The rural way of life, in the idyllic form it has been written about so many times before, is changing. Gone are the days of literal farm to plate. Instead, we’ve given way to big box and big thinking, with a ripped away sense of self. Drive our local roads and farmland stretches for miles. Cows soak up the sun in the pasture, and crops grow at the whim of nature, along with a loving hand from those putting them in the ground. It’s not as simple as that anymore, however. Change has brought on government roadblocks, with missteps and misfires, and a clinging to what once was by those fixed on keeping a sense of community that has slowly seeped away. This week, the Press brings you part two in an ongoing series about our changing rural landscape and what may or may not be next to come for it.
WINCHESTER – Biting into a freshly baked loaf of bread is one of life’s simplest pleasures, but bread is hardly that simple these days, and neither is running a bakery.
The idea of a village baker is one of the pillars of the utopian vision of what rural life is, but is it reasonable, or realistic, to assume it will continue to survive as it is or as it once was?
Few villages still have a baker, let alone the butcher or candlestick maker, but Anne Carriere, Claire Faguy and Cheryl Beasley willingly took on the challenge of running a catering and bakery business, Simply Baked Inc., more than a year ago in Winchester.
Merrickville, Almonte, and more recently Smiths Falls, boast a slew of specialty and local retail shops that attracts, tourists, active seniors and young families. Winchester is an agricultural community that primarily supplies global markets.
While starting a bakery in a small rural village would seem like a dream to some, and may be slightly easier in a tourist hub, the reality is much different.
Competition is high, the playing field isn’t level and consumer priorities, expectations and education are in disarray.
The one presumed advantage for a “mom and pop” small town bakery is the “buy local” mantra, which has been a rallying cry against big box bullies for decades.
But “local” is undefined and often it can hinder as much as it helps.
“Even though it’s a local company supplying us, it may not be a local product so by the time it gets to us, sometimes it’s not great. It makes me angry because I want good quality,” said Carriere. “To be able to use local [produce] for a wedding of 180 people, I would have to go to five different smaller people.”
The story is the same on the bakery side of the business. Finding local grain would seem like a no-brainer in a region that has a wealth of top grade farmland, but with the closure of Homestead Organics in 2018, Simply Baked was forced to “go back to the big guys” to get a reliable supply.
There remains a gap in the local food network with small businesses unable to get what they need from local farmers when they need it.
“It has to be one hub and then you can go to that grocery store so that all those small local people are growing for the bigger market. It would have to be a local bigger,” said Carriere. “Convenience of buying a large amount for a great price. That is always the thing for any business, we want a great price.”
Farms in this region will continue to sell their product to the global market because the business model makes financial sense and selling to a local market is time consuming, unstable and the demand is simply not there yet.
In order for a local food distribution centre to work, consumer demand for local food must reach a tipping point, but first a change in priorities and a re-education must take place.
“A lot of schools are now starting to work that back into the school program. It lets kids get to know where their food is actually coming from. It’s not coming from the store. We need to teach our kids how to think and learn for themselves,” said Faguy. “What ends up happening is that these kids get used to being spoon fed everything. They don’t have to think. They don’t have to go look for something. They don’t know how to learn. Our education system needs to change so that these kids know how to teach themselves.”
A hands-off approach to food has led us to look at it more as convenience rather than something that is a vital part of our day and can be a pleasurable experience. The ever-increasing pace of life has further blurred the lines of what is good for you and what is good enough for right now.
Something as simple as what constitutes a healthy breakfast can cause great debate as marketing and misinformation blur the lines.
“The people at Kellogg’s have incredible pull. They made us all believe that we need to have some sort of grain for breakfast piled on with milk,” said Faguy.
Speed over quality has left us sick, tired and addicted.
“I believe, too, because everybody is so busy working that we eat a lot of processed food. Once you consume it once, you’re just hooked. You just want more. People ‘treat’ themselves all the time with garbage,” said Carriere.
Treating yourself well seems to be in lock step with consuming empty fast food calories rather than fresh baked goods.
When it comes to everyday products, such as bread, the average consumer buys in bulk, often at discount prices. The loaf in question is made at scale, put in a plastic bag and, shipped on a truck and then placed on a shelf before eventually being consumed over the next few weeks. Rarely, if ever, does someone buy fresh bread daily. Even rarer still are those that make their own at home.
So unrealistic expectations of what something should cost and how long it should keep are heavily stacked against the local baker.
“People think that a can of tuna should always cost $1 and it will cost $1 until the day they die. Are you still only making 15 cents an hour? How do you expect anyone to make any money so that you can have this wonderful product?,” said Carriere.
No bread should last forever, and if it does, the ingredients should be questioned.
“It is what it is. There’s no extra in there. That’s why our bread only lasts for three days because there’s nothing else in there, just the nutrition that you want,” said Carriere.
In the U.S., Food and Drug Administration regulations state that for bread to be labeled as “bread,” it must be made of flour, yeast, and usually water. But when bleached flour is used, acetone peroxide, chlorine, and benzoyl peroxide (used to treat acne) can be included along with other optional ingredients like shortening, sweeteners, ground dehulled soybeans, coloring, potassium bromate, azodicarbonamide (used in yoga mats), and other dough strengtheners.
This is bread.
With most people now more than two generations removed from the family farm, the simplicity of a common loaf of bread seems lost.
Having a place to purchase fresh, locally made bread derived from raw materials grown by local farmers, was once commonplace in the villages of old, but today is relegated to trendy neighbourhoods or looked at as a frivolous expense.
The baker of days gone by relied heavily on wheat, dairy, fruits and eggs provided by the local farm, keeping the money local and the population well fed, with little to no preservatives or additives.
“Whenever I first started my first café in South Mountain I used to go to the egg farm and get my eggs. Suddenly, I wasn’t allowed to do that anymore. You have to go through the process. That costs money. All those employees need to get paid,” said Carriere.
Globalization has created legislation in the name of profits, food security and consistency. Our food is standardized across global markets, but what’s good for the world market and the big corporate bottom line is not necessarily good for the body, and in turn, the mind, environment, community or local businesses.
Much like the problems that face abattoirs, regulations, a lack of local supply links and continued financial pressure put on by the relentless global market, has made the bakery business only for the brave.
The way forward to a more sustainable, local food network will weigh heavily on the producers, but the catalyst must be consumer choice through education. But without putting it into practice, the lesson is lost.
“People don’t want to absorb that knowledge. They don’t put it into practice because it’s very hard to get away from having cereal for breakfast,” said Carriere.
Creating a local food network with its own legislation would also be a positive step.
“We have to follow health department rules. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that they have to make sense,” said Beasley. “It’s just a matter of building the blocks and getting it going.”