NEW CAMBRIA, KS — The decision to pick up the mantle of a family legacy — especially one with deep and very public roots — is a bold move. Finding the perfect balance between tradition and innovation, honoring the past while forging the future, can be a daunting undertaking.
Yet, that’s exactly what Farmer Direct Foods’ (FDF) Hayley Nelson Eckert, VP of strategy and sales, and Keaton Hale, VP of operations, have set out to do. These cousins are the grandchildren of Joe Hale and Joyce Vanier Hale, whose family’s flour business laid the foundation for flour milling powerhouse ADM Milling.
Hayley and Keaton see their mission as twofold: Honor their families’ legacies in Kansas wheat farming and milling, and take those legacies into the future by growing heirloom grains using regenerative farming practices to produce flour. But the ultimate goal is to provide wholesome food for consumers, protect the soil and promote sustainability, transparency and traceability in agriculture.
The Vanier, Hale and Nelson family connections to Kansas wheat farming and milling span generations. After Joe and Joyce Hale married in 1951, Joe joined the Vanier family business, Western Star Mill Co., as VP.
ADM Milling acquired Western Star in the early ’70s, and Joe was named president not long after. He became company chairman in 1989 and retired in 1996, but not before transforming ADM into a global leader in the flour and grain milling industry. His lifelong dedication to the industry was evident in his involvement in several industry organizations.
The Hale legacy extends beyond the milling industry. These philanthropists have shared their resources, putting specific focus on education and community. In fact, their generosity helped fund Hale Arena at the American Royal in Kansas City, MO; Hale Library at Kansas State University in Manhattan, KS; The Hale Center for Journalism at Kansas City PBS; scholarships and projects at Kansas State University (KSU) and Kansas Wesleyan University; and others. Joyce’s name lives on in the milling industry through the M/V Joyce Hale, a ship commissioned in 1980 that still cruises the Mississippi River, towing barges of grain for flour and export.
Joe and Joyce had six children, and several of them — including Alan (Keaton’s father) and Dana (Hayley’s mother) — worked at ADM, continuing the legacy.
The Hale family’s commitment to agriculture grew stronger when Dana Hale married Doug Nelson, whose own family legacy included three generations of doctors engaged in Kansas wheat farming. The couple grew Nelson Family Farms, eventually dedicating some of the farm’s acreage to the growing of heritage and ancient grains.
Today, the Nelsons are leaders in regenerative agriculture practices and founded the HAVEN (Hale and Vanier Eckert Nelson) Foundation to promote research in the area of sustainability in farming in conjunction with Charles Rice, PhD, at KSU.
So, it’s probably no surprise that Hayley, who started her started career in management consulting after college, eventually returned to her agriculture roots. Her consulting career included a three-year stint in Sydney, Australia, where she observed the area’s back-to-the-basics, farm-to-table approach to grain growing and food production. That experience resonated so deeply with her that she focused on how to replicate the practices in the US.
A new generation
Upon Hayley’s return to the states in 2020, she launched City Farmer Foods to market and sell grains produced by Nelson Family Farms. In 2022, she co-founded Heirloom Brands, a premium food company with a focus on producing better-for-you, better-for-the-earth foods.
One of Heirloom Brands’ first strategic moves was to acquire Kansas-based flour miller Farmer Direct Foods — formerly named the American White Wheat Producers Association — which consisted of a network of second and third-generation farmers producing organic and traditional 100% whole white wheat, whole red wheat flour, and patent flour.
The acquisition had a family connection … some of the heirloom grains that FDF mills are supplied by Nelson Family Farms.
With FDF’s proprietary grower network expanding along with consumer interest in foods manufactured with regenerative farming practices, Eckert needed help, specifically, an experienced flour miller. She had to look no farther than her cousin, Keaton, a fourth-generation flour miller with a bachelor’s degree in Milling Science and Management from KSU.
With their family legacy as the foundation, Hayley and Keaton are poised to take the grain and flour milling industry to the next level.
Ironically, that looks similar to where that legacy began, with the Hale’s belief in back-to-basics farming methods that will foster sustainability for the industry.
Thanks to the framework put in place by Joyce Hale more than 50 years ago, Hayley and Keaton are leading FDF toward its own legacy of artisan-quality products that are good for consumers, good for farmers and good for the earth.