A Dream Realized
In 2001, husband and wife Rob Knowles and Meryl Stern opened the doors on the CleanDirt Farm processing facility; an endeavor that was equal parts labor of love and financial gamble. All while teaching, Rob had farmed wheat and millet on the land his grandfather homesteaded in the early 20th century since 1979. What has become the premier millet processing facility in the country began as a way for a smalltime farmer and his family to remain on the Sterling, CO farmstead.
In the early days, Rob taught woodshop and physics at the middle school in Sterling and farmed on the side. In 1980, he met Meryl, a speech therapist from New Jersey, at their mutual workplace. The couple married in 1983.
Even as Rob eventually moved on to teach philosophy, ethics and English at the local junior college, the addiction to farming that he developed as a child remained. Sometimes though, passion and livelihood don’t align. His farming was never enough to support the family, so a big risk was necessary to keep the family on the farm.
In the late 1990s, with encouragement from some local traders, Rob drew up plans to build a millet dehulling facility on his family land. After scaling back the initial vision and hustling from bank to bank for financing, their dream was realized.
A Troubled First Run
The early days of CleanDirt Farm had ups and downs. Rob and Meryl were the facility’s lone employees, but they pulled in help from their kids and the occasional neighbor. Their first run, which if captured on video would best be soundtracked by Yackety Sax, was luckily a comical anecdote to recount years later rather than a harbinger of things to come.
Millet in America
Since that first experience the business matured and gained a sterling reputation. The facility was initially conceived to clean or dehull a wide range of food-grade ingredients. As time went on, millet emerged as their specialty.
In the past decade and a half, millet’s standing as a food stuff in the US has had quite an evolution. When the business began, Rob and Meryl shipped a lot of millet to Europe. Then, an interest in gluten-free ingredients hit the US and stateside demand blossomed. While organic had long been their focus, conventional millet was a big driver in that early boom.
Rob recalls that millet used to be primarily used as a cereal or rice substitute. It also had a steady use as flour, often blended with other grains. Today, the options abound with puffed millet, flaked millet and sprouted millet. The couple speaks with excitement as they rattle off previously unexplored applications for millet like tots and burgers. CleanDirt is also a supplier to the alcohol industry, shipping grain to breweries and whiskey distilleries.
“The uses for millet have just gone beyond our wildest imagination,” Meryl said.
The CleanDirt Farm moniker is one that has always called for attention. The name actually predates the facility that bears its name today. Back when Rob was organically farming his land and several other plots in the area, he dreamed up the name over a few bottles of Schlitz. At the time, organic certifiers required all farms to have names. Rob could have picked a “normal name,” like Knowles Organic Farm, but as he says, “I never was a normal person and I didn’t like those normal names.”
Sitting in the conference room in Sterling during the summer of 2017, Rob and Meryl shared fun stories from the past 16 years. They also reflected on the legacy of CleanDirt Farm as they prepared to step away from the business they started together. Earlier in the year, an agreement was finalized for Bay State Milling Company, a longtime millet customer, to buy the processing facility. The name CleanDirt Farm will remain as a brand name.
Looking back, Rob and Meryl note that CleanDirt Farm represents fairness, friendliness, honesty and quality. “It was everything we philosophically believed in,” said Meryl.
They’ve come a long way from the days of sleeping in the facility to check machines in the middle of the night, but the years and years of dedication will always be there. Rob said he can’t think of many days he didn’t look forward to coming to work. In that way, despite agreeing that they’re ready, walking away isn’t easy.
At the end of the day, they set out to make a decent living and accomplished so much more.
“Being able to supply a good product at a fair price for an honest profit, what the hell more is there?” Rob wondered.