“What are we talking about when we say ‘slow/local/sustainable’? These words have been so overused and co-opted as to have no meaning anymore. There is the standard definition in relation to the food movement – food made by hand, products made with ingredients from that region, food that is in tune with the environment.” But what do the words mean to each of us personally?
The question isn’t an idle one and Dawn Woodward, owner of Evelyn’s Crackers, a Toronto farmers-market based business that produces crackers, pastries and baking mixes from local organically grown whole grains, placed her answer to it at the very core of her keynote address to The Grain Gathering 2016.
To Dawn, slow means more than made by hand. It means taking the long view of where she wants to be in the next five, ten, twenty years. Local means using only local or regional whole grains in ways that support farmers and millers in her area. And sustainable means making a living, having a business that will carry on and having a work-life balance so that she can be a mom, a wife, a baker and an entrepreneur.
Nine years ago, “when we began, we had access to Red Fife wheat, spelt, buckwheat, rye and barley to play with. At that time, none of the farmers we knew were sifting flour or growing wheat suitable for an all-purpose or high protein flour. With only these heritage grains available, we developed over ten kinds of crackers and a line of baked goods that continues to evolve and grow today.” A limited pantry forces creativity. “How many ways can I use buckwheat without turning everything grey and earthy tasting?” No one else in Toronto was doing what Dawn and her husband/partner Edmund Rek were doing and they thought they were going to be incredibly successful and expand rapidly. But “the market hadn’t yet grasped the concept of grains as local agriculture, in people’s minds, wholegrain was synonymous with cardboard, and handmade crackers were seen as an indulgence. It was a lesson in humility and perseverance.”
They regrouped, simplified their recipes to highlight the flavor of the grain, raised their prices to actually pay for the labor that went into the crackers and focused on educating consumers at the local farmers’ market.
” Our goal is to push people’s expectations on what whole grains can do, how they taste and showcase that a regional grain economy is possible and desirable. Developing formulas that highlight whole grains and give the texture and flavor I want and customers will like, takes time.”
Because there was no supply chain already set up, they had to make one happen. A painstaking task. Today more farmers are participating in the system and the business is playing a small role in helping create a more local and sustainable community: for instance one of their farmers no longer has to export his rye and spelt to Germany. Still Canada is a huge country with most grain coming from the prairies of Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan. Connecting with Ontario grain growers and millers is a slow process. There are plenty of grains grown within a hundred miles of Toronto, but the system is still a patchwork. The largest Ontario mill sources primarily from out west and most local farmers do not deal with distributors. “I have to connect with the farmer, make sure they have a miller and a way to get the flour to Toronto.” And then there is often a disconnect between the farmer and the baker, the miller and the baker. There is a constant need for dialogue.
Dawn’s approach to whole grains has evolved over the years in part thanks to the Grain Gathering: “At the second Grain Gathering, Naomi Duguid and I made fifteen kinds of single varietal crackers for people to taste, and talked about creating a vocabulary to describe grain. Grain becomes the flavor, the different varieties are ways to create more flavors.”
Participating in this regional grain economy has been a slow and deliberate journey. Dawn and Ed have seen positive change and built close connections with their customers and suppliers. And they love being part of a bigger movement.
But nine years into her business, Dawn can’t tell for sure whether or not the movement is fully sustainable. How to make it possible for the next generation to come onboard ? What is the larger goal? And finally what is going to sustain the baker, so that she can keep pushing boundaries?
The business needs to grow as the baker looks towards retirement, it needs to start running without her as the main motor. The focus may have to change, putting more emphasis on lower labor items like baking mixes, working with the local culinary school to change the baking curriculum, opening a storefront to have a steadier income.
“Our customers know what we offer tastes better and is better for the local economy, better from a nutritional standpoint and offers them a personal connection in their shopping, but it can be hard to get them to understand that we all need to make a living and that it means charging a certain price.” There is a cost to working with local that has to be passed onto consumers. To keep the movement going forward, “we need to keep pushing the notion that food producers and their employees need to be paid a living wage and we need to commit to making more whole grain products.”
“Instead of my Instagram feed crowded with hairy forearms holding up high-extraction loaf crumb shots, I would love to see those arms holding up baked goods made from local whole grains! It doesn’t have to be bread. It could be cookies or scones or crackers.”
The movement is exploding at an exponential rate. Multiple articles are appearing in mainstream publications. It is essential not to lose our focus on local, organic and bio-dynamic and on working with independent farmers and millers. “I would encourage everyone to develop items made with a local or regional wheat where you know the farmer and the miller. It might not be the best flour for a baguette or croissant, but figure out what it is the flour is best for and run with it.”
“I am in love with the idea of milling your own grain and it is exciting to see how it seems to spreading across North America, but let’s not forget that regional mills and experienced millers are key in completing the local economy circle. A miller can reach a larger audience, help more farmers stay in business and offer a wider variety of grains to the community.”
“The larger picture of sustainable includes all of us. It includes building networks of people- producers and customers. It means decentralizing wheat production and being on guard about being co-opted by national brands and agri-businesses. We need to be clear why local/regional is the answer and it is not enough to use single varietal grains, organic grain, wholegrain- the grains we use need to be grown where we live. So maybe this isn’t a question of how we scale up, but how we scale horizontally and create more local business. A national movement is strongest when it is made up of many local bases.”
“We are all in this together- we need to be generous with each other and share our formulas, experiments, marketing and mistakes. It is the only way to push this movement forward. Through transparency and sharing we raise the level of everyone’s baking and inspire each other to push harder, be more creative and more successful.”
As I closed my notebook and put away my pen, I was thinking: “Yes!”
It is undeniable that for the slow/local movement to have a sustainable future we all need to get involved, at our level, in our communities. And I love it that Dawn made personal Time a factor in the equation. At the individual level, nothing is ever forever, is it?
It isn’t enough to be personally committed. We need to stimulate the interest and share the passion. We need to educate the young, be they would-be grain gatherers or consumers. The Grain Gathering is doing its part to spread the word and build connections. As Dawn noted, it has certainly come a long way since 2011: “Five years ago, the workshops at this conference were using a lot of white/sifted flours and look at it now, we have broadened the base of the pyramid quite a bit…There is a class on single varietal breads, lectures on local wheat testing and a demo on how to nixtamalize rye and buckwheat.”
Equally clear to me is the fact that not all bakers are in a position to do what Dawn and Ed were able to do. We don’t all live in grain-growing regions. A logical step at a future Grain Gathering would be a discussion of access to non-commodity grain, both in economical and geographical terms and I sincerely hope that it will be placed on the agenda sooner rather than later.
Meanwhile I will cherish the image of a Toronto baker working towards a better future for her community “one cracker at a time.” Way to go, Dawn!