Spring has arrived here in Maine, and colors are popping after a season of white snow and black, bare branches. A male goldfinch–bright yellow flower in flight–perched on my window feeder for a moment or two before flying off into the beech trees. Pink blossoms adorn the crabapple tree I planted last fall, and the chives look about ready to show their lavender flowers. I think we may have seen the last of the frost. It’s the season of planting, and I have much to do this year in my brand-new “square foot gardening” boxes.
But I’m not writing about gardening today. In between manic sessions of digging manure into my flower beds, sticking a few showy annuals among the still-green perennials, and mulching the whole lot, I found time to bake a loaf of bread.
Last summer, after seven months on a macrobiotic diet that nixed processed grains in favor of whole ones like brown rice, millet, couscous, and barley, I took up the practice of baking my daily bread rather than spend $5 a loaf for the organic bread from the supermarket. To my surprise, I enjoyed mixing the dough, kneading it until the surface was baby-skin soft, and punching the risen ball back down into the greased bowl. The smell of baking bread perfuming my house for an hour or two was heavenly, but seeing those golden-topped loaves on my counter brought a deep, primal satisfaction impossible to replicate by throwing plastic-wrapped, corn-syrup laden slices of supermarket bread into a grocery cart.
When fall rolled around, I immersed myself in finishing the rewrite of a romance novel and my regular volunteer committments and let my bread-baking slide. Oh, I baked a few loaves here and there throughout the winter, but mostly I got out of the habit. However, with my renewed enthusiasm for all things local and handmade, along with a resolve to eat whole (if not completely macrobiotic) foods again, I’ve decided to resume baking my own bread.
Since I am a stay-home mom, I have more time than most women to practice the age-old art of breadmaking, but even working women can create their own bread with the use of a bread machine. Imagine coming home at the end of the day to the smell of fresh-baked bread and the taste of a chewy, delicious slice of whole-wheat or white with your evening meal. My friend Sharon at the library uses her bread machine almost daily and has experimented with whole grains until she now has her loaves perfected.
Even making bread the old-fashioned way doesn’t take much time, if you only count the minutes actually spend working the dough. I’ve been known to stash the dough in the refrigerator before the last rising in order to run errands. This “retards” the dough, and I think it actually improves the flavor of the finished product while earning me a little more flexibility in my schedule.
kneading the dough
There are many good recipes for basic bread out there, so I won’t go into a blow-by-blow account of the process. This time, I used a basic white bread recipe from the Betty Crocker Cookbook. As I mixed and kneaded and punched and rolled, I found myself wondering if I could bake even a simple loaf of bread without the vast food network of big wheat operations in the mid-west, overland trucking, and supermarket chains. Where would I get flour? What could I use for leavening? At it’s most basic, bread is a combination of milled grain, yeast, and water. The addition of some sort of sugar helps feed the yeast, and most recipes call for a small amount of oil. In this white bread, for example, I put in a tablespoon of olive oil and a tablespoon of local honey. While the honey was locally produced, everything else came from the grocery store.
A self-sustainable community, the kind of community I envision, should provide dietary staples such as ingredients for bread. Who grows wheat or oats anymore, I wondered? Where does baker’s yeast come from? Could it be produced in Maine if necessary? Are there other options for leavening?
So, off I went into the wide world of the internet, in search of information about yeast. Yeast production on a mass scale is complicated and precise. The Dakota Yeast company provides an excellent webpage on the subject–beginning with the strain of yeast to which is added molasses as the sugar on which the yeast will feed and reproduce. Into various tanks this mixture goes until finally a “yeast cream” is achieved. This can be stored as is or dried into “yeast cake” and crumbled. Manufacturers then sell fifty-pound bags of the stuff to customers. I’m assuming these are customers such as Fleishmann’s who then package and sell their product to grocery stores where we, the consumers, purchase the yeast in those handy little, yellow packets or the brown-colored glass jars.
I think, perhaps, this process could be replicated on a smaller, more local scale if necessary as long as the requisite sugar substance–molasses or beet sugars–could be obtained. We can grow beets here in Maine, but I’m not sure if they are the right type for beet sugar. More research for me, I guess. I am constantly amazed by the pathways down which I am led in my quest for sustainability options.
There are other, more ancient, ways of leavening our daily bread, however. I have a jar of such stuff in the back of my ‘fridge right now, a sourdough starter given to me by the wonderful Sharon. The sourdough starter is simply a mixture of yeasts, water, and flour. The process of using the starter is more complicated than the baker’s yeast. For one thing, unless you are baking every day, you have to store the paste in the refrigerator, reactivating it for about three days prior to baking by feeding it with more flour and water until it is good and “healthy” again.
I’ve made some good old-fashioned sourdough bread from this starter, but I cringe at the waste of all that flour in the process. As you add cupfuls at a time, you end up with way more starter than you need, and so down the drain it goes unless you have a friend who wants to cultivate their own. Perhaps if food were scarce, we’d be glad of a fresh loaf of bread every day. In that case, you would simply reserve a cup or two from that day’s breadmaking, add some flour and water the next day, and use half to leaven tomorrow’s dough.
But where would we get all this flour?
I went on a search of the Maine Department of Agriculture website as well as the Maine Growers and Farmers Association (MOFGA), and found, to my amazement, that there are some hardy souls growing grains other than corn right here in the state. One of these is Hatchet Cove Farm in Warren. Click on the name to check out their website. There are others you can find at the MOFGA page here. We even have some grain MILLS in operation, though none in my particular area of southern Maine. Still, the technology is here and the processes haven’t been forgotten. Woo-hoo!
Here’s what I’d love to see in my community . . . and every community. Farmland surrounding the town center. And on some of that farmland I’d love to see fields of hardy winter wheat, oats, corn, and buckwheat sending up bright green shoots in the springtime. I’d love to see a grainmill in every town, perhaps beside a fast-running stream or river so as to be powered by a non-oil resource, and in every town a baker’s shop where those who didn’t have time or desire to bake their own bread could purchase a daily loaf or two.
pretty little ball of dough
Apparently, Governor Baldacci has similar concerns. In 2004 he commissioned a study by a Local Agriculture Department Task Force co-chaired by his wife, First Lady Karen Baldacci and Charles Spies, to come up with recommendations for policies to support and sustain Maine’s local agriculture. The study found that Maine food producers generate 1.4 billion dollars in sales per year and that Maine households spend 3 billion dollars on food. However, Mainers spend only 4% of this 3 billion on locally produced agriculture products! The study concluded that if Mainers would spend just 10% of their food dollars on Maine products, farm income in our state would increase by 40%.
Can you imagine farmers actually making a living wage? Wouldn’t that encourage others to take up farming, perhaps right in our own communities?
The study also identified eight issues that effect the growth and viability of local agriculture. They are as follows:
1. Lack of appreciation for agriculture’s value to community and local economy. If those who make decisions for our communities could be educated about the high value of local agriculture, and if we members of the community supported local agricultural efforts with our food dollars, then perhaps we could encourage the retention and creation of local farms.
2. Infrastructure–Fragmentation of farms and farm landscapes results in breakdown of local agricultural industries. This is a landuse issue, a zoning issue. We don’t need more housing development, people. We need to preserve and expand our farmland. High density housing surrounded by farmland is preferable to suburban living if we are talking about a sustainable future.
3. Lack of consumer knowledge about nutritional and flavor advantages of locally grown food. Local food tastes better and is better for you than the stuff trucked from California, Mexico, or Washington State.
4. Small growers and operators are at a disadvantage to large-scale agricultural industries. It’s the old “economy of scale” issue. The bigger you are, the more you can buy in bulk, the better the deal you can get. What if, though, local farmers could share some equipment costs in a cooperative arrangement? Or pooled their resources to order seeds in larger quantities for a better price? As the costs of oil and oil products rises, I believe the gap will close.
5. Preserve the farms currently in operation. No further explanation necessary.
6. Inadequate financing options. It isn’t easy to get financing if you are a small, independent farmer. We should encourage our state government and local banks to create financing packages for would-be agricultural producers. This is also something our overly-large federal government could do. Rather than giving subsidies to large-scale agribusinesses, why not subsidize (for a limited time) small-scale farms?
7. Help manage costs of production. Can you imagine trying to run a farm, feed and clothe your family, and still pay the exhorbitant amount needed for health insurance? Not to mention fuel for the tractors and heating costs for the home and barns? You don’t get health benefits and dental insurance when you are an independent farmer. Used to be there was a local doctor who would take farm produce in exchange for healthcare, but a doctor’s visit now costs over one-hundred dollars, not counting the extra charges for lab work and medications. If you were just starting out, would you chose a career that didn’t include health benefits? If we want more farmers, we have to figure out a way to make it a viable career option.
8. Labor costs. Running a farm takes many hands. Hands cost money. What happens when you have to provide health care for your employees? How do you pay a salary at planting time when the profits won’t roll in until harvest?
See the complete report here. You can click on the PDF link from this page.
It’s all about what we value, folks. I’m going to be searching out Maine-grown and processed flours. Proving the adage “seek and ye shall find”, when I clicked on the MOFGA homepage for the third time today, an announcement popped up regarding the annual Kneading Conference in Skowhegan this summer! There will be demonstrations in bread making, how-to’s on building your own backyard bread oven, and Maine grain growers. See here for details. And try baking a loaf of bread. It’s food for the soul.
ps: Do you have good bread-baking tips? A favorite recipe? A lead on where to purchase local milled grain in your neck of the woods? Post a comment and share the knowledge! I’d love to hear from you.