Floorboards rumble under your feet as machinery hums, bringing to life the centuries-old mill that straddles the Nelson-Amherst county line near the Piney River. The rhythmic turn of the wheel drowns out ambient sounds of the nearby stream that powers that powers it.
There’s no doubt the historic Woodson’s Mill — a circa-1790s four-story structure in Nelson County — has resumed operations following a roughly three-month mandatory closure that came about when historic traditions clashed with modern regulations.
In late November, Deep Roots Milling, which operates the water-powered mill, was ordered by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to cease operations because the mill did not comply with recently adopted food safety regulations.
According to Charlie Wade, a sixth-generation miller who recently took over operations last year, Deep Roots Milling was allowed to resume milling in early March, but the closure killed “a lot of momentum” they had going into the winter.
“2020 was a rough year and 2021 was a rough start,” Wade said of both the pandemic and three-month closure.
“If you stop operating this mill, it’s basically going to fall apart. That was a driving factor for us to push on VDACS and get this back open.”
Michael Wallace, director of communications for the agency, said in an emailed statement March 11 the change in ownership at Woodson’s Mill triggered a routine pre-opening inspection from VDACS’ Office of Food and Safety in November.
As a result of that inspection, staff found “several areas where the business failed to meet food safety requirements” outlined in current Virginia laws and recently updated associated regulations, Wallace said.
VDACS staff coordinated with the owners to develop a timeline to correct food and safety deficiencies in the historic structure, Wallace said, and the mill was cleared to resume operations once staff verified corrective action had been taken.
Wade said based on the inspection and new regulations, VDACS found Woodson’s Mill in violation of the building not being fully sealed, an ultimately unfeasible expense for the mill, and it did not meet strict cleaning requirements.
“That would shut the mill down. There’s no way you could financially make that make sense,” Wade said, adding the mill is facing some long-term and short-term recommendations.
Despite the building being four stories, only a portion of the structure and machinery is used in today’s operations and the system currently in place is “completely closed,” Wade said.
VDACS also pointed out the mill needed plumbing, a “more robust testing system” for its wheat and additional lighting. In lieu of completely sealing the building, there also are plans to install screening to keep insects or wildlife out, Wade said.
Deep Roots Milling has added a handwashing station and plans to add a bathroom to address some of those issues, Wade said.
In February, a petition penned by the Common Grain Alliance began circulating online advocating Woodson’s Mill be allowed to resume operations, arguing the change in regulations does not take into account the needs of the milling industry nor the “preservation of the historic structure.”
Chair of the Common Grain Alliance — a nonprofit that connects and supports farmers, millers and bakers in the mid-Atlantic region — Heather Coiner said the petition went live Feb. 25 and had garnered more than 1,500 signatures by March 1. As of March 25, the petition has amassed just under 1,900 signatures.
“We were alarmed that Woodson’s Mill was issued a cease-and-desist because that mill has been operating continuously and safely since the ‘80s,” Coiner said.
Coiner, who also operates Little Hat Creek Farm in Roseland, said to have a major buyer of local grain shut down meant a disruption to the grain economy in the area.
Wade said this signifies how important the mill is to the grain economy.
“There’s only a handful of mills operating in the state and we’re one of the main mills that are completely sourcing all our grain from local growers,” Wade said.
Wade said the mill generally is inspected roughly every year or two years and, if not for the inspection triggered by the change in ownership, a similar outcome would have caught up to them regardless.
“I’d hate to sink a lot of time and energy into getting something set up here and a year down the road hit the issue again,” Wade said, adding a contingency plan was in place to move operations elsewhere if they were not able to reopen in a timely manner.
Coiner said she was thrilled by the traction the petition had received and the Common Grain Alliance will work support historic milling in the commonwealth. She also hoped the momentum of the petition will put some “wind in the sails of the regional grain economy and get people thinking about where their grain comes from.”
Wade noted Deep Roots Milling also worked with a consultant to submit a list of recommendations, which VDACS had signed off on.
“We didn’t want to lose this,” Wade said of the structure’s historic nature. “You don’t see too many water mills in operation anymore and those that you do, it’s just as museums.”
Rachael Smith contributed to this report.