Micro-bakeries help close the circle

🕔Aug 04, 2010

A cloud of steam pours from the mouth of Skeena Bakery’s oven as head baker Sonia Johnson pulls out a third tray of the bakery’s trademark chocolate buns.

“People really like their chocolate buns,” she says, grinning, “but the cheese buns are the best sellers.”

More than just buns have been a hit with customers. Since it opened in New Hazelton in July 2009, Skeena Bakery’s wide selection of organic artisan breads—from baguettes made according to French law to German rye, whole spelt and focaccia—has drawn customers from far and wide.

“We get big orders from Terrace that we ship out on the bus,” says Sonia. It’s not uncommon for customers to stop in and load up on bread on their way home to Smithers.

One of the latest additions to the Northwest’s growing assemblage of craft bakeries, Skeena Bakery does more than just provide good food. As a social enterprise established and managed by the Skeena Supported Employment Society, the bakery began with a community vision to provide meaningful work opportunities for people with disabilities and other barriers to employment. After two years of planning, organizers secured storefront space on Highway 16, sufficient funds to renovate it, and an experienced co-ordinator to direct and administer the start-up phase. Nearly a year later, Skeena Bakery provides valuable work experience in a community with limited options and is in the process of formalizing vocational training and transition programs.

Food community
Skeena Bakery is a thriving example of the sort of enterprise that is redefining community economies in the North. Consumers throughout the region are increasingly looking for ways to meet their basic needs close to home and support unique local businesses in the process. In many respects, the food movement is leading the way. From home-based businesses and thriving farmers’ markets to new co-operatives and social enterprises, food-related ventures supported by a strong consumer ethic are taking community economic development in new directions and to new levels.

On her farm outside of Smithers, Meg Hobson stokes the wood-fired oven at her home-based bakery, Rustica, and explains how this kind of economic development happens at the production end.

“Producers start to augment each other,” she says, citing the example of sausage vendors at the Bulkley Valley (BV) Farmers’ Market who have turned to local bakers for custom-made buns.

“This pulls more local producers together. A community develops among them and it makes them stronger.”

For Meg, working at a small scale means she can respond to producer requests and the community’s interest in her craft. As the only wood-fired bakery between Prince George and Whitehorse, Rustica is something special, and the community appreciates this.
“People are passionate about their bread,” she says. “They come and visit the bakery and their interest in food grows. I’m fascinated by the number of people who have offered to do a shift!”

The strong networks that develop around local food production are widely recognized. The organization Slow Food International coined the term “food community” to refer to these webs of producers, processors and consumers and their strong links to specific geographic, economic and cultural contexts. In the Bulkley Valley and the Hazeltons, the food community has become part of the broader community identity. As Meg observes, “People are proud of what’s happening here and they take ownership of it.”

Place-based Development
Many economic and planning analysts feel that the sort of place-based development inherent to food communities is necessary if remote rural communities are to remain economically viable in the years ahead. In a global marketplace where easy transportation and the removal of trade barriers result in stiff competition, promoting the unique qualities of a locale is a necessary way to help community economies prosper.

Ursula Yekker knows all about the value of place. For over 16 years she has run the thriving FoxHole Bakery from her family’s farm near Telkwa. In the first years, the Yekker family grew all of the bakery’s wheat in the surrounding fields. As the years passed and the business expanded, this kind of field-to-table production became less viable, but the potential to rekindle it remains. The Yekkers own the equipment needed to grow and process wheat, and Ursula is keen to support local farmers.

“I’m 100 percent supportive of people growing grain,” she says, “but it needs to be their passion. It’s not easy, and the quality has to compare with what we buy.”

The bakery’s array of hand-made products is vast. Bread, granola, baked treats, custom-milled flours and prepared frozen foods are on sale each week at the BV Farmers’ Market. Added to that is a catering service that sources local produce wherever possible. The impressive selection demonstrates both the breadth of Ursula’s skill and her understanding of her customers’ needs.

“Through the summer, the bulk of our sales are through the farmers’ market,” she says. “We built the bakery at the time the market started and it seemed like a great outlet.”

Thanks to this brand of hard work and consistency, the BV Farmers’ Market has grown into an institution that, according to a UNBC study in 2006, contributes an estimated $422,000 to the local economy each year.
Closing the Circle
As agrarian writer and small farmer Wendell Berry famously observed: “We all eat for a living.” This simple truth is laden with opportunity for rural economies. We all eat, and the first place we can look for sustenance is into the heart of our home community. When people start thinking and eating this way the results are striking: farming and market-gardening become more viable livelihoods, informed consumers hold farmers accountable for sound land-stewardship practices, and value-added cottage industries grow into sound business options. Northern BC’s generous endowment of rich soils, clean water and entrepreneurial spirits mean that meeting a greater portion of its food needs locally is the low-hanging fruit of regional economic development.

The full benefits of these community businesses extend far beyond the numbers, though. Braunwyn Henwood, who has logged many hundreds of volunteer hours as a director on the board of the Skeena Supported Employment Society, explains the social spin-off effects of the bakery.

“The bakery has done way better than expected, and in ways that have nothing to do with the financial side of things,” she says. “There’s a real social aspect: people visiting, talking and enjoying the community.”

“You come in here and it brightens your day,” agrees Martin Penner, another board member. “Everyone’s smiling, laughing and having a good time. Then you add the smell of fresh bread—wow!”

Community food security occurs when all community residents obtain a culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice. In a true expression of this spirit, unsold bread from the Skeena Bakery is distributed widely.

“I take the leftover bread and give it to the elders,” says Sonia, “They love it! My mom is 93 years old—she loves the raisin bread best.”

The result of these ways of doing business is likely to be rural communities that are more diverse, healthy and resilient to economic and demographic challenges.

On the sunny patio of FoxHole Bakery, Ursula Yekker thoughtfully sums up the ethos that drives community-minded businesses as she explains her own relationship to her work:

“It’s really more of a livelihood than a job.”