AT GEECHIE BOY MILL ON EDISTO ISLAND, SC,
GREG JOHNSON KEEPS HIS NOSE TO THE GRINDSTONE
Ask Greg Johnsman to name his favorite music. Could it be the jazz guitar he played in high school to rehabilitate his fingers from a childhood accident? Or the groovy bass he played in college? Or the spirituals he performs each week in his church band? No, for Johnsman of Geechie Boy Market and Mill on Edisto Island, South Carolina, a symphony flows from the unique rhythms of his evergrowing collection of restored antique grist mills: the rapid-fire clinking of corn kernels into the hopper, the whir of the flatbelt, the tapping of the gator clip, the beat of the “thumper,” the tumble of grains in the revolving separator, the scattering of fine cornmeal into one bin and coarse grits into another.
“As a miller your senses are always on,” says Johnsman. “Each machine has a rhythm, and the sounds tell you what to do next.” The expression “nose to the grindstone” (which we’ve all come to equate with focus and hard work) is said to derive from the 2,000-year-old tradition of stone-ground milling in which millers closely monitored their grains by smell to watch for signs of overheating.
Johnsman initially embraced milling as a hobby while a teenager in the South Carolina Upstate. His summer job at a Michelin tire factory placed him alongside a third-generation miller named Jack Brock, who shared the secrets of his trade with the eager, young Johnsman during their off hours. Pretty soon Johnsman began acquiring what he calls old “general store mills” or “portable mills,” hearkening to days of yore when farmers lined up early each morning as their local miller ground and sifted their grains into flour, cornmeal, and grits. The introduction of roller mills around 1870 changed all that. By the turn of the nineteenth century, most stone-ground grist mills had either converted to the swift, powerful steel rollers or closed up shop altogether. Portable mills were retired to barns and sheds.
“I don’t find them. They find me,” says Johnsman with a laugh. “My oldest mill is one hundred sixty-eight years old. I’ve got them from Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee. They come to me in bad condition, with rotten wood and fatigued or missing parts. Families call me and say, ‘I think I have an heirloom, what’s it worth?’ Well, it’s worth money if it works.” It takes years for Johnsman and his loyal circle of family and friends to patiently restore each relic, piece by piece. If parts don’t exist anymore (and many don’t), he makes them or finds those who can cast, forge, and whittle the unusual shapes. He keeps a small army of carpenters, blacksmiths, and machine shops on call twenty-four/seven in case parts wear out (and they do). He pays them in grits.
This passion for a milling style that fell to the wayside over a century ago, for Johnsman, is all about reviving a beloved craft. But more importantly, it’s about reclaiming taste and health. Industrial milling, for all its so-called “advancements” in production and shelf life, proved detrimental to public health because the steel rollers removed fiber and nutrient-rich oils from the grain. When grist mills gave way to industrial roller mills in the late nineteenth century, groups of people started getting odd illnesses, particularly poorer communities with corn-centric or bread-dependent diets. One such health epidemic in the South was pellagra, an unsightly skin condition and deadly mental disorder of unknown origin at the time. It wasn’t until the 1910s that scientists Casimir Funk and Joseph Goldberger identified vitamin deficiencies as the root of the problem, arguing that industrial milling stripped grains of essential B vitamins and minerals. By the late 1930s, the United States government had come around, dictating that milled products be enriched with synthetic thiamine, niacin, iron, and later riboflavin. Health was restored.
Or was it? After all, stripping the nutrients out of grain and restoring them synthetically is a little like saying, “I’m going to eat a healthy breakfast,” then gobbling a bowl of sugared cereal, popping a vitamin, and feeling virtuous.
“Industrial milling is what we call ‘crush and run,’” quips Johnsman. “It doesn’t clean or crack the grain properly, and in my opinion, it ruins the product. So that’s why I use this equipment. Can I mass produce and keep up with large-scale industrial producers? No. Do I need to? No.”
Instead, he focuses on perfecting the art of small-batch artisanal milling, starting with non-GMO heirlooms like Mosby Prolific and Pencil Cob dent corns or African Guinea Flint. He’s also planting twenty-five acres of Jimmy Red, a blood-red corn that makes incredibly nutty and flavorful grits with a subtle red hue.
In the humidity and heat of the Deep South, storing grains is a challenge. Warehouses can climb above 100 degrees, temperatures that compromise the natural sugars in corn. A New York Times article in 2011 shows Johnsman, alongside Chef Sean Brock, standing in a swirling mist of liquid nitrogen as they experiment with flash freezing grains before milling to retain optimal taste. Johnsman opts for the more cost-efficient solution of cold storing his grains in a climate-controlled, dehumidified warehouse, then further plays with room temperature during milling to achieve his desired flavor profile.
“The reason I use all antique equipment is because it’s a slower process, a lower RPM, which means less heat generated, which will then again protect the corn in the natural state. Everything we’re doing is to try and protect the flavor. I don’t want to muddy down the process for a quick sale. I’d rather sell people the truth.”
Last year, Johnsman’s milled Jimmy Red corn made its way into something called an “Appalachian chip” at Brock’s flagship restaurant McCrady’s. “I was there with a John Deere reporter who was eating handfuls of them,” chuckles Johnsman, “and I’m like, ‘You just ate two hundred dollars’ worth of cornflakes.’ It’s a straight-out honor that these talented chefs want my product.”
The Chef and the Farmer
Chefs are an essential component of Geechie Boy’s business. They come to him with special requests, such as an Italian polenta they’d like him to match or an unpronounceable rare Japanese vegetable they’d like him to grow. This is, after all, a working farm, not just a mill.
Johnsman’s wife’s family has farmed land for generations on this remote, quiet stretch of sea island. Many residents are related to one another. Johnsman likes to joke that when he met Betsy in college at Clemson in “chicken class” (his undergrad degree is in poultry science), Betsy told him, “We need new blood.” Romance ensued, they married, and within a few years, they returned to the family farm to give it their best shot.
“Farming is a lot like gambling, my father-in-law explained to me,” says Johnsman. “You win some, you lose some, and you have to be prepared to lose it all, like my father-in-law did once when a hail storm wiped out everything in minutes. At one point, Edisto supported over fifty tomato farmers, but now there are only two.” Each summer, the “cooler” (a large chilled warehouse) bulges with 600 to 800 tons of tomatoes, their “bread and butter” for a mere six weeks. “But the commercial tomato farm is dying, with shipping lanes starting to close and fewer migrant workers. That’s not a bad thing. We embrace it. With this milling, we’re able to reinvent our family farm to keep going strong.”
That calls for creative thinking. For years, Johnsman looked at the rye planted every fourth row as a windbreak for tomato crops. A majestic rye at twelve to fourteen feet high, fully adapted to the Deep South’s sweltering summers, Johnsman wondered about its potential. On a hunch, he milled the dried seed into flour and found that the rye lacked the tackiness that frustrates many a baker. Now his rye flour graces the table bread at Meadowood in Napa. There is sweet foreshadowing in the fact that Johnsman, who worked in a Michelin tire factory as a teenager, would later ship his own product to a Michelin three-star restaurant.
Holy City Brewing gives its dried, spent beer mash to Johnsman who mills it into flour for beer bread served at Chef Craig Deihl’s Artisan Meat Share in Charleston. The lush green patch of horseradish plant growing by the Geechie Boy roadside market will soon be harvested and delivered to Chef Mike Lata at The Ordinary for use in a sauce. A gentleman stops by the farm delivering a handful of never-before-seen black peas from the Civil War era, asking if Johnsman will grow them. He will. And chefs will get in line.
A Miller Never Sleeps
“I haven’t taken a vacation in five years,” says Johnsman with a shrug. He and Betsy just returned from a Washington, DC, food show where they served grits to 7,000 people, arriving on Edisto at 3:00 a.m., then rising at 6:00 a.m. to hit the farm and puzzle over a centuries-old live oak that crashed overnight into one of his storage sheds. The buzzing of a chain saw fills the air as a tractor backs up to help split the hardwood. Johnsman spends the morning washing freshly harvested mustard greens to deliver to area chefs as his sister-in-law mills white corn into grits and cornmeal. His brother-in-law mans the roadside market, sewing up bags of grits as visitors amble in to buy cornmeal donuts and Geechie Boy t-shirts.
When Betsy isn’t tending their children, she’s building the website, filling orders, answering fan mail, staying up late doing paperwork, or writing sweet notes to accompany each shipment. This is clearly a family collaboration, one Johnsman hopes to pass on to his sons one day, if they’re interested.
There is no secretary, no press engine, no packing factory. The quacking ringtone of Johnsman’s cell phone clamors for attention. Johnsman laughs about the time he was on the phone with Lodge about the branding of his own Geechie Boy cast iron skillet (used to serve cornbread at Husk in Charleston and Nashville). When the Lodge representative said, “Have your sales and marketing team call me,” Johnsman replied, “You’re talking to them now, and to the janitor, too.” There’s never a dull day on the farm. But the biggest surprise by far came when Johnsman was grilled by the FBI for four straight hours for mailing an order of white cornmeal to a federal judge in DC. An innocent mistake, the cornmeal was intended as a gift from one judge (and Geechie Boy fan) to another. But unbeknownst to Johnsman, the recipient had received some death threats, so when the white powdery substance showed up at the courthouse, security panicked.
“I was working on the farm and got a phone call with all zeros, so I didn’t pick up. Then the US Marshals called and explained the FBI was on the phone. At first I laughed, and they didn’t appreciate that.”
What bemused Johnsman the most, despite four hours of monotone interrogations, was the fact the FBI demanded to know the hidden meaning of the handwritten note that Betsy had included with the order. That note, so simple in its intent and honesty, encapsulates everything Johnsman and his extended family are trying to achieve.
In Betsy’s handwriting are the three words, “Hope you enjoy.”