Do we need another bread factory?

Written by Warwick Quinton. Posted in Yarns

The Tree Change

This last couple of years I've found myself coming into contact with lots of 'tree changers'. These folk are in the process of discovering for themselves another way of living. In some cases they are looking to simply get more self sufficient by making bread at home, or growing vegies, or raising chooks for the family and sometimes friends. This often comes about as a response to the effects of industrialised food systems - which supply pretty much everything we eat these days.

 Sourdough workshopOften these tree changers have had to deal with health issues, and have discovered that the food we eat is not at all nutritious when it comes out of a factory of some kind. They come to my outdoor bakery here in the foothills of the Watagan mountains to learn how to make bread at home. Making bread at home is like growing vegies, raising chooks or even brewing beer. It's more than an activity - it's a statement.

The Forest Change 

Still other tree changers see an opportunity to make a slightly larger step into the world of making good quality bread for their community, and, 'scuse the pun, they want to make some dough from making dough. Or, make some bread by making bread. They just want to make a crust...I could go on, but I'll spare you. Anyway, they do this for a multitude of reasons, some of them purely entrepreneurial, some to do with their own mental and/or physical health, and some altruistic. I call these folk 'Forest Changers'. 

These entrepreneurial tree changers identify that there is no really good artisan bread in their locality, and there is a need for this. So they come here to Mooladhara, where I train them intensively in the art of how to produce small to medium volumes of bread, with the three 'C's of Consistency, Consistency and Consistency in mind.

I train them in the method I have been using for many years now - a very slow fermentation technique, with a number of simple stages, progressing towards baking on the sole of my woodfired oven.

I also help them to kick around their business plan over the four days they are here, hopefully to strengthen it; to make it more sustainable for them, and often more affordable to infrastruct. 

On occasion, I also work with professional bakers who just want to gain more skill. They are here because sourdough bread offers an opportunity to build a larger customer base, or to retain an existing customer base who are being led towards healthier and more flavoursome offerings elsewhere. Often, these bakers have been in the trade for as long as I have, and have chosen to own and /or work in smaller retail style bakeries because they enjoy the varied nature of the work, and can input into things in this environmnent.

And then there's the Sawmill...

I have also worked with full scale factory bakeries, which spend their time pumping out tonnes of sourdough every day; I would classify these as supply style bakeries. And, to further the analogy, where the forest can end up - the sawmill.

They work with distributors, rather than actual customers who eat their bread. This part of what I do provides me with the least pleasure, as I can see the longing the people who work there have to do something more like what I do - bake on a small scale in a woodfired oven, once or twice a week. This longing soon evaporates once they return to their factories, however, as the pressures of their multiple stakeholders take hold of them as soon as they walk back in to their machine. 

Such is the nature of the beast. It's one I am very familiar with, and one I struggle to come to terms with these days - and I intend to elaborate on this theme later. When I train 'artisan factory' bakers, I like to think that I've provided them with something to think about while they are here, at the very least. The method I teach is for small scale production, and it can be scaled up, of course - but in the end, the bigger the bakery, the shorter the production process has to be. Everybody wants to work to the 'just in time' principle - the customer wants to order their bread as late as possible, so that they can respond to the daily fluctuations in trading, thereby reducing waste or allowing them to capitalise from last minute catering jobs. As a result, the bakery is forced to run a very quick production schedule to keep their customers happy, and this leads to daily volatility becoming the normal operating principle.

In my opinion, healthy bread doesn't like to be hurried. Neither do bakers. Quick production routines answer a production problem, but I know that slow fermentation of dough makes the bread more digestible, idiosyncratic and unique. It's a bit harder to manage things from a production point of view, but in the end, a slow bread doesn't kill your customer. I'm not quite sure where one draws the line between a 'slow' bread and a 'quick' bread - so lets not draw a line at all. Let's just say that the slower it can be done, the better it is for you to eat.

In an artisan bread factory, unfortunately, time is indeed money. 

Cut to size

Another issue that comes up when the volume dial in the production schedule is set to 'full' is the commodification process. It's a process I have seen happening with wines, with beers, with all kinds of produce, and of course with 'white squares' - baker's talk for bread. The name 'white square' reeks of commodification, doesn't it?

World trade systems rely on commodification to sell coal, wheat and corn, among other things. Food technologists work to create commodities of all kinds of things - from tomato sauce to baked beans. They identify what the defining feature of any given product is, and then they set about making that defining feature stand out via technological means, to aid the production of said product. That's why we get fifteen different types of tomato sauce, which are all pretty much the same.

Commodification makes life easy for the producer, marketer and the manufacturer, as features and benefits are uniform across a whole category of products. Commodification and mass production go hand in hand - but ultimately the product becomes devalued. The things which make something unique disappear, and are replaced by commonalities. Commodification reduces everything to the lowest common denominator.

Ultimately, it becomes the domain of the bean counters and technologists to engineer the product, not artisans or craftspeople, who created it before. So we get 'craft' beers which all taste the same, 'vine ripened' tomatoes which have no flavour at all, and 'sourdough' bread which has an uneven texture, and again, not much flavour.

Which is fine, I suppose - costs come down to make things, but with clever marketing, retailers can still charge a premium. We become 'sophisticated consumers' as opposed to 'customers'; meanwhile, farms become factories, bakeries become franchises, and we can move on to more important matters than feeding ourselves - like purchasing bigger TV sets, bigger cars, bigger houses, cars, computers and so on.

Via commodification, we create incessant growth, the economic heroin of our capitalist society. In short, our enslavement to the machine of production and consumption is complete.

Which brings me to the question - do we need another bread factory?

Moving away from the center

Factories are centralised places of production. They slot neatly into centralised systems of management, which is how a corporation gets to be a corporation in the first place.

The problem is that corporate thinking dehumanises us. 'I was only doing my job.' 'I am answerable only to my superior'. Things are so complicated, requiring so many layers of management. No one will take responsibility for anything. This is how great atrocities occur, if you study history - but that's another story altogether. And, in my opinion, we are headed that way again, instinctively following the 'easy', efficient corporate growth model of all care but no responsibility. 

As a business grows, layers of management become necessary. Where once, for example, the baker took the order for the bread, as I once did, this growth makes the baker more and more focussed on the production process. The baker employs someone to take the orders. Then they employ someone else to assemble the orders in a way the baker can understand them.

Soon, a bigger, more efficient oven is leased. Machines to cut the dough are also leased. Machines to cool the bread so it can be packed sooner are needed. And so forth. Now they have production capacity, so they hire a sales rep to fill the capacity. The factory workforce grows. A new delivery van is purchased. They hire a driver to drive it.

Then, they contract a web developer to create a website and e commerce platform to receive orders, collate and disseminate them. Then, more growth, and a distributor is contracted for deliveries, because the driver can't do all of them, now that the new oven needs to be run all the time. Then an accountant is hired to manage cashflow and capital. And on it goes. Layer upon layer.

In our Gross Domestic Product based economic system, we see all these things as signals of growth, and therefore a good thing. More jobs, more economic activity.

I see bread factories popping up all over the place. Little ones, medium sized ones, and big ones too. Even in the artisan bakery business, I see bakers making a success of their businesses and immediately going for growth - making a bigger artisan bread factory to supply everyone who wants their bread. The trouble is, bread factories can grow like weeds in our capitalist world, so we get more and more of what we 'want'. Or, we get what we 'want' with added extras; faster, bigger, healthier, prettier, cheaper and so on. What we 'need' is not really considered. 'Wants' are so much more attractive - so that one bread factory can compete with another - inevitably, someone will want to compete with the dominant player.

Competition and growth are like police and criminals. One always needs the other to survive.

I've also seen the casualties of competition - empty bakeries full of discarded and outmoded equipment, which has no value any more; a form of industrial waste which ultimately will have to be scrapped, after the equipment vultures have cleaned the carcass for stuff they can sell.. These empty bakeries are victims, often, of the centralised corporate machine. The bakers who once worked in them have gone on to other trades - or to working night shift in the bigger, new factory - pressing buttons or doing highly repetitive factory work. Or perhaps these bakeries have been outplayed by the other competitor(s). Anyway, the effect is the same. Industrial and human waste. We see it as a normal part of the capitalist cycle. Growth, and decay. 

If, on the other hand, we chose to decentralise things, and remove some layers of management, it would naturally occur that people would be forced to take direct responsibility for the things that they do. They would be answerable not to their superior, but to each other.

With decentralisation, we also need  collaboration. Collaboration replaces competition, because collaboration reduces friction. And with collaboration, new efficiencies are possible, because friction is reduced.

These are big ideas - decentralisation and collaboration. One, decentralisation, was visited here in Australia back in the 1970's. At that time, it was about urban decentralisation - the idea was that 'growth centres' would revitalise rural economies by diversifying economic activities in regions so that they became networks of vertical integration. The idea ultimately failed due to the high cost of duplicitious infrastructure and lack of ongoing political will - but we can learn from the general principle today. In addition, the concept of collaboration was not well developed at that time - indeed, the virus of competition was rampant in Australia in the seventies. The idea of collaboration wasn't really in the mix at that time - but with the rise of the internet, collaboration is now not only possible, it is actually becoming more widespread. A quick example would be the idea of 'open source', a means of having a technology take hold in the market place. Another example might be the phenomena of 'crowd funding'. Bothe these things have been enabled by the internet, and are products unique, I think, to this age - though I would welcome examples of these ideas before the internet came along.

I'm going to try to illustrate how the principle of decentralisation and collaboration might work together by bringing it down to a micro scale. I'm also going to weave in another cliche - sustainability. This word is, I agree, greatly overused. It's critically important now, because our wasteful mindset must be changed for any of these ideas to work - they are long term ideas, and as such require long term thinking. 

Predictably, I'm going to use a village bakery as my case study. This bakery has to become central in 'village' life - like a small cog in a bigger system. It has to be there for a long time. It can't break down. This village could be a suburb, or a weekend market, or even an actual village. It's not important how the village is defined or physically configured - all you need is regular customers who gravitate towards the village on a regular basis.

In some countries, they have enshrined the village bakery as a local treasure, along with the farms and the pubs. They do this so that they can keep the village life they also treasure. I think that we have lost the village. We need to get it back.

Revisiting the Village

The baker in the village bakery is the main character in our example. He or she could be the 'tree changer' I work with every month. They could be you. And what if you were the village baker?

You have to answer directly to your customers, in order to keep them - so customer satisfaction is your primary responsibility. In a sustainable, decentralised world, you must also take responsibility for everything else which, by your endeavours, comes under your scope of responsibility. Think about it. 'Everything' includes everything - making the bread, product development, finances, capital, cash flow, marketing, public relations, relationship with suppliers, maintenance of equipment, and so on. This already happens, to a certain extent, in any small village bakery.

But what if we were to expand your bakery's scope for it to become truly sustainable? Then your list of responsibilities would also include things like the ecological footprint of your bakery; pollution (including carbon pollution, water pollution, air pollution) and, especially, waste. And many other things besides. 

It makes sense, then, to reduce complexity in everything you do. That way, you can stay on top of this rather large range of responsibilities. So while it might be nice to make everything that everyone wants, it might not be possible. Someone else might have to make some things, so you can attend to all your responsibilities. You might be good at bread, for example - but people also want cakes. You collaborate with a cake maker, who shares your facilities if needed, and therefore rationalise the use of the bakery so that the cake maker can use it too. Or, you could use the specialist model - certain areas would become the sole responsibility of experts, trained in specialist disciplines. This article is already a stretch for the attention span, so I'm not going to expand on this idea, or why I think that too much specialisation is not a good thing. Suffice to say, I'm a believer in specialists with general responsibilities. So...

 You would remove machines which would be likely to break, or those which you could not at least repair easily. You would collaborate with people who were mechanically minded to look after your few treasured remaining machines, and offer suitable forms of enducement to do so - money being more of a reference of value in this transaction than an actual exchange medium. 

The baker can work collaboratively with others in any of these areas of responsibility - it makes sense to do so, as the village baker doesn't have the time or the money to properly attend to everything.

By working collaboratively, the village baker can create systems of mutual benefit which can eclipse money as a means of getting things done. Indeed, it is through collaborative partnerships that great innovation takes place. Of course, there is always a place for money in such a system, but if we put money somewhat to the side rather than front and centre of every transaction, and instead look for ways of achieving mutual benefit, all kinds of new things start to occur.

The real value of things emerges when we remove money from the equation. In my experience, good bread, really good bread, is worth far more to people than the dollar value we place on it. A couple of loaves of bread can equal a good meal in a fine restaurant, for example. Similarly, finding someone who can fix your fridge properly is worth quite a few favours. People start to really value each other's special skills, and people actually become defined by what they can do. There becomes a place for generosity of spirit, for appreciation, for belonging to a system that actually sustains and supports those who live within its limitations. 

I'm using the example of a village bakery for two reasons here. One is, obviously, that is what I know better than anything else.The other is that a bakery happens to illustrate quite well a larger point about the general process of decentralisation. This is a theme I feel we need to think about more, because, frankly, we are in a bit of a rut as a society, and people like me need to provoke some change.

If people instead started to think about scale and waste and responsibility and collaboration, when the need arose for more bread, the baker might consider teaching someone else how to do it, and thereby allowing someone else the pleasure of baking. As a consequence, a culture is formed, and an ally, rather than a competitor.

Or, the baker might question the need in the first place. Given that our western population is relatively slow to grow, is there really a need for more bread at all? Do people suddenly start to eat more bread? Actually, the answer to that question is no, we don't eat more bread. So if it isn't needed then why do we knead it? 

Changing the Rules

We are starting to eat bread differently, and to eat different breads. It's a fact of life that changing tastes change manufacturing, marketing and retailing processes - and it takes quite a while for the big players to adapt to changing tastes. Having said that, we artisans are creating a market niche, which is already attracting significant capital and investment.

 Fruit SourdoughWe will, for a while, compete for the consumer spend with the big players, until these corporations can eventually copy each and every one of our selling points - or if they can't, they will do the next best thing - destroy those selling points altogether.

So, the artisan bakers can either grow, and compete with the big players on price, or they can walk away, giving the gains back to the corporate, transformational beast.

Or they can change the rules.

Artisan bakers can quickly adapt to changing tastes. They can make a feature of what it is they do better, what it is they do differently. Not only that - they can get close and personal with their customer base in a way that bigger bakeries simply can't.

They can resist the temptation to grow, to compete. They can build thier various niches via engaging with their customers one on one - though local markets, social media, collaborative partnerships with simpatico businesses. The list of ways the village baker can build and strengthen their audience is limited only by the imagination of the baker - indeed, by the imagination of the village. It's always good to send a message, it's true - but it's also good to be receptive to your community. 

This doesn't necessarily mean the village baker has to turn themselves inside out to keep up with the latest trends and their customer's every whim, either. Quite the opposite. The village baker can highlight their humanity, and keep their own needs front and center, while simultaneously giving their customers more of what they need. The trick is to understand the difference between needs and wants, really. It involves having an honest conversation with your customers - one that spells out what you do, and why you do it. It also involves doing things better all the time. Not more - just better. And finding ways to communicate this. 

It also involves growing deep roots into the areas of life that your customers care about. It involves relating, engaging, and most especially, thinking about your business not as a business at all, but as a lifestyle you choose to sustain.

Wasting away

You may have heard that about half of all the food produced in the world is wasted. Simply thrown away. The cost of wastage is factored into every food you buy - but in the bakery business, wastage is a big issue. In certain franchises, the shelves must always be kept full, even at ten minutes to closing time.

When a bakery supplies a shelf's worth of bread in a small deli or health food store, it is usually their responsibility to remove (and pay for) unsold bread. Bread has between a day and a week shelf life, depending on how, or if, it is packaged. Again, more waste.

Returning to the village baker, now. How does this baker deal with their waste?  Remember, when food is wasted, it's not just the food. The waste goes right back to the farm where the grain has been grown  - the water, the soil's fertility, the seed and so on. All of these resources are wasted. 

If you, the village baker, can deal with just this one issue responsibly, you have done a good thing. Something the corporates, with their lack of responsibility so ingrained in their culture, cannot do. If they say they can, they are almost certainly lying. 

So, what can you, the village baker, do with waste? 

I'm always hearing that bakeries give their waste bread to charities and the homeless. I can tell you that there are only so many homeless people, and they can't eat all the waste bread. And a bit gets used by charities - but relatively speaking, this is not a solution.

Simply put; if a bakery creates a demand for waste, they could go out of business supplying that demand. It is therefore not in their interest to support a demand for waste.

Farmers with pigs can use the waste, but in cities this can be difficult to find. Not too many farmers near city bakeries who can use large volumes of bread. If you are running a regular bakery, with electric or gas ovens, you can't easily process this waste in any way. Of course, if your ovens have substantial thermal mass, and therefore hold heat well, then waste bread can be turned into biochar. 

I use this technique with my woodfired oven, which has a lot of brick heat after the bake. Then I use the bio char (I call it organic coal) to power my oven it burns hot and fast, so it's perfect for the early part of the cycle when I need to establish a bed to build heat upon. But if your oven is powered by grid power, the bio char can be onsold as a fertiliser or fertiliser component. It won't gather much money, but it is at least a solution that's better than simply putting it into a skip and paying the bill each month.


Or, you can make a collaborative partnership with someone who sees this waste as a resource - then you allow them to capitalise on your waste issue. I've seen it happen with things like chip fat being turned into diesel. Why not bread into biochar, or another useful bi product?

Or, you can work to eliminate overproduction. This may involve some consumer education. Do you really need to buy bread on Tuesday morning at 7am? Why not just bake bread on a couple of days a week, and in the mix, make bread that will be good to eat many days after it is baked? Teach people how to use and keep bread efficiently, so that you don't have to bake every day to satisfy a 'consumer whim', which is something our overstuffed society has been taught to expect as the norm. That way, the baker doesn't waste valuable time baking bread on days when it isn't really needed.  

Another way to look at waste is through energy. Wasting energy, be it gas, electric or personal effort, is still a waste. Why try to be all things to all people? What is it that you do the best? Think carefully about the things you are doing which perhaps you don't need to do. Do you really need to make four loaves of olive and coriander bread for the family down the road? Do you really need to open on Tuesdays? Instead of trying to fill every want, why not just deal with needs, and adjust to focus on these above all else. 

Treasure the small things

I like the idea of the village baker, or the village butcher, or even the farmer. I like the idea of small, no waste, connected business. I think we have outlived the industrial revolution, and that an industrialised, centralised, growth focussed world is no longer viable or sustainable - economically, environmentally or socially. I don't pretend to have answers for everything we need to survive on this planet - and nor do I think that everything we are doing is wrong, either. I just think that we need to treasure the small things, the things that are based around human scale, and things that can be continued as a valuable part of life for centuries to come. I reckon there are lots of ways this type of thinking can be embraced, and indeed is being embraced in many ways by many people. I am at pains to pont out that this is most definitely not about some sort of gentrified, trendy fashion statement - one which is already creeping into the world of the artisan baker - and should be viewed as an alternate but essential change to the way we are currently thinking.









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