Pandemic Search For Flour Boosts Sales For Panora Farm

Early Morning Harvest offers a wide selection of stone ground flours, meals, cereals and mixtures, which are milled from their farm-grown wheat, oats, rye, buckwheat and corn.

Posted 6/10/20
By Susan Thompson  |  Lake Panorama Times

*Originally published with the Lake Panorama Times – 6/10/2020

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The Early Morning Harvest farm is located at 2425 Willow Ave., a few miles southeast of Panora

Many small businesses have lost customers and revenue in the last three months as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet one Panora small business has been adding customers and hiring more help to keep up with demand for some of its products — especially flours made from organic grains grown on their farm.

Early Morning Harvest is a small family farm located just east of Panora. Jeff Hafner has been farming with his father, Earl, since 1993. The two transitioned their farmland to organic production in 2000.

The Hafners offer a wide selection of stone ground flours, meals, cereals and mixtures, which are milled at Early Morning Harvest from their farm-grown wheat, oats, rye, buckwheat and corn.

“Our flour products are made by using the whole grain and two stones,” said Jeff Hafner. “Our flour isn’t enriched or bleached or added to in any way. We simply use two pieces of round granite; one is stationary, one rotates, and the grooves in the stone push the final product out.”

Next, a sifter is used to create the different textures for each of the products. For instance, there is whole wheat flour, whole wheat bread flour and whole wheat pasta flour. Or consider corn flour, corn meal, corn polenta or corn grits. Several other flours and cereals also are offered.

The small store on the Early Morning Harvest farm offers both its own products and other made-in-Iowa items.

The flour products are available in the Early Morning Harvest online store; in Hometown Foods stores in Panora, Guthrie Center and Stuart; New Pioneer Food Coop in Iowa City; and Wheatsfield Coop Grocery in Ames.

But most new customers who discovered Early Morning Harvest over the last three months purchased their flour on Amazon. In a mid-May interview, Hafner said in the last six weeks, the small business had shipped flour products to all 50 states and Puerto Rico.

“We used to mill one or two days a week, but lately we’ve been milling five to six days a week to meet demand,” he said. “People just couldn’t find flour in their stores.”

Jeff Coccoluto, from Boston, Massachusetts, wrote to Hafner in early April: “We are in Boston approaching our ‘spike’ in the COVID virus epidemic. In the last month leading up to this, our grocery stores have been run out of all the staples. I found whole wheat flour from you online, ordered it and got it delivered. My pizza and sour dough bread making continue on and taste better than ever.”

To prove his point, Coccoluto included a photo of a delicious looking pizza, and Hafner featured the photo and letter in one of the businesses’ weekly newsletters.

Vickie Richter, who lives at Adair, came to work at Early Morning Harvest five years ago after she retired from being a lab technician. She’s shown harvesting lettuce, which is done weekly. The hanging baskets are used for growing fresh herbs and are hand-watered.

The flour normally is sold in one- and four-pound bags, but during the pandemic there has been more demand for 25- and 50-pound bags. “Two weeks ago, a gentleman who found us on Facebook drove from Indiana and left with 600 pounds of flour,” Hafner said.

While its flours have gained Early Morning Harvest new attention in recent weeks, it’s not how the small family farm first began connecting with consumers.

“I always wanted to have a big garden and enjoyed growing vegetables,” said Hafner. “But gardens mean weeds, and I didn’t like to pull weeds. That got me to thinking about the possibility of raising vegetables in an aquaponics greenhouse.”

Aquaponics combines aquaculture — raising aquatic animals in tanks — with hydroponics, which is growing plants in water rather than soil. Hafner started with a small system that has grown several times as he learned what works best.

His first water tank filled with tilapia was installed in March of 2011. He bought and developed several systems that worked well for his greenhouse. The systems pump the water from the fish tanks into basins where plants absorb the water and nutrients from the fish waste. The cleaned water cycles back to the fish tanks, only to flood the basins again later.

Jeff Hafner’s love of gardening eventually led to an aquaponics greenhouse. Tomatoes, Swiss chard and kale are shown, along with beautiful geraniums. Hafner says the geraniums are good “companion” plants for the vegetables, helping with aphid control. The staff also sometimes take geranium cuttings to pot and sell to Des Moines customers.

The entire system now involves 7,500 gallons of water and about 600 fish. This allows Hafner to reach his goal of year-round production of vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, several types of lettuce, kale, Swiss chard, collard greens and fresh herbs.

A large outdoor vegetable garden is planted each spring. In addition, a high-tunnel greenhouse helps extend the growing season, with planting in the early spring and later into the fall. These soil-based gardens make it possible for the farm to also offer vegetables such as beets, carrots, radishes, cucumbers, leeks and onions.

Hafner also sells live tilapia.

“We don’t have a license to filet the fish, so we sell them live. We have a couple of regular customers,” he says.

The family also has pasture-raised poultry for egg production and sells the fresh brown eggs by the dozen in four sizes.

Jeff Hafner installed windows in some of the fish tanks used in his aquaponics operation so tour guests have the chance to see tilapia swimming by.

And the family sells both clover and buckwheat honey in one-pound and three-pound jars. Hafner works with an area beekeeper to manage the bee hives, which produce honey on the Early Morning Harvest farm.

Early Morning Harvest Kitchen Creations regularly available include cherry pecan granola, almond coconut pineapple granola, and Grandma Mame’s Cornbread Mix. A certified test kitchen makes it possible for the staff to try new ideas, dry herbs and spices, and bake fresh cookies for the on-farm store.

A wide variety of gift boxes and bags featuring items produced on the farm are available online or can be picked up locally.

Ronda Hafner, left, delivers fresh rhubarb and a bag of rye flour to Connie Ziller, who lives at Lake Panorama. Ziller’s recipe for rye bread is sometimes shared with Early Morning Harvest customers who purchase the rye flour.

Those who visit the Early Morning Harvest farm store also have the chance to purchase food items from other Iowa producers. Beef products come from Wallace Farms Beef in Keystone. Dairy items from four different vendors are offered. Zaza’s Pastas come from Cedar Rapids and are made with the general purpose flour produced at Early Morning Harvest. Salad dressings, mustards, salsas, and grape jelly also can be found on the store shelves.

Jeff lives at the Early Morning Harvest farm with his wife Shannon. His father Earl has been in agriculture most of his life and farming since the mid-1980s. His mother Ronda taught elementary school in the area for many years before retiring.

Besides the four family members who work in various aspects of the small business, there are three full-time and three part-time employees, plus an intern each summer.

Hafner offers tours to individuals and groups of up to 50 people.

“We’ve had bank tours, corporate health days, community college students, representatives of the World Food Prize and many others,” he said. “There isn’t a charge for tours. I’m not here to entertain; my goal is to educate people.”

Early Morning Harvest products can be purchased many ways. The farm is part of the Iowa Food Cooperative, which offers more than 1,500 products made, grown or raised in Iowa. Members of the cooperative order online bi-weekly with deadlines in place so producers can be notified of the products they’ve sold for that round.

Every other Thursday, Hafner loads up a large van with the products cooperative members ordered from Early Morning Harvest and drives to the coop’s headquarters in Des Moines. Since the farm serves as one of the cooperative’s pick-up locations, he’s back to the farm by 4:30 p.m. where local cooperative members have until 5:30 p.m. to pick up their order.

Amanda Doran, an Early Morning Harvest employee, prepares to ship online orders received for the farm’s flours. Mailing labels this day showed destinations in Georgia, Alabama, California, Florida, New York, Louisiana, Michigan and more.

A weekly Early Morning Harvest emailed newsletter lists what’s currently available. Orders can be placed via email at [email protected]. Items can be picked up in the store during open hours, or local deliveries are made each Friday to customers who meet Ronda Hafner in the Panorama Gardens parking lot beginning at 4 p.m.

Online ordering for items to be shipped can be done at earlymorningharvest.com. Product categories include wheat and flour, cereal and mixes, herbs and spices — fresh during some times of the year, dried year-round — and honey.

Hafner says he’s sometimes surprised more people in Panora and surrounding communities don’t know about Early Morning Harvest and what it has to offer.

“People looking online for farmers’ markets, Iowa-grown products or an Iowa experience of some kind often find us that way. We get a lot of people who drive out from Des Moines,” he said.

Early Morning Harvest is located at 2425 Willow Ave., just southeast of Panora. Store hours are 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Saturdays. It is closed Sundays and holidays.