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The Miller’s Tale: Floyd County’s Gracious Day Grains finds niche in heirloom variety stone-ground cornmeal
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Gracious Day Grains artisan Tom Maxey mills a 50-pound bag of Bloody Butcher long season corn.
Grower and artisan miller Tom Maxey checks his product in his one-man micro operation in Check.
Tom Maxey uses an antique fanning mill to sift and clean some of the product that arrives at his mill from growers.
Gracious Day grains are milled and packaged in rural Floyd County.
Bloody Butcher long season corn is one version that’s milled.
Tom Maxey uses an electric 12-inch Balfour pink granite stone mill.
CHECK — Franklin County native Tom Maxey grew up on cornbread, but it took the end of his first career to turn him into a miller of heirloom and ancient grains, especially corn.“Maize is a wonderful plant,” Maxey said. “It’s like a gift to us from the gods.”And it’s been a gift to Maxey, giving him a second act after his first long career in sales for an Alabama-based metals company came to a sudden end. His service center was sold, and soon Maxey said it was clear he no longer shared the values of his employer.At first it was tough. He felt like he’d lost not just a career, but his identity.Then he moved to Floyd County about six years ago to a small farm that had been in his wife’s family. Soon, he met some some local farmers with strong ideas about agriculture and environmental stewardship. From them, Maxey said he learned the importance of “waking up the soil” and increasing its fertility and biological activity.“There are people like myself who believe that all this Roundup in the environment, it doesn’t dissipate. It stays in the soil,” Maxey said of the popular synthetic herbicide used in commercial corn production.Inspired, he first planted corn to enrich his soil, hewing to heirloom varieties and using organic fertilizers because, he said, they were not genetically modified and didn’t require synthetic pesticides.“I don’t want to eat chemicals,” Maxey said.In the process, Maxey discovered a dent corn called Wapsie Valley that was developed in Iowa in the mid-1800s and often planted by Amish farming communities, according to Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit conservation organization focusing on heirloom foods. The bi-color grain it yields mills easily, and the golden flour is flecked with maroon. Not just the history, but the taste turned Maxey into an evangelist.“I was raised on cornbread,” he said. Wapsie Valley “has got a unique flavor. In my opinion, I’ll never switch from that.”It was so good, it became the staple product of Gracious Day Grains, the company he established in 2018. The name is an homage to Maxey’s mother-in-law, who used the phrase as a general-purpose exclamation.Something good happen? Gracious Day! Something terrible? Gracious Day!Quit a sales career and start a tiny artisan mill specializing in heirloom grains? Gracious Day!Today, Maxey, 66, uses organically grown Wapsie Valley corn to make stone-ground cornmeal and grits. That’s not to say he won’t mill other heirloom corn varieties for his customers.On a recent Wednesday afternoon, he put a sackful of Bloody Butcher, a vibrant red grain, through his electric stone mill. Using a homemade sifter, he separated the fine flour from the coarse meal. Later, he would package and label it by hand for customers at the Floyd and Grandin farmers markets, the Floyd County Store and through his online storefront.Maxey has expanded into other grains, including Einkorn, an ancestor of modern wheat that’s become popular in recent years. He also mills sorghum, rye, buckwheat, millet and spelt. From these, he produces mixed-grain pancake and muffin mixes, as well as single-grain flours. And he does some wholesale accounts, providing flours and meals to restaurants and distillers.For now, he’s quit farming the grains himself. He buys them from carefully selected producers, some of them local. His harvesting equipment stands idle in the barnyard.“I had to focus first on marketing,” he said.And it’s paying off. The Floyd Country Store Cafe has had Maxey’s Wapsie Valley grits on the menu for a while now, restaurant manager Brian Feldpausch said. And over the past year, they also started carrying his retail products.They’ve been growing in popularity, especially the grit bowl with sausage featured on the menu, Feldpausch said.The grits “are fantastic, let me tell you,” he said. “When we tried them, they were just a great fit — local and heirloom,” he said.Because Maxey grinds only small batches at low temperatures, they retain flavor and freshness. Feldpausch said he has even discerned subtle differences in the grits over the seasons, a characteristic that he said “spoke volumes about the quality.”
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