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As one of Va.’s largest mills closes, smaller mills grind on

Tom Maxie opened Gracious Day Grains Mill in 2016. Located in Check, Virginia in Floyd County, he grinds organic cornmeal, grits and flour.
Roxy Todd/ Radio IQ
/
Tom Maxie opened Gracious Day Grains Mill in 2016. Located in Check, Virginia in Floyd County, he grinds organic cornmeal, grits and flour.

Last month, one of Virginia’s largest producers of flour and cornmeal announced they would be closing their business. Big Spring Mill has been in operation along the Roanoke River between Christiansburg and Roanoke since 1850. Meanwhile, another mill in nearby Floyd County is stepping up its production.

22-year-old Theodore Testa sifts his hand through yellow and orange speckled grits that he helped grind at Gracious Day Grains mill. “These are the product that we sell the most of, and we’re very proud of this.

These grits are made from a special variety of corn, called Wapsie Valley, that’s grown organically.

“It comes off in three colors in the field,” explained Tom Maxie, the mill’s owner. “You get an orange ear, school bus yellow and a deep, deep red. It’s a superior taste. It just make a nice product.”

Maxie is a retired metal worker and opened this mill in 2016 as a passion hobby. He sells cornmeal and flour to restaurants like the Floyd County Store, and at farmers markets and co-ops in Floyd and Roanoke.

Gracious Day Grains is a small, artisanal operation, nothing like the large-scale mill at Big Spring—which sells at grocery stores throughout Virginia and out of state.

Big Spring Mill in Elliston, Virginia.
Roxy Todd/ Radio IQ
/
Big Spring Mill in Elliston, Virginia.

The loss of that business will likely impact several grain producers in Virginia, said Robert Harper, who manages the grain division for the Virginia Farm Bureau.

“Anytime that we see a piece of that infrastructure leave or shut down, it’s certainly troubling.”

Harper said there are several large-scale mills left in Virginia, but nothing like the milling industry 200 years ago.

“Most counties across Virginia had multiple family run, family owned flour mills. It’s really remarkable to think about how self-sufficient so many folks were for such a long time.”

Recently, Harper has seen a resurgence of small, hobby farmers across Virginia.

People like Tom Maxie, who is hoping to pass along his milling business one day to his mentee, Theodore Testa, who will continue working at the mill while he begins attending Virginia Tech this fall.

Theodore Testa has been working at Gracious Day Grains in Floyd County since last fall. He and owner Tom Maxie can grind up to 400 pounds of cornmeal an hour on the mill's electric stone grinder.
Roxy Todd/ Radio IQ
/
Theodore Testa has been working at Gracious Day Grains in Floyd County since last fall. He and owner Tom Maxie can grind up to 400 pounds of cornmeal an hour on the mill's electric stone grinder.

“On a personal level I’m very passionate about local food,” Testa said. “And I think it really absolutely needs to be the way of the future if we’re gonna avoid food shortages and contaminated food supply.”

And mills, he said, which are necessary to produce cornmeal and flour, are an important part of the food economy.

“If you look at what the government wants to you eat, the largest portion is grain. Grain is an incredibly important part of the diet. It makes me excited that I can be such an important part of people’s dinner tables.”

Inside a small barn, Maxie and Testa can grind up to 400 pounds of cornmeal an hour on their electric stone grinder.

And while they could never produce the quantity that larger mills, like Big Spring, have been able to, they have recently released a special new product, inspired by that mill.

“I knew enough to know that their seasoned flour was the hottest selling item they had. We have it. And I’m a miller. It’s nice on vegetables and meats.”

Maxie collaborated with chef Tyler Thomas of the River and Rail restaurant in Roanoke to make their own seasoned flour. They now sell it at farmers’ markets, along with grits, cornmeal, and flour that Maxie and Testa grind at the Gracious Day Grains Mill.

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.