‘Let Food Be Thy Medicine and Medicine Be Thy Food’ Hippocrates 400 BC

I promised I would post a good news local business story and here it is. I love this story. I trust you do too. 

Tall Grass Prairie Bread Company

On June 10th & 11th, we told you about the Tall Grass Prairie Bread Company in Winnipeg, Manitoba. We received a lot of mail requesting a copy of that story so we’ve decided to post it here:I have been talking today about my travels over the last month or so. Well, before I left Toronto, my friend Julie Penner, who is the music producer here at the Vinyl Cafe, and also a pretty decent violinist, notably as part of the Toronto music collective Broken Social Scene, stopped by my desk and said, When you get to Winnipeg I want you to promise that you will go to the Tall Grass Prairie Bread Company for breakfast and say hi to Tabitha, who’s one of the owners. I think you’d like her. Julie used to live in Winnipeg and she used to work at the Tall Grass Bakery, so I said I would do that, and I want to tell you why I am so happy I did. It has nothing to do with the bread, or the sandwiches, or the first class cinnamon buns, though it could have, because they were all great. And I would have been happy to have gone just for them … What I what to tell you about is Tabitha Langel, who Julie had mentioned. Tabitha came out of the bakery covered in flour and sat at my table and had a cup of coffee while I ate. And because I asked, she told me the story of her bakery, and how it started, and I want to tell you that story this morning. So Tabitha is a lapsed Hutterite. She left the Hutterite community where she grew up because, she said, she was curious. And she moved to Winnipeg, and married, and settled down, and joined an ecumenical church, a church which includes some Mennonites, and some Hutterites, and some Lutherans, and some Presbyterians, and some Catholics … and I am telling you this because the church was important to the bakery in the early days. The bakery was born out of conversations that began at the church. In these discussions, the church members were wondering how they could be more of a community. Most of them lived in the same neighbourhood, but they were wondering if they could work together in some way too. This was in the late 1980s, a time when farmers were struggling … when grain farmers were getting the lowest grain prices Canada had ever seen … and farm suicides were at a record high … so another question that arose at church was if there was any way they could support farmers. And that is where the idea of starting a bread co-op began. It would address both concerns. You see, if you tracked a loaf of bread, you found that farmers were getting about 2 cents a loaf in those days. Tabitha and her church friends figured if they went to one farmer and bought grain directly from that farmer, and then milled and baked the bread themselves, they could afford to pay more than 2 cents a loaf and thus support one farm family, have fun baking together, and maybe even get some decent bread out if it. So they started their bread co-op, and they baked bread every Saturday night in a kitchen they rented at the St. Margaret’s Church, and it became a neighbourhood thing … not a church thing. Neighbourhood people joined the co-op … and you could work in the co-op and get work credits, and people who were well-off were invited to pay a little more for their bread to carry those who couldn’t, and neighbourhood kids delivered bread around the neighbourhood in little red wagons … and the co-op grew over two or three years. And they were actually supporting one family farm. And having fun. Just as they had hoped. And this provoked more discussion. It began with the question: What is good stewardship of the land? And what did that mean to people who live in the city? If you believed, as Tabitha and her friends did, that herbicides and pesticides were not God’s best idea, how should you proceed if you are city folk? How much should those who live in the city be paying for grain, ethically? What would things look like if instead of having farmers begging city people for pennies, city people were begging farmers for grain. Finally they asked … what could they do? Could they do anything to support farmers in some larger way? Five of them decided to open a bakery. They found one for sale and figured they needed about $40,000 to get going. They went to the bank and explained they wanted to sell bread at $2 a loaf rather than the going rate of 50 cents. They said they figured if you explained to people that you were charging more so you could pay farmers more, people would be happy to pay the extra. The bank told them this was absurd. The bank said that wasn’t the way the world worked. So they got money from friends. Some low interest loans, some no interest loans. They promised to pay them back, if and when they could. They figured there was this great hunger for connection; that farmers wanted to meet the city people who used their crops; that city people wanted to know where their food came from. They had no idea if they were right. Everyone told them they weren’t. Everyone told them not to quit their day jobs. Everyone told them they would fail. They figured they wouldn’t be grandiose. For opening day they baked about 30 loaves of bread, 2 dozen muffins and 12 cinnamon buns. When they opened their doors at 10 o’clock … there were 200 people lined up at the door. They had planned to have a bread blessing, but after ten minutes there was no bread left to bless. Someone gave their loaf back and they blessed it, broke it, and ate it. They had made all these careful plans for failure … how they could exist selling 12 loaves of bread a day … but they hadn’t given any thought to what would happen if they were wildly successful.It was a nightmare. They were working so hard. Tabitha remembers the day the timer on the oven went off and she picked up the phone and couldn’t figure out why no one was saying hello. And today … some 15 years later … three of the five original owners, Tabitha, and Sharon Lawrence, and Lyle Barkman have opened a second branch of their bakery … they still have the little neighbourhood place in Wolseley where it all began, and now they have added a new one at the Forks. Which is where I went … and they support five farm families, and they employ about fifty people and they have learned that you can’t get rich when you pay fair wages to both farmers and staff … but you can make a decent living. “We buy our wild rice from a local native co-op”, says Tabitha. “We could get it way cheaper elsewhere… but we like what these folks are doing. They have a store in the poorest part of the city and they won’t sell cigarettes …and they are part of changing their community and we want to support them.” She picked up her coffee and looked around her bakery and smiled. She said, “If something is too cheap that means someone is paying the cost somewhere. Maybe it is the environment or maybe it is someone else down the line.” “The average food item in the average grocery store travels 2000 miles,” she said. “Here the average is 200 miles.” “The farmers come here and deliver their grain. And they see the bread. They see where their grain is going. And our customers see where it is coming from. They can have coffee together.” Tabitha says she has learned that you can make a difference to the local economy and make a living at the same time. “The questions that we continue to ask,” she said, “are how can we be more local, more just, more environmentally conscious than we were yesterday.” “It has been an unbelievable journey,” she said. “I am honored to be part of it. I am a tad tired. But show me a baker who isn’t.” They started with 2 people in 1990 and baked 30 loaves on opening day. This Saturday they baked about 700 loaves of bread, all organic and many hand-shaped. And I don’t know how many cinnamon buns and croissants. I am a lucky man. I get to travel all across this great land and talk to people from coast to coast. Mostly I get to tell my stories … but often I get to hear others. And every once in a while I meet someone who tells me a story I think everyone should hear.

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