On an otherwise insignificant day in the spring of 2020, Teunis Bleijenberg cycled around the Veluwe. He passed a mill in Elspeet, saw the blades turn in the wind, and became fascinated by it. When he got off his bike to take a closer look at the mill, the then 65-year-old miller Wim Witteveen walked up to him for a chat.
Two years later, Bleijenberg (24) is himself a miller at the De Maagd flour mill in the village of Hulshorst, part of the municipality of Nunspeet in the heart of the Veluwe. That day in 2020 that he cycled to Elspeet, he was still in the second year of his bachelor’s degree in political science. But in conversation with Witteveen, he could hardly contain his enthusiasm for the mill – which he knew little about until then. Witteveen asked whether miller training was not for him. Bleijenberg: “I had never heard of it, but it seemed great.”
Bleijenberg started training as a volunteer miller and completed it in March this year. Now he is completing his two-year training as a professional miller and he works under supervision at De Maagd. In order to be able to join the Ambachtelijke Grainmolenaars Gilde, the professional guild that co-exists with the Guild of Voluntary Millers, he eventually has to do a number of grinding tests for a committee. “He does the balloting.”
The Netherlands has 1,200 historic windmills. Most are run by volunteers, of whom there are about 2,650. The country has only forty professional millers.
The mills are often no longer in functional use; the polder milling no longer plays a role in water management, the corn mill does not grind grain. Mills can often be visited as a tourist attraction. Voluntary millers are of great importance to save the craft from extinction, Bleijenberg says, but professional millers are also ‘desperately needed’. A professional miller is busy with the mill every day. “Then you build up a broader range of knowledge than the voluntary miller. It is about preserving the craft in practice.”
In the nineties there were still about fifty professional millers, now forty, knows Bart Mols of the Ambachtelijke Korenmolenaars Gilde. Only 15 of them can earn “their living.” The others depend on tourist tours or other work.
Although the economic relevance of the professional miller is declining – society no longer depends on him for bread – the UN organization Unesco also wants to keep the profession. Since 2017 the miller’s craft is therefore on its list of Intangible Heritage† “It felt like wind in our wings.”
Mols believes that the mill still has economic value: “There is an increasing demand for products that are not made in a factory, but by hand. Consumers want to know where their food comes from. The demand for environmentally friendly products is also increasing. The mill provides that, because it runs on wind.”
According to Bleijenberg, more people like him are needed: young enthusiasts who can take over the profession from the older generation. The worst possible scenario, he says, is that the windmills will come to a standstill. A running mill needs major maintenance once every forty years, a standing mill rots away in ten years. “There must be life on a mill.”
That is why Bleijenberg co-founded a committee for young, voluntary millers, Jong Ambacht, at the beginning of this year. There are about sixty members of the voluntary guild, of whom “some five” are trained as professional millers. But, he says, “We need more than that to keep the craft alive.” After all: the average age of a miller is now 65, the average age of a beginning miller is 54, according to figures from the employers’ association VNO-CNW.
However, Bleijenberg does not expect the profession to disappear. “In the end, the mill will always appeal to people. Just like it happened to me.”
During his training, Bleijenberg already worked on De Maagd, because it is a mill where a lot of grain is ground. “That makes it a good place to learn.” After a few times, ‘first miller’ Kirsten Hoeke-van Dongen asked him if he wanted to come and work there full-time. “I had to sleep on that for a week. I wanted to, but it’s quite a risk: you stop doing something you previously chose and you step into a profession that is in danger of extinction. Your whole future perspective changes.” In the end he agreed to Van Dongen’s proposal.
The Virgin stands at the foot of a meadow. Outside the scent of spring grass predominates, inside that of wood. The steep stairs inside must be climbed both up and down “with the nose towards the stairs”, Bleijenberg warns. The stairs lead to higher floors that are getting narrower. A bump on your head sits here in a little wooden corner. The blades whiz at regular intervals past the cross-rod windows.
Four pieces of lard hang from a beam on the top floor, the attic, to lubricate the cast iron upper shaft that absorbs the force of the blades. “An age-old method that still works best.”
Bleijenberg, dressed in a flannel red and white striped shirt and dark, sturdy trousers – “really a miller’s look”, according to his colleague in the shop at the bottom of the mill – one floor down points to the rail wheel in the ‘stone attic’. The huge wheel is attached to the king’s spindle, a wooden pillar, and drives the stones that grind the wheat. When the covering of the wheat grain is off, the grinding follows. “All powered by the wind. Very modern, actually.”
Because much of the work in the mill depends on the weather, no day is the same for the miller. “You have to know how hard the wind is blowing, but also where the wind is coming from. And what kind of clouds hang in the sky: rain clouds push up and therefore give strong gusts of wind.”
The ground wheat lies in the flour loft to be sieved. “Sifting flour separates it. Then you get flour, groats and bran.” At the very bottom of the mill, in the shop, the end product is sold: paper bags with flour, flour, bread mixes or baking mixes.
Some of the production is sold in the store, but most of it goes to regular customers. A local farmer, for example, who also grows some of the wheat for the mill. “We make a bread mix for him,” says Bleijenberg, whose clothes are now completely covered in flour. Bakery Van Dongen, the company of the head miller of De Maagd, is also a customer. De Maagd processes more than a hundred tons of grain every year, with a turnover of 165,000 euros last year.
At a picnic table under De Maagd Bleijenberg talks about “the best choice of his life so far”. One day he hopes to have his own flour mill. “This profession combines the technical and the human. You can make a refined product with an age-old device. Meanwhile, you are the link between farmer and baker. Between cultivation and sale. And you eat the bread that you have ground yourself. That has now become normal for me, but in the beginning it was really cool.”
Financially, the miller’s life may be “less attractive than the prospects after a university education,” says Bleijenberg. But he finds “the riches” much greater. “You are so free here.” He is concerned with nature and the weather and, above all, does not have to put himself in an “office straitjacket”. “I can really be who I am here.”
He would recommend anyone who works in an office to visit a craftsman. “You are made for it as a person.”
Or is there something that is not nice? “When it freezes in winter, I get really cold toes.”
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of 21 May 2022