Neighbors to the North—Of Loaves and Land
Written onNovember 15 , 2016
Over the years, we at Local Banquet have heard about Vermont farmers and food producers who have thriving professional relationships with growers and food manufacturers in Québec. So for this issue, we asked some of our writers to highlight a handful of these cross-border relationships. What follows are six vignettes about Vermont and Québec producers working together to strengthen our regional food system.
Every week at Red Hen Baking Company in Middlesex, six tons of flour is mixed, kneaded, and transformed into 18,000 loaves of bread. And five tons of that flour comes from Les Fermes Longpres, a farm run by Loic Dewavrin and his two brothers in Le Cedre, Québec, 150 miles from the bakery.
The remaining ton is sourced from Vermont grain farmers, namely Gleason Grains in Bridport and Aurora Farms in Charlotte. But while the bulk of Red Hen’s flour is not Vermont grown (the company can’t source enough from Vermont to meet its needs), the shift away from Midwest wheat to 100 percent regionally grown wheat has led to an improvement in the quality of grains sourced by Red Hen owner Randy George.
“We need to think beyond Vermont when we’re talking about local,” Randy says. “It depends on the crop. It’s remarkable what [Loic] is doing in Québec, and I’d be supportive of it wherever it was happening.”
The landscape of Québec, with its flat and open land, is more conducive to growing large tracts of crops such as wheat. Vermont’s flat land, by comparison, is limited and concentrated in the Champlain Valley, where dairies claim the bulk of the fields. While Randy has a long history of supporting Vermont grain growers, when it comes to sourcing grain he says, “It’s always been my goal as a baker that wherever I’m sourcing my grain and other ingredients, the farmer who’s working the land is caring for the land.”
Randy found that commitment in Loic, and he describes Les Fermes Longpres as “beyond organic,” not only eschewing chemical inputs, but also employing crop rotation, intercropping, and companion planting to naturally increase organic matter in the soil.
The two first met at a gathering of the Northern Grain Growers Association in 2012. Randy was later invited to visit Loic’s farm with Jack Lazor of Butterworks Farm and was impressed with both the farm’s growing methods and its new on-site mill, which processes the grains into flour. Before partnering with Loic, Randy had sourced flour from a Kansas farm, but following poor yields and high prices due to drought in the Midwest in 2013 and 2014, he increased his commitment to sourcing regional wheat, and began buying from Loic in 2015.
The partnership between Red Hen and Les Fermes Longpres is indeed a mutually beneficial one. Because of Red Hen’s scale, the bakery is able to make a meaningful impact on the business of any grain grower. During visits to the Northern Grain Growers Association conferences, Loic saw the potential for regional grain sales in the Vermont market. He’s had a harder time getting Québec bakers interested in what he’s doing, but the enthusiasm coming from Vermont led him to begin construction of his grain mill before getting commitments from any bakeries. He set up his business specifically to cater to larger buyers in the wholesale market (Vermont grain growers tend to sell to individuals through smaller direct sales), and by the time his mill was completed, Red Hen stood first in line as a regular wholesale buyer.
When talking about Loic’s farm, Randy comes back again and again to the care for the land. “In early August this year they were harvesting,” Randy recalls, “and you see the fields of mature wheat before the combine goes through it, and there’s clover or alfalfa growing between the wheat plants. They go through and harvest the wheat and chop up the straw and spit it out the back. When they’re done, the field is green with the next crop growing up, putting nitrogen back into the soil.”
It’s clear that what Randy is creating at Red Hen is rooted in both the quality of the grains and the quality of the land. “All this work with farmers has been so exciting to me,” he says. “That the relationships we have are meaningful to their businesses, too, is gratifying. We want to feel good about the bread we’re making and about the imprint on the agricultural landscape.”
With Québec-grown wheat as a main ingredient, all of Red Hen’s bread is now made with regionally grown wheat. Some loaves even feature 100 percent Québec grown and milled flour. “As a baker, you feel envious of the chefs who can name all the farms where their vegetables and meat come from,” Randy says. “I feel so fortunate to have connected with Loic.”