth Towne

Heartland Mill Inc. (HMI) started in the 1970s in a Kansas basement. Paul Hughes had been grinding grains to flour and driving them across Kansas and, eventually, Colorado for sale. In 1978, Hughes met Mark Nightengale, a grain farmer who was looking to make his crops more lucrative.

Together, Hughes and Nightengale started a fledgling business, driving products to bakeries and other food services for sale. As the small business boomed and turned into a stock-owned corporation, HMI was born.

In 1985, HMI was incorporated. Working at first as co-owners, Hughes eventually left the business, leaving Nightengale to take over as general manager.

“I was always a farmer in production,” Nightengale laughs. “Now I’ve moved into processing agriculture, and no one told me it would be a vertical learning curve.”

Family-grown

With his wife managing sales, freight and accounts payable, his son a lab technician in charge of quality control and even his nephew covering grain procurement, Nightengale has managed to make HMI a true family business.

However, HMI has grown beyond a family business, through hard work, planning and expansion of consumer demand. Operating out of a two-story house converted into its main office, HMI now employs 38 people and has two locations. One location produces all grades of oats, while the other handles unbleached, certified organic flour products.

“We are in a county with a little over two thousand people,” explains Nightengale. “This is the center of grain country.”

Based primarily out of Marienthal, Kansas, the company processes and supplies bulk wholesale oats and flour products to restaurants and bakeries across the U.S. While HMI previously serviced countries across Europe, Australia and Japan, the crop shortage brought on by recent drought has led to the limit of exportation to Canada.

Growing through tough times

The extended period of drought in the plains was a major challenge for HMI. “We had to curtail organic grains, particularly hard red wheat,” explains Nightengale. To keep up with a demanding customer base, the company started importing wheat from Mongolia and Argentina. “That was a first,” he sighs.

Producing certified organic crops can be a three-year process, and HMI was lucky to be able to import its additional wheat from growers who still fall under USDA certification. While the company still prefers to try to source its wheat from American suppliers, HMI has attempted to slow the change by blending its new supplies with the reserves it still stores.

With a change in its product, HMI has begun improving its facilities, as well. Building a new office was the first step, but a new focus on green energy has led the company to begin research in constructing wind towers.

A baker’s staple

HMI works with wheat varieties that are chosen for resilience against the varying weather conditions of the plains. By trying to work mainly with local farmers, the company keeps revenue coming to organic farmers in communities across the country. With the struggles of the drought aside, HMI has a great impact on the struggling agricultural industry in small-town America.

In-house, HMI not only produces flour, but also conducts tests to ensure customers are receiving top quality goods. HMI provides lab data detailing flour quality and performance for customer viewing on the company website.

The company also uses a more results-based test, used by the American Association of Cereal Chemists, called a pup loaf test. The test is relatively simple in production: start by baking a loaf of bread and by eating it. Breaking the process down to a science is where HMI determines the true quality of each type of flour. The bread is baked artisan-style on the masonry hearth of a steam oven, as many bakeries do.

Then, HMI follows a guideline that tracks more than 30 characteristics to rate the flour’s performance. Everything from mixing ability to taste is covered and rated. It might not sound like the most innovative procedure but, in its simplicity, it really is as easy as sliced bread.

Looking ahead

In the coming years, Nightengale hopes to see HMI continue to grow and the American suppliers come back in full swing. The company will always have a demand for its products, especially as the economic recession continues to subside and the food service industry ramps forward again.

“I measure our success by when I get customers repeating orders,” says Nightengale.

With a slow rise back to a steady supply of crops to process, Heartland Mill Inc. is guaranteed to continue providing restaurants and bakeries in America with high-quality, organic oats and flours. 

Strategic Partnership(s): 
INSPRO Agribusiness
The Bank