North Fork Livelihood: The Bakery at Small Potatoes Farm

Nov 27, 2012 by     1 Comment     Posted under: Livelihood

The Bakery at Small Potatoes Farm

Kit Wiitanen and her fiancé Michael DeJager were living in New Jersey. Kit  worked as a production assistant in New York City, while Mike worked in administration at a nearby college. “It was great for awhile,” says Kit, but it wasn’t the lifestyle they wanted for their future. Kit grew up in Paonia, on the Small Potatoes Farm, where the couple has recently returned to help her mother Monica run the Bakery. The wood-fired brick oven that was until last spring the heart of a baking community is now the focus of a family business, thanks to the “Local Foods, Local Jobs” bill.

As has happened throughout the life of this oven, things converged serendipitously. Kit and Mike were looking for a small business in a small town where they could settle down and raise a family. The oven’s other baker moved back to France. SB12-048 was passed, enabling Monica to actually sell the bread her community clamored for.

Monica’s baked goods have been a staple at community gatherings and committee meetings for years, but she could not sell them until the bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Gail Schwartz and Rep. Don Coram, was signed into law on March 15.

It was, says Kit, “the perfect opportunity to help my mom do something she’s wanted to do for a long time, and to do something we’re interested in, something that is part of the community and makes people happy. It seemed like a perfect match for us.”

Mike adds, “There’s just something about nourishment, and the quality of it. When I came out here to visit I was blown away by the quality of everything. Not just here on this farm and from this oven, but in the entire valley. Ever since my first visit I’ve been trying to get back here.”

I visited Small Potatoes Farm on a Thursday afternoon, getting a sneak preview of what customers would find available from the bakery on Friday. The day’s baking included biscotti, peanut butter cookies, brownies, and four kinds of bread; Friday’s menu included onion fougasse, sesame semolina, gluten-free bread and buns, and cream coffee-cakes. What farm customers don’t pick up Friday, Kit and Mike take to the Saturday Market at the Creamery Arts Center in downtown Hotchkiss.

The farm encompasses ten and a half acres on the side of Lamborn Mesa, of which about four are tillable. Organic farmer Scott Horner raises and sells the farm’s produce through an informal subscription plan. An email goes out on Tuesdays with a mouth-watering list of what’s ripe this week. The farm grows herbs, berries, and a great variety vegetables. Subscribers place their orders by Thursday morning, and pick up and pay for their custom box on Friday afternoon, when, conveniently, bread is hot out of the oven.

I ask Monica for a three-sentence synopsis telling everything from how the oven came into being through her being able to sell bread from her home. Her musical laugh dismisses the possibility of a short answer.

“Like so many things,” she says, “there are many threads that led to this oven.” A chance meeting with an old friend of her brother’s led to an invitation to bake in his new wood-fired oven.

“I had a opportunity to see what a difference a wood-fired oven made to bread. I’d been making bread for decades, and good bread for five years, but the wood-fired oven obviously made a huge difference to the result.”

Another fortuitous meeting led to finding plans for the oven, and a lasting collaboration and friendship. The final synchronicity came when, she says, “Somebody showed up in the valley who thought it would be interesting to build the oven. So there I had the oven, and I knew nothing about baking in a wood-fired oven, so I figured it out. And I’m still figuring it out!”

Monica was instrumental in getting the Cottage Foods Bill drafted. I ask her why it was so important to her. Years ago, she tells me, she read a little book called Five Acres and Independence, and in it was a chapter called “Something to Sell Every Day.”

“This is how farms survived back in the day,” she says. “They could sell jams and jellies, or the farm wife would make an extra loaf of bread. I remember driving down rural roads and on the farm stand here was bread, or cinnamon buns, and jam, besides the produce.”

But laws were passed over time, throughout the country, that prohibited selling food products made in a home kitchen. After the Wiitanens had been farming awhile, Monica says, it became so clear that this had to change. For example, “In a year when you have lots of tomatoes you can dehydrate them, and then you have something you can sell at other times of the year, and that helps to stabilize the income and gives farms a better chance to be viable.”

Monica read in 2003 that Kentucky had passed a bill “essentially allowing people to do what they used to be able to do. I kept my ear to what was going on in other states, and made sure my state senator knew who I was by just showing up when she was in the area. And when I had an opportunity I’d talk about this need that farmers have, and my particular need to sell bread. I just kept focused on that, and at a certain point, our state senator heard in other parts of her district as well, that this would really help small farms.”

She continues, “About 13 or 14 years ago I was in upstate New York at a celebration of my father’s life and work, and that was all about wilderness. Everybody was talking about wilderness, and what popped into my head was, we can save all the wilderness we want, if we don’t save our farmland where will we be?

“After this bill was signed I realized that this has the potential to help the economic viability of farms, and therefore save farmland. Colorado joined almost 30 other states that now have these bills, so it’s a movement that’s really doing what … we need to do, which is find ways to save our farmland.”

People need to make enough money that they can stay on the farm, she says, adding, “Certainly for me, the bakery is showing that it can make a huge difference in farm income. It turns out to be more than I imagined, just working on my own and one day a week.”

Monica knows that it takes time and trials to get things right. “The first time [the bill] was attempted in the state legislature in 2011, it did not pass. Senator Schwartz spent some time between sessions having conversations with those folks that were opposed to it, and came up with some solutions … so this year it passed with very little opposition. It was very bipartisan, it was very successful that way, and in my estimation the bill was improved.

“I know it’s hard for a lot of people to see something not successful the first time, but my personal experience is with the Wilderness Act, which took 8 years and 66 rewrites before it passed Congress. The man who shepherded the bill through Congress always said the bill would be better for working through all the hurdles and roadblocks that people put up.

“I had never testified before a senate or house committee before. I felt like I was following in my father’s footsteps. I felt like I became a full-fledged member of the family by participating in getting this bill passed.

“And then I was rewarded by being able to be present for the signing of the bill, and I was given one of the pens that was used to sign the bill, and that meant a lot to me.”

 

The Small Potatoes bakers are hopeful that an amendment to this bill next year will allow farmers to sell products to restaurants, not just directly to the “end user.” Meanwhile, this family is happy to let its Bakery business grow organically, just like its produce.

You can check out the bakery at https://www.facebook.com/TheBakeryAtSmallPotatoesFarm, and hear more about the oven’s story at http://www.kvnf.org/news/news-archives/local-motion-the-outdoor-bread-oven.

 

 

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