Bread and Horses
Good Companion Bakery in Ferrisburgh
Written onDecember 01 , 2008
You could say this place has seen better days. But then, one also gets the sense that its best days are yet to come.
A flock of geese pick through the frost-wilted remnants of a huge vegetable garden, and behind the new farmhouse the Green Mountains rise up beyond acres of fields. Erik and Erica Andrus and their seasonal interns are returning this Ferrisburgh farm to productivity, and they are doing so in some unusual ways: they are growing a portion of the wheat that is used in the bread they sell; they are using horses instead of tractors; and they are operating what may be Vermont’s only bread-and-dessert CSA.
Erik emerges from among the barns to greet me. I follow him into the bakery building, home of Good Companion Bakery, past a great pile of wheat sheaves as thick as my waist. The sheaves appear both unusual and somehow familiar in the modern farmscape, as if awakening a dormant memory of Vermont’s agricultural past. A similar feeling of history permeates the bakery itself, which is dominated by a single-chamber, wood-fired oven similar to its centuries-old ancestors. Then there are the Percheron and Belgian draft horses, that do the work of tractors on the farm, and the wooden press that stamps the labels of the Good Companion Bakery bread bags. History permeates the work here at Boundbrook Farm.
When I arrive, the bread has already been loaded into the oven, and with his baking duties aside, Andrus becomes professorial. He is articulate and calm, though he speaks with great passion.
“I’m not a career baker,” he confesses. “I’ve always had an interest in cereals. I like grains. I like the way they look and I’m intrigued by the historical tools” used in their cultivation. He considers cereal crops to be largely “passed over” by the sustainable foods movement, and when he decided to take the reins of a farm, he wanted to focus on grains.
“The time for small farms to take up staple crops is upon us. Shipping-in feed is coming to a close.”
Ten acres of the 110-acre farm are planted to wheat. Currently Andrus is baking two varieties of winter wheat, AC Morley and Harvard, which are standard varieties for the northeastern climate. This spring, he will switch over to two antique varieties of long-stalked spring wheat, Red Fife and Reed, which were bred specifically in the New England climate but then abandoned for modern, short-stalked breeds. (The long-stalked varieties are better suited for a diversified farm like Boundbrook; the extra length allows for superior weed control, and it makes a more useful straw for animal needs.)
Although the Andruses’ own wheat—stone-ground in a wooden mill a few feet from the oven—has a presence in their bread, Good Companion Bakery supplements with commercial flours to create a high-standing loaf; varieties that are successful in Vermont’s climate lack the appropriate protein composition to be used exclusively. Andrus hopes to work with other wheat growers and agriculturists over the course of years—even decades—to develop strains that can do more of the heavy protein lifting and thrive in the Champlain Valley. He characterizes the current state of wheat genetics as “in dire straits,” but he’s hopeful that a new surge of interest and effort will produce more useful varieties for Vermont’s small-scale grain growers and bakers.
In addition to selling their bread at the Middlebury Farmers’ Market, the Andruses have adopted the Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) model to sell Good Companion breads and pastries during the winter. Similar to a vegetable or meat CSA, customers pay $100 in advance for a series of weekly “units”—perhaps a loaf of bread, a dessert, or three croissants. Each week customers use an online order form to make their selections, choosing from four standard varieties of bread and the weekly specials, like bagels, cherry pie, Normandy apple bread, and Finnish rye. The completed orders are then delivered to drop-off points in Bristol, Hinesburg, Charlotte, Burlington, and Middlebury, or picked up directly by the customers at the farm.
Last year the bakery sold 65 loaves per week through CSA shares; this year, Andrus topped 100 loaves per week by mid-November. “If it grows any more, I’m going to have to [deliver over] two days,” he says.
Although grains and bread are being reintegrated into the agricultural setting at Boundbrook Farm, they are only one part of the diversified structure of the farm. Andrus envisions the mature farm as “an amalgamation of interlocking systems,” in which the various elements—gardens, livestock, crops, and bakery production—sustain each other and produce a variety of products for sale. Customers at next year’s farmers’ markets will find, in addition to bread, ground beef from the farm’s small herd of pastured Black Angus cattle, and neighbors may be able to stop by the farm for fresh milk from their single Brown Swiss cow.
This approach to farming is not unfamiliar, but using horsepower (the kind with hooves, that is) sets Boundbrook Farm apart from most other diversified farms. By using horses rather than tractors, Andrus is making a leap toward what he sees as a new way of farming in Vermont that borrows heavily from the past. “Animal traction is really part of our agricultural future,” he says. In American farming “we use … many more calories in fuel than we are making in food. If you farm exclusively with animal power and you don’t use any petroleum in your farming, then you can’t help but have a positive flow.”
Apart from offering more sensible energy use, draft horses dictate the pace of farming, being creatures of flesh and blood rather than machines. Andrus notes that they bring to the farm both “health and vitality” and “psychological issues and social dynamics,” making the farmer far more than just an operator. “It is the instilling of humility,” he says. And he finds horses “spiritually rewarding” in a way that tractors could never be.
As we’re speaking about everything taking place on his farm, the professorial Andrus realizes there’s bread in the oven. He uses a long-handled wooden paddle, called a peel, to pull out a batch of multigrain and French batard loaves. They sputter and sing as their crusts crackle in the room’s cool air. Andrus stuffs them into bags personally labeled for his CSA members. He picks up a particularly dusky loaf and searches for a certain bag. “Jim will like it dark like that,” he says.
We tear open a loaf ourselves, and its steam smells sweet and earthy. The farmers at Boundbrook Farm may have a lot on their plate, but it doesn’t distract them from making a fine loaf of bread.
Photo courtesy of Good Companion Bakery