The rustic bread slides out of the oven, steaming softly in the cool night breeze. It is 4 a.m. and baker Beth Sollars has only three hours until the opening farmer’s market. The bread will still be
hot for her first customers.
“Bread is this ancient thing. If you look back in all cultures, in all traditions, bread has been in some way a part of human existence,” Sollars said while the light of the wood-fired oven catches her eyes.
When Wake Robin Farm owner Gail Lunsford came up with the original recipe for the farm’s sourdough 16 years ago, she followed centuries of tradition by making the bread with only three ingredients: water, salt and flour. She said she knew she needed a great flour. Ideally, a flour unique to the area.
Sourcing local grain for such flour proved challenging. According to the USDA, most of the wheat in the U.S. comes from large midwestern farms. Wheat loves the climate of the midwest and needs relatively little water. The government subsidizes the wheat ensuring a constant stream of grain to the market. The International Development Research Center reports that 35 percent of the world depends on wheat.
Imagine then what happened in 2008 when the market collapsed and the price of wheat skyrocketed. Jennifer Lapidus, a lifelong woodfire baker and local miller, recounts the impact it had.
“It shook our commodities market. The price of wheat shot up over 100 percent. It wasn’t affordable to so many and caused starvation,” Lapidus said. “So, all of us bakers, Wake Robin being one of them, pulled our chairs into a circle and began seriously talking about the possibility of working directly with growers.”
Lapidus works out of a small office, previously the guard booth to the parking lot for a series of warehouses. The sun warms the room while she slightly cracks the endless windows to let in the soft breeze, stirring the small white cloths that hopelessly try for privacy. Lapidus now runs Carolina Mill, as the general manager and operator.
“Our goal was to create a market for large scale organic grains that were Southern-grown, lessen the food miles of the baker, make it economical, sustainable, and de-commodify wheat; close the gap between the baker and the farmer,” Lapidus said. “There were very few of us at the time who knew what it looked like from the end of the farmer.”
Lapidus confessed they got a bit lucky. At the same time they looked into building the market, David Marshall, a USDA wheat breeder based out of North Carolina State University, conducted trials on regionally adapted bread wheat. In 2008, North Carolina harvested its first crop.
“Our group was committed to finding organic, local grains connected with David. At the same time we received funding by North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund and Santa Fe Tobacco,” said Lapidus, who shook her head at the surprise in knowing that much of the funding for the project came from tobacco money. “We tend to work with organic tobacco farmers who need to rotate their crops every three rotations.”
Back on Wake Robin Farm, Steve Bardwell gestures around at the forest rising on all sides of the homestead. Wind chimes ring quietly in chorus with the birds.
“This once was farmland, about a hundred years or so ago. It was the traditional mountain farming strategy. On the floor of the valley, you have the animals. On the hills, tobacco,” Bardwell said.
Bardwell lives with his wife Lunsford on her family’s land. They moved back in the 1990s, but the land has been in Lunsford’s family since the 1800s. Lunsford pulls out an old deed, showing the original land. Husband and wife now own only 70 acres, but Lunsford’s sisters own land all around.
Wake Robin Farm’s crusty sourdough represents a change in the rural Western North Carolina agriculture. According to Appalachian State University, multi-generational small tobacco farms in the mountains cannot keep up with larger scale growers in the Piedmont region of the state. The university researchers note rural areas depend on community involvement to prosper by sharing techniques, seeds and product. To survive, rural communities must find new strategies. From the grain production to the hands of the customer, Wake Robin reinvents the path through familiar territory.
Sollars’ industrial-sized standing mixer whomps the whole wheat flour with water. Flour covers every surface, including her hair and glasses. In her element, the baker smiles as she kneads.
“With people going back and getting rid of all the crap we have been putting into the food, the products are getting healthier. Using heritage grains, using basic ingredients and methods like fermentation,” Sollars said.
She mixes in the 16-year-old sourdough starter from Lunsford’s first batch of bread. Wild yeast caught from the air ferments with water and flour in the starter. Bardwell explained that because of this process, no two traditional sourdoughs will ever be the same. The bread will now rise for 12 hours.
When the group of bakers and bread enthusiasts established Carolina Mill, they researched both traditional methods and commercial methods.
“Roller milling the grain, which is a commercial milling process, is an incredibly efficient way of processing flour but it takes the soul out of the grain.” Lapidus laughs at her hyperbole, then continues more seriously. “It makes this fluffy white flour, which is very easy to work with. But it lacks nutrients and flavor profile. The stone mill is important to us in underscoring the flavor and place.”
Lapidus said Carolina Mill considers the nutrient content in its processing technique.
“We cold-grind our flour to protect the germ from the vitamin E. Instead of separating out all the parts, we use this ancient technology, this stone on stone and the oils are allowed to spread throughout the flour,” said Lapidus.
As the dough rises, Sollars must feed the fire every two hours for the next 12 hours. Bardwell said they use pine harvested through sustainable forestry techniques. The pine burns hot and fast, bringing the temperature of the oven up to 1,200 degrees. Then she puts out the fire.
Sollars doesn’t get much sleep in the three days leading up to the market. On Friday, she stays up through the whole night baking and drinking coffee. But, she knows the grueling task proves worth it.
When Sollars took over the bakery, she said Lunsford wanted to ensure that those who depended on the bread would still be able to get it. Wake Robin Farm sustains both the customers and Sollars.
“There is a following. A group of committed people who come every single week to get their bread and they are always so thankful,” Sollars shook her head and continued, “But I’m thankful for them. Without them, there would be no market for this kind of product. That in itself is inspiring.”
Back in the small office surrounded by sunshine, books and papers, the miller spoke with pride on how she considers the community in every decision.
“It’s my job to try to keep this ship afloat. I feel strongly that this needs to be a profitable, fiscally responsible business. We need to have a society that is sustainable in this way. It’s a tough equation, but we are doing it. We are in our fifth year,” Lapidus paused took a breath, then said, “so there’s that.”