From where seed meets soil on Ohio farms to the processing facilities that dot the state, getting food from farm to plate is a group effort.
In all, about one in seven Ohioans are working in some facet of this industry, which is the state’s largest economic engine.
Ohio has long offered fertile ground for on-farm entrepreneurs—75,000 Ohioans are farming today—but many others are carving out a different place for themselves in a thriving food and agricultural sector.
Whether it’s the local mechanic keeping equipment running, an innovative businessman expanding international trade or a century-old family enterprise behind some of today’s best known brands, the following pages offer stories of Ohioans who are serving up new ideas as they build their business in the Buckeye State.
Ask Ford Mennel where the flour milled in his plants ends up and he hesitates. It’s not that he doesn’t know—it’s that the list is so long: Breads, cake mixes, biscuits, crackers, pizzas, pancakes, donuts, soups, bagels, toaster pastries, pretzels, gravies, ice cream cones, oriental noodles and breadings for fish or chicken. Chances are good that if you’ve had some type of food product with flour in it that it was milled at Mennel Milling Co., a family-run operation that dates back to the late 19th century.
The company has a rich history in Fostoria, a northwestern Ohio town known as a major railway hub since its founding in 1854. A natural gas boom in the 1880s led to the construction of more than a dozen glass factories and the flour mill. The city agreed to give the mill a lifetime of free natural gas in exchange for generating electricity to power the city street lamps. At the time of its construction in 1886, the mill was the nation’s largest one not located on water and had a daily capacity of 1,500 barrels. When the city ran out of gas a couple of years later, the mill continued to thrive in the wheat-rich area while the glass factories slowly started closing.
Today Mennel Milling is a major player in the flour milling business. The company has five wheat flour mills in Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and Virginia, several grain elevators and ranks in the top 10 for capacity in the United States. It provides flour to major food processors like General Mills and ships across the country, into Canada and Mexico and occasionally to South America and Europe. Mennel concentrates on soft flour, which has a lower gluten content and is primarily used in lighter and flakier foods such as cakes, cookies and crackers. Most of Mennel’s soft wheat comes from within a 100-mile radius of the mills. Only the Fostoria and Roanoke, Va. mills use hard wheat, which has a higher gluten content, making food chewier and better suited for pizza dough or pasta.
Ford Mennel credits his grandfather, Donald M. Mennel, for having the foresight decades ago to focus on soft wheat flour and specialty flours, allowing the company to carve out a niche market and not compete with the enormous mills out in the Great Plains. That decision was one of many that Don Mennel made to transform and reinvigorate the family company. Under his leadership as president from 1958-1983, he moved the company’s headquarters from Toledo back to Fostoria, bought two mills on the verge of bankruptcy and expanded the grain elevator operations.
“(My grandfather) didn’t plan to work for the family business but then he got a call from his mother who said he needed to either run the business or they were going to sell it; it wasn’t in good shape,” said Ford Mennel, the fifth generation to run the company. “My grandfather got the company moving in the right direction and we’ve tried to stay that way.”
FROM FIELD TO CONSUMERS
On this late summer day, semitrucks are lined up outside concrete silos and next to railroad tracks at the Fostoria plant. A metal probe plunges into a truckload of wheat to take a sample, the first step in converting the wheat to flour.
“We grind 35 trucks of wheat a day. All the loads are tested for quality. We sort out all the chaffe and bugs—we don’t pay for bugs,” laughed Scott Flick, a 30-plus year employee who started out as a lab tech and is now plant manager. “Whatever isn’t used is sent out for animal (feed).”
Only a slight scent of flour lingers inside and outside the plant. Extensive dust prevention measures throughout the mill help keep the wheat and flour from escaping.
“The stories are that years ago you couldn’t see from one end of the floor to the next because of all the flour in the air,” shouted Flick on a floor where flour was being vigorously sifted to remove its coarseness. “The wheat gets cleaned four times before we mill it because that’s the way customers want it—they want uniformity and a consistent blend.”
Mennel Milling relies on a couple of hundred different recipes to provide the perfect blend mix for its customers whether it’s adjusting the protein, moisture or ash (mineral) levels.
“There’s a lot of science involved in determining the moisture and absorption. If we overmix it here, your biscuit won’t rise,” Flick said. “Recently harvested wheat is more challenging because it’s fluffier and harder to work with in warmer weather. It’s easiest to mill when there’s little humidity.”
Throughout the plant, high-tech employees, some with Ph. D.s, keep tabs on the computer-run machinery. Before the plant was modernized, everything was done by hand, from sewing the feed bags to tossing them onto the railcars. Mennel Milling has about 300 employees companywide with about half in Fostoria. Finding skilled workers and drivers for the company’s 90 trucks has been a challenge because of limits in the number of hours truck drivers can be behind the wheel and truck weight limits in Ohio.
Another challenge is keeping up with all the rules and regulations set by the state and federal agencies that regulate Mennel Milling, including Homeland Security, Environmental Protection Agency, Food & Drug Administration, Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Ohio Department of Agriculture.
“It takes two minutes to load a truck and 20 minutes to do paperwork,” Ford Mennel said. “Regulatory costs are taking more and more time and money.”
Like his forefathers, Ford Mennel plans to do whatever it takes to keep the company growing and remain a major breadwinner in the community.
“We’ve put a lot of money into innovation and technology,” he said. “We want to make sure the next generation is going to be here and we want to continue to be good stewards of business.”
The company wasn’t always called Mennel Milling. It was originally named Harter Milling Co. in honor of the two owner families. The Harters were a banking family from Mansfield and the Browns a Hungarian flour milling family from Canton. Overseeing the mill was Alphonse Mennel, an Alsatian emigre who was hired as general superintendent, meaning he ran the company. On Christmas Eve 1897, the mill burned to the ground and had to be rebuilt. The company was renamed Mennel Milling in 1917 when Alphonse and his sons bought control of it.