With stay-at-home orders in effect across the United Kingdom, bulk buyers and consumers alike have been purchasing much more flour than normal, according to the National Association of British & Irish Millers (NABIM).
The Sturminster Newton Mill has occupied its picturesque spot on the banks of the River Stour in North Dorset since 1016. It earned a mention in the Domesday Book—a survey of England penned in 1086 at the behest of William the Conqueror—and was reportedly updated during the Elizabethan era in 1566, writes the Washington Post’s Cathy Free. Shut down in 1970, the mill was converted into a museum run by the Sturminster Newton Heritage Trust in 1994.
Millers Pete Loosmore and Imogen Bittner typically operate the mill-turned-museum a total of two days per month, producing just enough to provide visitors with small souvenir bags of flour, according to BBC News. But when the pair heard that grocery stores were running out of flour, they realized the water-powered mill could make a real difference.
“When COVID-19 struck, all of the local shops ran out of flour very quickly,” Loosmore, a 79-year-old retired art teacher whose grandfather worked at the mill for more than 50 years, tells the Post. “We had a stock of good-quality milling wheat and the means and skills to grind it into flour, so we thought we could help.”
Sturminster Newton runs on a 25-horsepower water turbine installed in 1904. The turbine replaced two water wheels fitted in 1849 and capable of producing a combined output of 12-horsepower, according to the museum. When fully operational, the mill can produce 66 pounds of bread flour per day, reports James Frater for CNN.
In April alone, the mill ground more than one ton of wheat—the equivalent of what would normally be a full year’s supply for the museum, according to the Daily Echo.
“[W]e have got through the whole of that ton in two to three weeks and we’re still chasing more and more grain,” Loosmore tells BBC News. “It’s been nice to bring the place truly back to life and back into something like it used to be when it was working six days a week.”
Per the Post, Bittner and Loosmore have already sold hundreds of three-pound bags of artisan flour. All proceeds are being invested back into the mill, making up some of the shortfall lost when the steady flow of school groups and tourists that usually frequent the museum stopped altogether.
“We’re only doing this while the crisis lasts,” Bittner, a 63-year-old artist who started milling 18 months ago, tells the Daily Echo. “... [I]t’s not only helping us, but the local community because there is a shortage of flour.”
The flour milling industry in the United Kingdom produces roughly 100,000 tons per week, but production is “limited by the capacity to pack small bags,” according to NABIM.
Bittner tells the Daily Echo that Sturminster Newton has an advantage over larger factories in this regard, as it is accustomed to dealing with the smaller bags favored by consumers.
Speaking with the Post, Bittner notes that she plans to take over as the mill’s supervisor when Loosmore retires next year. Both say they feel fortunate to spend time in a structure that has provided for its community for so long.
“It’s like stepping back to an earlier way of life, where power was harnessed naturally and without pollution,” says Bittner. “It’s good to see that the old mill can rise to the challenge.”