Whatever happened to 'Organic'?

Written by Warwick Quinton. Posted in Stories

Years ago, I was an organic zealot. 

'Technically Illegal'

In the early days of the organic industry in Australia, 'organic' produce was technically illegal. It was illegal to bring unsprayed produce into Flemington Markets in Sydney, as I discovered many times from agents who worked there. The same applied to other produce markets and depots around the country. The issue was 'contamination'. Unsprayed produce, travelling across borders, could assist the spread of pests.

At that time, I was helping to run a little food cooperative in the Blue Mountains of NSW, and I would go down to Flemington each week to smuggle out various shipments of organic fruit and vegetables which would arrive there early in the morning, before the inspectors were on duty, and transport them up to the eager punters at the coop's little shed in the industrial area in Katoomba. It was a great adventure, and was well appreciated by the coop members, who would aid and abet the enterprise by purchasing everything we would bring back each week, no matter what condition the produce was in when it arrived. Such was the zeal for 'organic' back in the day. 

Dirt isn't a dirty word. It's just soiled.

The committee running the coop, as well as everyone who frequented it, would forever procrastinate and deliberate about all things organic, and I suppose my zeal grew as I got to know more about the produce, and how committed the growers and customers were. I learned about dirt, which we referred to as 'soil', and how to keep it healthy. I learned about 'good' and 'bad' fertilisers, as well as good and bad pest control regimes, and the various, often diametrically opposed, schools of thought within this broad church of evangelical foodists. We began to try to 'certify' produce, so that consumers and farmers could all be on the same page. This proved to be a veritable minefield - everyone thought that everyone else was shonky - but that's a story for another day.

Buyer Beware

Soon after, I went to work for a little business called Macro Wholefoods, who in those days were pioneers in sourcing and selling organic products and produce to the broader Sydney public, as well as various hard to get macrobiotic foods. I had many job titles in my time at their shop at Bondi Junction in Sydney - I was a packer, a buyer, a store manager (when they opened a new store in Newtown) and eventually the organic veggie section person. Among the many roles I tried to fulfil over the few years I spent there, one was more instrumental in setting my future course than others. 

When my job title was 'buyer', I was sent to a meeting of organic and bio dynamic growers in northern NSW, and found myself chatting with wheat growers. These farmers were very appreciative of Macro's efforts to train the public on the virtues of organic flour, and by packing and selling it in one kilo bags to keen folk who liked to make home made bread (including myself). They pointed out that this practice was all well and good, but that they needed to find homes for the other few hundred tonnes of grain they were currently producing each season. They needed some bakeries to use their flour, so that they could divert more of their grain to the premium priced organic sector, rather than making a loss, selling their labour intensive produce through the conventional wheat markets. It transpired that without finding some customers who used lots of their grain, these committed farmers would go out of business. They were already supplying Demeter Bakery in Glebe, and another one in Melbourne, but these grain growers needed far more critical mass to continue successfully.

I dutifully approached some bakeries I knew, and showed them the organic flour. They had only one question. 'How much?'. It turned out that my best price was double that of their most expensive flour at that time, and triple the price of their basic flours. Quality wasn't even part of the discussion - nor was any talk of the human and environmental advantages of organic farming and eating.

Before long I decided that I had to start baking more bread, so that these farms would survive.

Enter the baker (or organic flour salesman)

To cut a long story short, I started baking bread at home for markets on the weekend and workmates through the week. My flour purchases went from one bag at a time in the beginning, to two pallets (that's eighty bags) by the time the bakery had moved a few times to end up in a factory in North Katoomba.

North Katoomba BakeryThis all happened over an eight year period. During the early days of the bakery in the Blue Mountains, I had been approached by Harry and Wendy Neale of Wholegrain Milling at Gunnedah, who had begun stone milling organic grain, and were looking for more customers. They were very successful in their quest, and, with recommendations from me, picked up more bakery customers in Sydney and further south as well. I could sense that things were changing in the organic industry. Bakers were beginning to see the point of organics. Or so I thought.

So what happened?

Many years later, organic flour is still at least twice the price of conventional flour - as is much of the rest of the huge product range labelled as 'organic' on the supermarket shelves. Of course, in some things, organic products are price competitive - but in most cases this price competitiveness demonstrates that marketing and industrialisation have triumphed over 'real'.

The word 'organic' has come to mean many different things, and has become somewhat diluted, as the marketing bods have done their work and created the 'brand' of organic in 'consumers' minds.

So, what have we done? 

One one level, we created a premium product class for the upper and middle classes who care about chemicals in their bodies. They also care about being seen to be doing the right thing. For them, the environmental aspects of organic agriculture are secondary; it is assumed as a given that organic agriculture is 'green'.

On another level, there has been a widespread understanding that organic agriculture should be green, environmentally sound, and sustainable. 

So I guess we changed the world a bit. Years ago, we came to the party with high ideals - to heal the soil, to make truly nutritious food, to create a sustainable, kinder world through farming practices that in themselves were not as hard on the planet.

Some of us were intending all this to be a local movement, which would ramify globally.

Meanwhile, industrial scale agriculture has almost completely taken over. The organic market is much larger now also, and it too is utilising the same industrial agricultural/marketing machine to grow and sell more wares in a competitive marketplace. Is this industrial scale organic agriculture actually sustainable? The mind boggles.

It's globalism's triumph over localism.

Prices down and staying down?

There is a widespread movement to drive food prices down. I guess this is so that there is room in the shopping basket for a widescreen television, a smartphone and a new car every three years. The industrial agricultural machine has indeed achieved this - prices for food over the past twenty years have become proportionately less of our total spend throughout the western world.

I stepped off the organic treadmill long ago. I became disillusioned with the results we had achieved. I thought, in my naivety, that it should be possible to change the way agriculture is done. The change I envisioned would involve less chemicals, less additives; at the same time, there would be more time spent on soil health, on farm health, and environment health. Thus, sustainabliliy would be the result. 

I guess this deeper movement is happening in certain sectors of the marketplace. People buy organic because of various reasons, and top of mind would probably be that they want food that is clean. I suppose that people are also more concerned that the farming practices used are better for the environment as well. And for this assurance, there is an acceptance that the clean produce may cost a little more. I think that is reasonable - but unless the aforementioned industrial organic machine is used to create the food, people will end up paying more than just 'a little'. Let's face it. To do things properly is never cheap. 

Market Stall

Certainly, the people who buy my bread are prepared to pay a bit more for it, though the price I charge per kilo is comparable to the price they pay for quality bread per kilo at the supermarket. That price is relative to the cost of labour I put in. I don't want to make that price too expensive. I want people to be able to afford the bread, and see it as a valuable part of their shopping mix. As such, my labour isn't valued any more highly than the labour of any other workaday baker.

In order to do these things - make bread properly and inexpensively, I've had to sacrifice my organic ideals. Organic flour, even to a baker, is still two to three times the price of what regular bakeries use every day. So for the ingredient side of the equation, I've had to concentrate on sourcing flour that is at least coming from a less industrial scaled mill. Flour that is not made by the corporation. And for many years now, I've been able to avoid supporting the big millers. 

Movement at the mill

Wholegrain Milling flour millRecently, though, there has been movement in the flour business. About a year ago, I found myself up in wheat country near Gunnedah, and decided to drop in on a mill that I had once done a lot of business with, back in the days when I was using a couple of tonnes of flour a week. This mill, Wholegrain Milling Company at Gunnedah, has always milled organic and bio dynamic flour. It has, in recent years, also done both roller milling and stone milling, very, very well. And I've always loved their flour. Since I've become a one man show using a woodfired oven, though, I couldn't afford this wonderful flour. 

Chatting with Craig Neale, who has taken over the reins of this family business from Harry and Wendy, who I mentioned earlier (Harry having passed on, I discovered sadly) in recent years, I learned that my concerns regarding organic flour prices are only part of the bigger picture. It turns out that as a result of the success of the organic marketing machine, coupled with complexities in the certification processes involved with getting the organic product to market efficiently, simply and cheaply, a lot of farmers and millers have just walked away from growing organically - for them, it has all become too hard.

Craig NealeThis is only a small part of the range of issues that Craig and his milling company face. In the mix is drought, and farmers not planting grain as a result, as well as pressures on small bakeries to constantly compete for price with bigger ones. The industry, at least in Australia, has been facing some hurdles in recent years.

Craig and I agreed that organic certification in this country is both expensive and complex. While it may be possible for a farmer to grow organically for a reasonable price, being able to bring that product to market as 'certified organic produce' is expensive, with certification costs layering percentages upon each other at every stage of production - grower, miller, freighter, processer and retailer. Thus, the products arrive on the shelves at inflated prices.

The question I asked myself years ago was 'Does anyone care about organic?' Those who are tied into the system certainly care - and of course, they have an economic interest in caring. But at the market stall where I sell my bread, I can tell you they don't. A tiny percentage of customers ask about the origin of the flour, I tell them about it, and they buy happily - though it isn't organic.

Bread basket

So the answer is no, they don't. They do care about authenticity. They do care about 'real'. They do want to know the story about their food, and can smell bullshit a mile away. Our artificial world is beginning to melt away, methinks.

So here I was, chatting about all these things with Craig, finding that the pre eminent miller in the country, who for years had followed the organic path, was struggling to come to grips with what had been created - just like me. He knew that I wasn't about to become a customer again - not because I didn't think that growing organically was important, but because I saw very little reason beyond a warm fuzzy feeling to go down that path again.

More importantly, I also saw a very real potential problem in returning to organic flour - that by pushing up my price due to substantially increased input cost, I was going to frighten my customers away. My bread was already perceived as 'premium price' - even though I could easily prove that it was in fact price competitive. Perception is all that counts, in business as in politics.

Rethinking the supply chain

Meanwhile, back in my world, I discover that my own long time flour mill, in the Central West region of NSW, has been struggling with this season's wheat, and has chosen to add 'conditioners' to the flour. Fundamentally, these conditioners are a type of bread improver. All the other bakers they supply are happy about the better bread they are making from it, and don't care - but I'm pretty sure that bread improvers are a huge issue and have never used them. Indeed, I've gone out of my way to educate people about why they are actually a large part of the reason why the western world has slowly become gluten intolerant. So I'm certainly not happy to discover that I am now part of the problem.

I decide that I'm going to have to rethink my supply chain. While I was in Gunnedah a year earlier, part of the conversation I was having with Craig Neale was about a new type of certification he was working on with a number of farmers. These farmers were interested in sustainability, but also had been spooked by the organic certification regime. They were trying to do the right thing by minimising the harmful chemical inputs widely used in the industry - things like glyphosate, a common herbicide which was beginning to be used throughout the growing cycle both here and overseas much more widely. This weedicide has proven issues, and while the companies marketing varieties of it swear by its low toxicity, the issues of residue and associated risk from using it continue to emerge, and in the European Union it has actually been banned. 

Craig's idea was to simplify the certification process, so that these and other chemical additives are minimised. His approach was to simply test for them in the grain. If they showed up in chemical testing, the grain would not be sent to the mill at all. If nothing showed up, the mill would pay the farmer a premium price for their grain, and Wholegrain Milling would mill it and sell it under a new category, called 'Sustainable'.

Wholegrain milling sustainable flour

It wasn't organic, and didn't pretend to be. It was simply labelled as a product that had been tested for common chemical residues, and was found to be free of them. This process put the onus back on the farmer to do the right thing, and to eliminate or reduce the use of harmful chemical additives in their farming practices. Thus, the 'consumer' could be sure that there would be nothing to worry about in the food they were eating. Most importantly, though, was the fact that this simple system would enable Craig's company to market the flour at a reasonable price - one that wasn't double that of chemically treated flour.

Thus, when I phoned Craig to see if he had made any progress on this idea from a year ago, he happily informed me that he had, and filled out the details of the certification process, which were indeed very thorough and well thought through.

Woodfired sourdough bread

It looked like I was able to once again be treated to using some of the best milled flour in the country, without having to dramatically increase the price of my bread. I took my first shipment of the new sustainable flour a month ago, and was once again reminded of just how good Wholegrain Milling Company's flour is. It's hard to describe to someone who just enjoys good bread, but to a baker, everything about the dough is really lively. Now I have a variety of colours of flour, from white, to honey coloured, to full wholegrain to work with. And the bread is more flavoursome, more nuanced as well. To a baker, good flours are so important. And knowing that these flours are sustainably produced is a step in the right direction.

I'm a happy baker once again.  



My Glorious Sourdough Obsession

Written by Warwick Quinton. Posted in Stories

An Obsession with Sourdough Bread

It's actually quite difficult to choose the point where normal existence ceased and my baking obsession took over. But that's what happened. One day, or it could have been many days, a bit at a time, I became more interested in making bread than just about anything else. 

I think it was the challenge of getting it to actually work. Making sourdough isn't like normal baking - you don't just add some mysterious powder and viola! Fresh bread! One starts with so many variables, it's almost impossible to conceive how these can be brought into line to actually produce a consistent loaf each time.

In my case, back in 1985 when I was experimenting with making bread truly from scratch (no yeast), there was a dearth of material to draw from. I might point out that the internet did not exist - and this in itself is sublimely salient, in as much as information gathering was a whole different ball game.  One had to scour bookshops, libraries, health food stores and hippy kitchens to get stuff about sourdough bread.

And scour, I did. And experiment - which to this day I still do.

In terms of scouring, even the word 'sourdough' had not even been adopted in those days. In San Fransisco, and possibly in France, they were using it, but here in Australia 'sourdough' was a baker's term describing dough which had become overripe. Needless to say, it didn't go with 'bread', as had been done overseas to describe this particular method of leavening.

Interestingly, I discovered that Australian bakers commonly used 'sour dough' as an additive to their dough to make it ripen more quickly, and to save money on what was an expensive ingredient, yeast. 

Those of us prone to experimenting were keen on various techniques to make bread rise without commercial yeast, and the idea of making a 'sour dough' at that time didn't appeal. Personally, I was keen on the term 'naturally leavened' - and I went about playing with various methods.

In the process, I've embarked on a lifelong journey of discovery, beginning with fermentation and flour, and getting caught up with sustainability, organics, alternative business, community enterprise, thermal engineering, teaching and off the grid technologies along the way. 

A bakery on the rise?

Written by Warwick Quinton. Posted in Bakery Stories

Leura, 1995

So, Sydney discovered Leura, and Leura also discovered Sydney. The relationship has continued to flourish, a dozen or more years later. Last time I visited Leura, during a week day, the place was wall to wall BMW and shiny Range Rover, with child seats in the back. My old cafe had become 'The Man Cave', and had gobbled up the newsagent next door. There were a couple of bakeries and many more cafes. 

My guess is the locals stay away from Leura in droves these days.

The Gypsy bakery - 15,000 loaves later

Written by Warwick Quinton. Posted in Bakery Stories

It's been almost a year and a half since Craig Miller towed the Gypsy Woodfired Bakery Experience, our 'mobile bakery', to Tipperary Farm, and I fired up Luna for her first serious bake. Since then, I have baked something like 15,000 loaves of bread in Luna the woodfired oven, and spent well over 600 hours in the Gypsy bakery, making sourdough bread and teaching people how to make sourdough bread. 

The Gypsy woodfired bakery

In that time, I've continued to learn on the job, and Craig and I have continued to tweak this 'relocatable bakery'. I hesitate to call it a 'mobile bakery', as was the design brief. It's not really mobile. Once again, weight has been the enemy, despite all the best laid plans.


The Baker is a Gypsy

Written by Warwick Quinton. Posted in Bakery Stories

I guess it dawned on me a few years ago - owning a bakery is one thing, but owning the premises is another. Apart from the sheer cost of setting up a commercial bakery, once you've paid for this, ultimately the landlord ends up with the fixtures and fittings when you have gone. Things like sinks, grease traps, ventilation systems, benching, wiring, plumbing and so on. Anything that's attached or built in the end becomes part of the building. And when all the equipment is installed, it isn't all that easy to pull it out again either. So the idea is, I suppose, that you invest in creating your bakery kitchen, use it for a while, theoretically reap the rewards over the first few years, and hope that the rent stays the same for a while longer than that.

Quinton's Artisan Bakery

Which, if you have been successful in attracting customers, it probably won't - because the landlord usually sees their property as more valuable when there is customer flow, so as soon as they can, they will increase the rent. After all, the premises is now obviously commercially viable, justifying their capital outlay and making them into a 'canny investor'. Of course, if you, the tenant and entrepreneur, are clever, you may later sell the business you have created for a handsome price - but this is rare, and comes with its own set of risks, which don't end when the cheque is in your bank account. Besides which, many leases require the landlord to approve any sale before it can happen anyway.

Does the baker make any dough? 

Some bakers I know bought their premises early on, and their bakeries have become sustainable as a result - provided they had a bit of luck with location. The retail world is a fickle one. I have also seen successful bakeries buy their buildings, only to see the retail strip they are in become a ghost town due to the shopping mall opening up around the corner a few years later, or the road outside becoming a highway, or major thoroughfare, with no parking outside the bakery any more...the customer flow just dries up, slowly but surely.

I'm not a businessman - perhaps, though, I have an entrepreneurial spirit. I've decided that being in business is necessary to make things happen, though I don't identify as a person who loves 'business'. For a while, I played the game and thought that I was - but my motives were never primarily focussed on profit. I have always just wanted to make great bread and play my part in the community that grows around things like bakeries and cafes and places where people congregate. I don't really care much about money - as long as I have enough to pay my bills and feed my family, I'm happy.

This theory is easy enough to believe in - but the detail of the term 'enough money' has eluded me time and time again. Preparing for what I'm going to call 'left field issues' was never on my radar strongly enough.  Things seem to conspire to keep small businesses small, particularly ones with very little capital and big dreams. Things which should be considered, but which I didn't.

 The oven is not supposed to breakWhat could possibly go wrong? I mean, you own the business - doesn't that mean you must be rich? From the outside, it certainly looks that way. Look at that equipment, all those people running around. Those customers are handing over wads of cash all day long. You must be rich! Well, there are some unforeseen circumstances which are capable of putting a dent in one's own self belief, particularly when a number of them happen within a short space of time.

For example - and I'm just going to grab a few off the top of my head for you here -  what happens when one very expensive and hard working oven suddenly breaks and you need to fix it - and to keep things going you must quickly find a few thousand dollars.  Or what about when the power bill doubles for no apparent reason - and you discover you need a new electrician, because the old one made a few major mistakes and doesn't know how to fix them? Or what happens when your head baker leaves and starts their own outfit with your old staff and your training, and sets about gathering your customers as well? What happens when you have a change of government, then the GST comes in, and in order to get on top of it, you have to spend six months reorganising your administration to collect taxes (which the government you didn't vote for want you collect for them), for free?

Or there's a phone call at two a.m, and the bread distributor wants someone to pack his order because the packer didn't turn up. So off you go to do it, because at two a.m, who is going to answer the phone? Or another phone call at three a.m on another day in (let's say) the same week - it's the local police. How do you then deal with opening the shop as usual at seven a.m when they are explaining to your sleep deprived self that the front window of your shop has been smashed during the night by a drunken kid. Pretty soon it becomes clear that you will have to get out of bed (again) and go down there in the freezing blue mountains winter cold and stand guard while waiting for the glazier who will eventually come to board it up. In the process, you become aware that you cannot do the local bread deliveries because you won't be able raise anyone to do them for you at four in the morning. So far, the evening has cost you about a weeks' takings, and you haven't even started the day yet. In the end, of course, it becomes just another day at the office - one which began in September and finished in July.

 Mentally, these little things become a war of attrition on the health and wellbeing of an otherwise creative soul. Over the years, everything I mentioned here  happened to me, as did a raft of even more unplanned, 'left field' events. Yes, they are my story - but they have also happened to others like me. In the end, we bakery owners all become grumpy and haggard old buggers, servants to everyone, especially the bank manager. And captives to our employees, our customers, the neighbours, and even the government of the day. We become lousy fathers and husbands too - we are too stressed and preoccupied to be patient, caring and kind. Makes you wonder why anyone would do it at all.

I often have. I finally concluded that the inevitable transition from following a soul urge of being a baker and working with my hands, to becoming a bean counter and working with my nerves just wasn't for me. It took me quite a few years to fall apart, but fall apart I did, thoroughly and comprehensively. And it took me more years still to put myself back together again. 

And this is why I have become a gypsy baker.

The Gypsy Bakery - a brilliant idea?

The idea of a woodfired mobile bakery, capable of turning up at a grower's market or event, and turning out a few hundred loaves, which are then sold on the spot is, of course, truly of its time, for many reasons. I'll venture to say it's actually brilliant - but that's only because it's my idea.

It's brilliant because it gets back to the idea of the village baker - wherever that village may be. It's brilliant because it runs with a woodfired oven, and ultimately runs off the grid - thereby removing the power company from the list of predators. Goodbye scary energy bills.

It's brilliant because it's a one or two person show - no more kowtowing to employees.

It's brilliant because it dispenses with the landlord having all the power - if you don't like the landlord, go to another site!

It's brilliant because there isn't anything on it that can't be fixed with a spanner, a screwdriver, a power drill and/or a crowbar. No more expensive surprises when the oven breaks. 

But mostly, it's brilliant because the woodfired bread is made on the spot where it will be sold, hot and fresh and delicious.

And then there was the detail... 

How do you build an 'off the grid' bakery which can bake a few hundred loaves in few hours, which can also be moved around easily? It's one thing to do the former - bake lots of bread in a short time - but the latter means making the whole thing very light as well. This is kinda difficult when your bread is dependent on thermal mass to get it's wonderful crust. Thermal mass is, by nature, heavy.

The engineering involved has taken my feeble brain many years to think through. Luckily, I enlisted the help of my erstwhile design genius and dear friend Craig Miller.

Bertha 2

For two years Craig paid my Gypsy bakery concept lip service. We played around with ideas, and Craig ended up building Bertha 2 - as the two seemingly incompatible needs of thermal mass and portability just didn't go together on paper. Bertha 2 weighed a few tonnes, in the end.  

For another year, he poo pooed the whole concept of the Gypsy bakery as being unworkable. Maybe he was right. Eventually, though, he and I have ended up building it.

I might add that we had to move Bertha 2 soon after we installed her - she was just too 'dangerous' for the landlord to have on their site. This was not in the plan. And it definitely wasn't something you would want to do again. Almost like the universe was telling us to build the Gypsy Bakery.

Then, after countless paper bag drawings, I managed to get Craig's ernest attention (at the time he was preoccupied with Bertha 2 - as was I), and he quickly started throwing stuff, in the form of ideas, in my direction, which I then gleefully rejected. As one does. 

At this point I should mention that our design partnership is one born out of countless hours spent on the phone taking the piss out of each other, as well as everything else. Craig and I have two basic sayings. 1: How hard could it be? and, 2: Of course it's brilliant. It's my idea. 

Luna the woodfired oven

In a previous article I mentioned the design brief for Luna, the woodfired oven. Luna was always thought of as a mobile oven. The Gypsy Bakery itself also has to conform to this brief - especially the part about being able to bake a few hundred loaves in a five or six hour session. Baking includes, in this instance, all the other bits as well - retarding and storing unbaked dough being the most important. And the Gypsy Bakery has to be towable without a truck, and be capable of producing really amazing bread just about anywhere. And it has to be largely self contained - not just an oven on a trailer. It has to be the whole shebang.

So far, we're pretty close to achieving all these things - though at this stage you still need to plug it in for lights and refrigeration. We have our own hot and cold running water (powered by the oven), and you can quite easily produce large numbers of loaves on board very efficiently. At this stage, dough mixing is still done elsewhere, but once the dough is made, the Gypsy Bakery can turn it into bread very, very well indeed.

 In a future article, I'll be going into the design issues in more detail - but for now, the Gypsy Bakery is well and truly on its way. It's baking bread every week from home, and comes out once a month to infrastruct our popular Sourdough 101 Workshops.

How hard could it be? And yes, it is brilliant. I thought of it.  


Breadmaking Classes