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Deconstructing Dinner: Reconstructing Our Food System
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Deconstructing Dinner

Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY

Nelson, B.C. Canada

 

March 6, 2009

 

Title: Local Producer Spotlight I - Nelson

 

Producer / Host: Jon Steinman

Transcript: Paula Bailly

 

Jon Steinman: And welcome to Deconstructing Dinner - produced in the studios of Kootenay Co-op Radio in Nelson, British Columbia. My name's Jon Steinman.

 

Here on Deconstructing Dinner, we take a closer look at the foods that are available to us and how the choices we make impact ourselves, our communities, and our planet.

 

For more information on this program or to comment on the program itself, you can visit the Deconstructing Dinner website at www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner.

 

Today's broadcast of Deconstructing Dinner marks the first of a periodic series that will travel around British Columbia and visit with local producers of food products. The series will focus on those communities in which Deconstructing Dinner is broadcast such as the Nelson, Vancouver and Nanaimo areas. But we'll start this producer spotlight off here in the Nelson area, and we'll hear from four local producers, some who have been in the community for quite some time, and some who have just gotten started.

 

On today's broadcast we will hear from George and Maurgo Wilson of Meadowbrook Farm and Kootenay Sprouts who grow salad greens and sprouts in Salmo, we'll hear from Silvio Lettrari of Kaslo Sourdough Bakery, Jeff Mock of Silverking Soya Foods - who produces many different kinds of tofu, and we'll hear from Amy Robillard of Little Miss Gelato - one of the newer local producers here in Nelson.

 

soundbite

 

Jon Steinman: So how does meeting local producers of food products tie-in to the concept of Deconstructing Dinner? Well most importantly, for those listening in the Nelson area, this is an opportunity to meet the very people who are growing and making the very food that is available to us.

 

Another thing that will be noticed from listening to the four producers on the show today, is that behind the food that is available to us are people. This may seem rather simple, but let's face it, when we walk into a large grocery store, it's not so common to put a face to the loaves of Wonderbread or the jugs of Tropicana orange juice. But when food is so intertwined into our daily routines, it can certainly put a whole new meaning to those moments of eating when we can look at the food we are about to consume, and make a connection to the people who made the food.

 

So then how does this broadcast apply to those listeners outside of the Nelson area, such as those of you in Vancouver and Nanaimo? Well for one, the many challenges that local growers and producers face here in Nelson, are in many cases no different than those challenges faced anywhere else.

 

In better understanding the challenges and opportunities that face small-scale farmers and producers, we can also better understand what it means to support local businesses and local farmers. Here in our North American culture, it has become increasingly difficult for small businesses to survive when such incredibly large ones are located almost next door. In the case of food, this is an issue that applies to all of us. Our food choices are increasingly becoming limited to the options available to us at our local supermarkets. As supermarkets become larger and their parent companies more influential, smaller food retailers get shoved out of business or struggle to survive. But it is often forgotten how many smaller retailers are owned and operated by people in the community, and very often these retailers are supporting local or regional growers and producers.

 

As is most commonly the case, chain retailers are very uninterested in carrying the products of local farmers and producers, and instead, line their shelves and produce sections with items that can be purchased in incredibly large quantities, ensuring that every outlet can sell almost identical products, and all of these products can then be distributed from one main distribution centre.

 

As is the case in almost any industry, but especially in food processing, the larger the company becomes, the further away ingredients are often sourced. This in turn can sacrifice the nutritional value of food as ingredients require much more processing or early harvesting to travel well, more natural resources such as fuel are required to harvest and transport these foods, and as is the case, the well-being of you and I are then put into question, the well-being of both urban and rural communities is put into question, and so too is the health of the planet that we rely on to provide us with food.

 

In listening to the four growers and producers on the show today, we will hear a level of concern that these individuals hold - a level of concern for the well-being of the people purchasing their food, a level of concern for the community, and a level of concern for the environmental impact that their businesses have.

 

And here is what makes buying local such an asset. When we do, we too are expressing concern for ourselves, but also for those around us.

 

What is also unique about the four stories we will hear on the program today, is that all of my guests create a product that is available at the Kootenay Cooperative Food Store - who for those listeners outside the Nelson area - is a member-based and democratically operated grocery retailer who supports local foods over any others. The topic of cooperatives and how they operate will be discussed in upcoming shows, but what makes cooperatives so unique, is that the community in which a cooperative exists has the opportunity to determine what foods are available to them. But here is the most interesting part of this story - the four producers on the show today also have their products available at the local Save-on-Foods grocery store - owned by one of the larger food retailers in Western Canada - the Overwaitea Food Group.

 

Now as we will hear, this is a situation that is very unique here in Nelson. This is certainly not a common occurrence to see such a large retailer supporting producers and growers in the immediate community. And this is one reason why the stories of these producers in Nelson, are so applicable to any other city or community, because all across BC, the same chain grocery stores are determining the choices of food available to us. And on today's broadcast, we'll hear more about how support from chain retailers can greatly impact the success of local farmers and producers.

 

soundbite

 

For those of you just tuning in, this is Deconstructing Dinner, where on today's show we are meeting four local businesses that are creating different foods available in the Nelson area. This will be a periodic feature on the program that will visit different communities in British Columbia, expose local producers and discuss the intricacies of operating a small food-based business in an industry of giant agricultural operations and multi-national processors and retailers.

 

In moving along with today's broadcast, we will first hear from George and Maurgo Wilson of Meadowbrook Farm and Kootenay Sprouts, who I recently spoke with over the phone. They are located just south of Nelson in Salmo and are year-round growers of certified organic greenhouse salad greens and sprouts.

 

Here's George Wilson giving us a background on the business and why they got started.

 

George Wilson: We've been doing the business for seven and a half years. It took quite a lot of planning and prearranging and everything. We do grow salad greens year-round in the greenhouse, and also for the last few years have grown Kootenay Sprouts in a separate location. We did spend about ten years homesteading, up on the mountaintop sort of thing, growing all our own food and raising our children up in that manner. We loved the lifestyle and we loved growing wholesome food and providing it for our family, and just it sort of carried on to end up being a business that we love and spend a lot of energy on.

 

Jon Steinman: Because their business was and is structured around only selling locally, the support of local business and residents was of course a key factor in their successful start-up and Maurgo explains.

 

Maurgo Wilson: George did a fantastic job in keeping the customers aware of our process and they came onside. Whenever we had a problem, a challenge in the greenhouse, a challenge with bugs, pests, diseases, they were so supportive and understanding because of the time he spent to keep them informed. What we've evolved into is a system now, not that it's foolproof or scientific, but we're over the biggest hurdles and I think we've seen most of the problems and we know where to turn to for help when we need help and how to be preventative.

 

Jon Steinman: In continuing on with my conversation with George and Maurgo Wilson of Meadowbrook Farm and Kootenay Sprouts, they explained to me what it is they grow and how they go about doing it year-round - which is certainly a luxury when the community is able to buy fresh salad greens in January for example that haven't travelled thousands of miles in a truck, and haven't received the standard excess packaging that salad greens are so often found in.

 

George Wilson: We grow salad greens year-round, we grow the spicy greens mix, a lot of arugula, basil, in the summer months. We also grow locally some tomatoes and garlic, that kind of thing, chard, potatoes. Actually the greenhouse is set up beautifully for growing salad greens, everything's grown on raised tables, there's no working at your boot level, so that's really sweet, but that was also a huge challenge in developing a fertilizer program that would work in approximately six inches of soils. I should mention that we heat it and it's lit during the winter months, so it's an expensive toy in the winter, for sure.

 

Maurgo Wilson: And there's a wood-fired boiler that's erected outside of the building, in two separate structures, and it's buried tubing that goes into the greenhouse and is coiled underneath all of the 26 raised beds that we have. And then this same hot water that circulates into a separate building which is the sprout building, and helps maintain the 70-degree heat that we need in there.

 

Jon Steinman: They explained some of the key seasonal differences their business is subject to on a yearly basis.

 

George Wilson: There's a huge difference, I thought I could match the power of the sun with lights and heat, well not!! It didn't work at all. I do manage to produce a little more than break-even during the winter months, not sure why I carry on with that, always optimistic to do better. The nice thing is the sprouts don't need the solar energy so much as the greenhouse does, so they're kind of carrying us through the winter months, as far as the greenhouse goes. But in the spring it's just wonderful, the plants' cycle shortens by 50% easily, it's just way more fun to see the sun.

 

Maurgo Wilson: In the summer, we have fans, the important thing, we put up a shade cloth over top of the greenhouse, and we have fans that are taking out the heat, so this power that's being used in order to do that, there's a lot of technology.

 

Jon Steinman: If you're just tuning in we're hearing from George and Maurgo Wilson of Meadowbrook Farm and Kootenay Sprouts who grow and sell salad green mixes and sprouts throughout the Nelson area.

 

One of the advantages of speaking with growers and producers is being able to go behind the scenes and discover what a typical day looks like for the people growing and producing the food that is available to us. It would be almost impossible to track all the inputs required in the production of a bagged salad for example - we would need to take a look at the factory where they were made, the history behind all the machinery involved, the origin of the plastic that makes up the bag, the distribution centre where the bagged salad first visits before making its way to a grocery store, and the list could go on.

 

So George and Maurgo make this easier and explain a day in the life of growing and selling salad greens and sprouts.

 

George Wilson: Growing something is not like having an automotive shop where you just turn the key and walk away for the weekend. It needs attention here every single day, 365 a year, and that's one of the big challenges, is getting away, actually. But, as per any given day, every day is varied. It's gotten down to a sort of a weekly routine, especially the sprouts. So, I think one day, our busiest day is basically Wednesday when we pick and package all the salad greens, towards the morning we package all the sprouts, everything's put into a walk-in cooler to cool overnight, and then delivered first thing in the morning.

 

Maurgo Wilson: George spends a couple of hours phoning people every Wednesday morning, having that customer connection, making sure that we tell them what's going on with our products, what's available, and making the orders so that we can fill it that day.

 

Jon Steinman: As is the common theme among all of my guests on today's broadcast, is that their products are only available in the local area. George and Maurgo explain who have been their biggest customers and whether relying on local support is enough to be economically viable.

 

Maurgo Wilson: Our long-term relationship has been with Kootenay Co-op in Nelson. They'll take almost everything that we can grow. Between them and Save-on Foods, they're the two big Nelson customers, and Kootenay Baker. We've supplied many different restaurants and ski-hills and golf courses and etc. over the years, but those would be the main two that take the 80-90% of what we're able to grow. That would be for the greenhouse business.

 

George Wilson: I can't say enough about the Kootenay Co-op Country Store, they've just been wonderful.

 

Maurgo Wilson: The produce managers are so knowledgeable, they've come to the farm for farm visits, they show a real interest in us and in what we produce. And, you know, when we run low on product, they welcome us back with open arms, just saying no other product meets the quality of what we're able to produce. So they make us feel good about ourselves and they pass on customer compliments to us, and that's been very nurturing for us, to have the connection through them into the community. For the sprout business we have a customer list of maybe 20 different cafes and restaurants, and we deliver to Salmo, Nelson, Ymir, South Slocan, Castlegar and Trail, and Rossland, and that would be on our Thursday delivery. We stock up with the cooled greens and the cooled sprouts in the morning and head off and do this circuit.

 

Jon Steinman: As was mentioned, their salad greens and sprouts are available at Save-on-Foods - one of the major chain retailers here in BC. It is certainly unique for a store like this to support a local business. George explains this relationship.

 

George Wilson: I do believe it is a unique situation, and I'm very thankful for them. A lot of the other ones, if you're small potatoes like we are, they're not interested at all, they want you to supply tons and tons. But Save-on Foods is unique in our area, they're emphasizing on growing their organic section and they've been totally supportive.

 

Jon Steinman: As is the case with all of my guests on today's show, all of their products are available at Save-on-Foods, a store that provides a significant level of exposure for their products and certainly supports their income. When the majority of us are shopping at large retailers like Save-on-Foods or Safeway, Extra Foods or Costco, the support that these retailers give to local business becomes a key force in ensuring that we, as British Columbians, can have access to healthy local foods produced directly in our communities. The relationship my guests have with Save-on-Foods is not one that is typically found in other cities and communities here in British Columbia, and this unique relationship provides a concrete example of how much influence a chain retailer can have in ensuring local farmers and producers can remain viable.

 

I asked George and Maurgo why such large chain retailers like Safeway or Extra Foods would rely on selling salad greens from as far away as Mexico or California when the two of them are growing salad greens more or less down the street.

 

George Wilson: I have no idea how they can manage what they do. I've been in Montreal and bought Earthborne Greens, and they're available here. They're grown in California, so I can only begin to imagine how huge of an outfit that must be. How they could grow greens at the price they do grow them, I just don't know. I know what's involved for me to grow greens here, and it's really a lot of work. Of course we're not mechanized at all, everything's hand labour, that type of thing. And also in that formula's their transportation cost, their packaging cost, their refrigeration cost, so I don't quite get it.

 

Maurgo Wilson: We've tried very hard to keep our prices down, one thing that George has noted when we were preparing to talk to you is that we've kept the same prices for the last seven years, and we have not done a fuel surcharge. And instead we've tried to economize. We've changed from a gas heater that was taking $5000 a year in natural gas to heat the place, and we've made the investment into the wood-fired boiler and the extra work to keep the cost down so that we're not always passing on increased costs. We don't know how they can possibly get that product to market at the price that they do. What we know is that we would stand up to any taste test, you know the quality of our product and the flavor, the life-force in it is superior because it's a day old, or sometimes the same day delivered. And it's hand-picked, we have about seven pairs of scissors out there that we use to cut our product by hand, and we're visually looking at every handful that we pick.

 

Jon Steinman: And that was George and Maurgo Wilson of Meadowbrook Farm and Kootenay Sprouts, who are growing year-round certified organic salad green mixes and sprouts just south of Nelson down in Salmo. Their products can be found in Nelson at Save-on-Foods, The Kootenay Cooperative Food Store, and in local restaurants.

 

soundbite

 

Jon Steinman: If you're just tuning in, this is Deconstructing Dinner, where on today's show we are meeting four Nelson-area producers and discovering what it takes to run a small food-production business in an industry dominated by giants. This will be a periodic feature on Deconstructing Dinner, and will visit communities across the province, starting of course in the many communities where Deconstructing Dinner is rebroadcast.

 

If you miss any of today's show, or want to find out more about topics covered, you can visit the Deconstructing Dinner website at www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner.

 

Next on today's show we will be hearing from one of the newest producers here in Nelson, and her story is certainly one to pay attention to for anyone interested in trying to start a food-production business in their own community. And this story is courtesy of Amy Robillard, who is the founder and operator of Little Miss Gelato - and she has only been in operation since May of 2005.

 

Here's Amy Robillard telling us what Little Miss Gelato is all about.

 

Amy Robillard: Little Miss Gelato is a gelato manufacturing business, we produce Italian ice cream and Italian sorbets. And Italian ice cream is slightly different than North American ice cream, because the primary ingredient is milk and not cream and it has less air in it so it is a much denser product. The sorbets are fat-free and dairy-free, they're similar to a sherbet, but a little more smooth tasting.

 

Jon Steinman: Amy explains to us why she chose to start, of all things, a gelato manufacturing business in Nelson.

 

Amy Robillard: Well, it's a bit of a story. My partner and I were hoping to move to Nelson, and I was researching it, I lived in Japan at the time, and I noticed that there were very few jobs available in Nelson. But I had also heard that this community was very encouraging towards small businesses, so I researched what was here, and there's a lot of small businesses in Nelson. So the idea I came up with was gelato, it wasn't here, it's a great product, I love ice cream, I think it's better than ice cream. So I looked into it and then when I finally moved here, yeah I researched it and found my machine and found a nice man in New Jersey to give me some recipes.

 

Jon Steinman: Little Miss Gelato produces six different flavours including Chocolate, Orange, Honey, Vanilla and Coffee. She also makes Raspberry and Lemon-Mint sorbet. Amy briefly explains a day in the life of making gelato.

 

Amy Robillard: In the summer I'd get up very early, and I would start making a base, which is made from milk, cream, egg yolks, sugar, corn syrup and skim-milk power, and that mix has to sit for a few hours, so while it's sitting I'm cutting fruit or putting labels on my packaging, many little things that you have to do. And then it goes into what's called the batch freezer, my batch freezer is actually a traditional gelato batch freezer, it's from Italy. You pour the mix in there once you put flavor in it, so for example if you're making chocolate you'd add cocoa to it. And you put it in the batch freezer and twenty minutes later, gelato would come out.

 

Jon Steinman: One of the most interesting components to how Amy got started making gelato, was the support she received to get her business going, and for anyone who has maybe thought that starting up a small locally-focused food manufacturing business would require incredible amounts of money and investors, well think again.

 

Amy Robillard: Initially when I moved here, I was looking into getting some type of grant, either as a woman, or as a person under 30, and I got introduced to Community Futures, which is an organization I believe throughout Canada, and there's a Community Futures in Nelson. And I spoke with them and I applied for a program called "The Self-Employment Program." And it basically is open to anyone who has been on EI in the last 3 years, or I believe has been on maternity leave in the last 5 years. So I had been on EI in the last 3 years, so I applied for this program and I got accepted into something called the Start Smart program. And basically that program, you attend classes and you have instructors, and they bring you along and teach you how to write a business plan. It's a great program, especially if you have no business background. They provide courses and you basically have a group of people that you're in the program with and you write a business plan, and it gets submitted to a committee. And that committee decides if your business is a viable business or if it is not.

 

Jon Steinman: Amy explains what happens after the program determines her business plan is viable.

 

Amy Robillard: Luckily in my case, they decided that it was a viable business, and how that works is it's like a pay cheque. You are paid every two weeks, you get a pay cheque in the mail. So it's great, it was for one year, so basically I was getting funding for one year. It just helps you, if you make any money in your business, you do not have to take money out of the business to pay yourself. Basically any money that that business makes, you can reinvest into the business. It's a great program for sure, I probably couldn't have done it without them.

 

Jon Steinman: Given Amy has now only seen close to one year of business, I asked her if her experience up until now gives her the confidence that her business will remain successful.

 

Amy Robillard: I do foresee it as a business that's going to stick around. In terms of how viable it is, you should probably ask me in September. Because I did one summer, but I didn't start till the end of May, so it was a pretty new business. And luckily I have a lot more customers now than I did in the summer. For example, in the summer I have a lot of scoop shops, so basically I'd send my gelato in a tub, a 5-litre tub, and they would scoop it out and sell it as cones. Of course it's winter now and no-one buys cones. So those people that were my customers in the summer are not my customers in the winter. And luckily for the winter, I have got into a couple more mainstream places, such as Save-on Foods, they sell 500-ml containers of Little Miss Gelato, as well as the Co-op. So that's been really good, just in terms of carrying me through the winter.

 

Jon Steinman: As is the case with all of my guests on today's show, local support is what keeps these local producers in business. But as Amy explains, local support is also what got her started, before she even made her first batch of gelato.

 

Amy Robillard: Even before I got off the ground, and I didn't know very much, and I was very new at it, I received Letters of Intent from people that just wanted to buy locally. And they didn't know me from anybody, they didn't taste my product, cause I hadn't made my product yet. For the program through Community Futures, you need to get Letters of Intent. So you have to go into establishments and say, will you support me? And that's a hard thing to do, when you have a product and you can't actually let the person taste that product. So they have to have a lot of faith in you, to agree to do that kind of thing. And it was great, yeah! Grounded Coffee-shop, Jennifer there, she was my first customer and my best customer, last summer. She just, as soon as I walked in and met her, she said, "Yeah, I will carry your product when you make it."

 

Jon Steinman: If you're just tuning in to Deconstructing Dinner, we're hearing from Amy Robillard, aka, Little Miss Gelato - one of Nelson's newest business owners and operators. As her gelato manufacturing business is tiny compared to the mass-produced ice-creams and sorbets most commonly available, I asked Amy if sourcing ingredients has posed a difficulty for such a small business.

 

Amy Robillard: In terms of packaging, it was a little difficult, because the packaging cost me a lot of money, there's obviously minimum orders. And I had it shipped, unfortunately from Niagara, and it was the only packaging company I could find that would put a logo on it, that was able to do it. I bought 5000 units, which even at 50 cents each, that's $2500. For a new business, that's quite a bit of money. And the most places were looking at 50,000 units.

 

In terms of local ingredients, it's great, BC's known for its fantastic fruit. So the flavours in the summer change with what fruit is available, so I'm getting amazing fruit in the summer. And through the winter, I've chosen two fruit flavours, one is a raspberry sorbet, and the raspberries are grown locally. In the summer they were purchased fresh and now they're purchased frozen.

 

Jon Steinman: Amy explains how local retailers have allowed her to stay in business, and how like with my previous guests, she has formed a unique relationship with retailing giant Save-on-Foods. And she explains whether it was difficult getting into a large chain retailer.

 

Amy Robillard: It wasn't difficult because I had a lot of support from the manager of that store, he had heard about my gelato. There was an employee who had tasted it and really encouraged him to try it. He was very encouraging and when I brought some samples to him, I guess about six weeks later it was in the store. And I think that is not a normal situation, because my product does not have a UPC code on it, and I think that's mandatory for large-scale stores for sure. They want to track their product, they want to see how your product is doing, they want to know how much they sell. So for me, it was a big plus for me to get it in there, because I don't have a UPC code, and I don't know if Save-on-Foods as a whole was so appreciative of it because I think they found it a little bit of a hassle that I didn't have that UPC code.

 

Jon Steinman: As was mentioned earlier, it is unique here in Nelson when such a large retailer supports a local farmer or producer. To better illustrate how unique this is, Amy explains what happened when she approached Safeway with her locally made gelato.

 

Amy Robillard: I approached Safeway, and I didn't even speak to the manager of that store. I was told to dial a 1-800 number. So, calling that, they just don't really see a desire to carry my product. They don't know me, they don't know Nelson, they don't really care about a local manufacturer in their store so much.

 

Jon Steinman: Having only been in business for less than a year, Amy explains some of the challenges she faced getting started, and looks ahead to the challenges she may face in the future.

 

Amy Robillard: In the beginning, the challenges were basically just information. And I suppose gelato is a little bit obscure, just in terms of finding equipment was tricky. So that took me a long time, there was a lot of Googling going on for that, for sure. This community has been fantastic, in terms of they've been very encouraging. But, I am a female, and I'm somewhat young. When I went initially to talk to people, not everyone took me very seriously. And maybe that's not because of my age or gender, maybe it's because they've had many people come through, wanting Letters of Intent, and then the business didn't go through, and it was a waste of their time. I'm not really sure what their motivation was, but yeah, I didn't feel I was taken very seriously by some individuals, so that was kind of annoying, more than anything.

 

I guess the biggest challenge right now that I need to overcome is how to expand my business without investing a lot more money into it, and trying to get it, just logistically in terms of how much I can actually produce and distribute to stores. And for me to reach my capacity, I think I have to be in unfortunately, chain stores other than Nelson, because that's where people shop, you know. I need people to purchase my product. My sales have increased substantially since being in Save-on, just because it is a big store, and it's known.

 

Jon Steinman: And that was Amy Robillard of Little Miss Gelato - a Nelson-based manufacturer of gelato and sorbets. Throughout the winter her products are available in Nelson at Save-on-Foods, the Kootenay Cooperative Food Store, Café Kas and the Crooked Café in Kaslo. In the summer you can expect to see her products in other locations such as Nelson's Grounded Coffee-shop.

 

soundbite

 

Jon Steinman: Again, if you're just tuning in, this is Deconstructing Dinner, a weekly radio broadcast produced in the studios of Kootenay Co-op Radio in Nelson, British Columbia. Here on Deconstructing Dinner we discuss the impacts our food choices have on ourselves, our communities and the planet.

 

On today's broadcast we are visiting with four Nelson-area businesses who are creating a number of different edible products available in the local area. This producer spotlight will be a periodic feature that will travel around the province and visit growers and producers in other British Columbia communities. As Deconstructing Dinner is rebroadcast in other BC communities such as Vancouver and Nanaimo, it is important to mention that, although the products that are and will be exposed on this periodic "producer spotlight" will more often than not only be available in specific communities, the issues surrounding the success of local farmers and food-based businesses are applicable to all of us. In the end, our food choices are increasingly being determined by a small number of national and multi-national retailers, who exist in almost every community in this province and across the country. And as is the case, a small manufacturer of a food product who are very often supporting other local farmers and businesses in the process, can very often only remain viable if their products are sold in large chain retailers, and this certainly can provide a deterrent to anyone wanting to start a locally-focused food-production business.

 

My next guest has been a fixture of the local area since the early 90s, and that is Silvio Lettrari of Kaslo Sourdough Bakery (or better recognized as KSB). Silvio immigrated to Canada from Germany in 1975, and his philosophy on making bread is certainly one to pay attention to. His background and understanding of bread provides some interesting insight into how bread has shaped modern civilization, how the manufacturing of bread has drastically shifted in the last 150 years, and how the prevalence of gluten and wheat allergies can perhaps be linked to the industrial methods by which the vast majority of our bread is produced. But that aside, his passion for bread and his desire to create a truly healthy product, is a great illustration of how much compassion one can have when someone living in a community is also producing food for the community.

 

Here's Silvio Lettrari of KSB explaining to us when he got his bread business started and why.

 

Silvio Lettrari: When I got it going was 15 years ago, and why is kind of circumstance. Originally I was already in my late 20's, I was actually just starting my career as a woodcarver. But the circumstance led me to baking because of my origins. We immigrated to Canada in '75, and I was born and raised in southern Germany. The fact that coming over here, that the biggest thing that I really missed was good bread. But there was an outdoor wood-fired brick oven. And there was a guy that was working it, the guy wanted to leave the area, and he was willing to teach me a few things.

 

Jon Steinman: Silvio explains some of the challenges in getting his breadmaking business off the ground.

 

Silvio Lettrari: At the beginning, it was really rough, because what happened is that the guy left quite quickly, he barely taught me anything, and his bread was kind of not quite what I wanted and what I still remembered, you know, could be possibilities. So, he showed me a few basic ideas of sourdough, and I thought oh, the ideas were great, and it goes back, way back when, because I've always been kind of an old-fashioned kind of guy, and old kind of values, and I thought, I like that, that idea is great. I only worked with him for about 2-3 weeks and then he took off and I was kind of left high and dry for a while. And it took me about 3 months to get good bread out of that oven. And the challenges with the wood-fired brick oven that's outdoors, is actually the firing itself as well, it's not just making the dough and stuff. But I was systematically at it, I started at 3 o'clock in the morning. I would fire up, I had my wood dried in the oven from the day before from the bake, so it was dry. So, I lit that oven, and then I started making my dough from then on. I got bread out of that oven by about 9:30, 10 o'clock.

 

Jon Steinman: As was mentioned earlier, Silvio holds a unique philosophy in the art of making bread. He explains how this philosophy formed.

 

Silvio Lettrari: And, the first day I got started, I was making good bread by about July or August. It was starting to really come together and I was really happy, because I never had training at all until then. The recipe, the way I came up with it, I just went, okay, how did they do it thousands of years ago? Because that's where sourdough bread originates. I didn't want to bake bread like Safeway or the other bakeries, I was very dissatisfied with that kind of bread and I wanted to do real bread. So, that was the challenge, to bake with just basic ingredients, but come out with a product that's by far superior. And as my studies over the last 15 years, from then on I studied sourdough baking and baking in general, and it is much, much healthier for you, if you rely on that kind of a fermented food than whatever's out there right now in stores.

 

Jon Steinman: As this philosophy has led Silvio to make bread in a more traditional fashion, he explains how sourdough - his specialty, differs from other bread, and how the sourdough we so commonly think of, is far from what sourdough is supposed to be.

 

Silvio Lettrari: What I call sourdough and traditional bread, is bread that goes back thousands of years. It changed drastically in about the 1850's when they came up with baker's yeast. From then on, like Louis Pasteur and all that, and there came the Industrial Revolution in that time, it was perfect, and then combined with that on top, with the wheat at that time started to change drastically for the average person, (the fact) that white flour was available. And if you look at sourdough, if you ask anybody nowadays, sourdough bread well it's just white bread, it's San Francisco-style bread. Well, that's not true, sourdough bread is actually whole-grain bread, or it's at least whole-wheat bread, even if you don't have the germ. But it's dark, it's brown bread. That's what we grew up on, like humanity, over the last 7000 years. It's only in the last 100 years it changed, because of the milling processes have changed drastically, that the average person can have white flour, because that was reserved for the upper classes before that. So what we do here, we bake whole-grain as much as we can, but we don't overdo it, we have a little bit of white flour in there as well, because people are not ready, most people are not ready to eat whole-grain bread as such. It's quite heavy, and we're not accustomed to that at all.

 

Jon Steinman: As Silvio Lettrari of Kaslo Sourdough Bakery explains the key differences between the way he makes bread versus the way factory-made bread is produced, he connects this increased prevalence of industrially processed wheat and industrially manufactured bread, to the increasing prevalence of wheat and gluten allergies that we see today.

 

Silvio Lettrari: But, it's the bacteria in there that actually pre-digests, more or less, mostly the gluten in the flour. And most people that have an allergy to wheat is because it's not pre-fermented, it's not pre-digested by bacteria. The modern bread, it's just kind of, I don't want to say chemical soup, but it actually has nothing in it that pre-digests anything in it. That's just like the same thing if you eat cereals in the morning and stuff like that. That is dead things, that is dead flour. You don't have the bacteria in there. And if you look back in history, we ate fermented foods for the first 7000 years, more or less, since humanity began. The ascent of man is based on bread, evolutionary. That's what civilized man ate, that's what it's all based on.

 

Jon Steinman: Silvio discusses the stores in the Nelson area where his bread can be purchased.

 

Silvio Lettrari: We started out, I supplied Save-on-Foods, 13 years ago we started with them. Same thing with Safeway, so 13 years ago it wasn't quite as corporate, the local managers had a little more say yet. Right now it's getting . . . sometime maybe we're a sitting duck, but I do have a talk with Save-on and they're okay with us yet because they're not quite as corporate-structured like others. But Safeway is more structured corporate so we're there, we're kind of tolerated, because locally you know it's great for them to have us, but because we're not in the big picture from Safeway. If we could say, okay we can deliver half a million loaves of bread every two weeks to all the Safeway stores, they'd probably say, oh yeah, great, we'll take your bread on maybe. But because we're just in one single store actually, really, they don't consider you. And then it comes down to shelving space. Right now we're happy to be in there, it's for local, it's great. But, I think starting out, I don't think you would get in there anymore.

 

Jon Steinman: And that was Silvio Lettrari of Kaslo Sourdough Bakery. In addition to Safeway and Save-on-Foods here in Nelson, you can find their bread at the Kootenay Cooperative Food Store and Ellison's Market. You can learn more about his business by visiting www.microsour.com.

 

And, if you're just tuning in this is Deconstructing Dinner, produced in the studios of Kootenay Co-op Radio in Nelson, British Columbia. On today's show we are hearing from a number of Nelson-area businesses who all grow or produce different food products and by doing so, we are hearing what it takes to operate a small food-based business in an industry dominated by giants, we are hearing the passion that local producers of food put into their products - a passion that would otherwise be rare to find when speaking of the many unsustainable and unethical practices that industrial food production is becoming so well known for - practices that have been and will be discussed frequently on this program.

 

You can find out more about Deconstructing Dinner at www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner .

 

My last guest on today's program is Jeff Mock - who is the man behind Nelson-based Silverking Soya Foods - a local producer of certified organic tofu products. Small-scale tofu production is certainly not a common business one would find anywhere, let alone in a community with only 10,000 people. But as has been the case with all of my guests, local support has allowed Jeff to remain viable, and here he is explaining to us how Silverking Soya Foods got started.

 

Jeff Mock: Well the business started out in Kaslo. Gregg and Ellen Lund started the business because they just couldn't find or buy what they considered to be good, fresh tofu, here in the Kootenays. They had tasted it at other places, I think in Vancouver, and they wanted to have that experience again, so they started making tofu, first in their kitchen, and then in their basement. They were making their tofu using really crude equipment. They started out with a bunch of little propane camp stoves under large stainless-steel vats, and to get the beans ground up they used a bunch of household blenders. They had three or four of those little whiny blenders going full-tilt for about twenty minutes at a time to grind up enough beans to make a large batch of tofu.

 

Jon Steinman: Jeff describes how he got involved in the business.

 

Jeff Mock: Greg and Ellan Lund had moved their business into Nelson. They changed it from Kaslo Soya Foods to Silverking Soya Foods because they were living on Silverking Road, and they brought their portable shop with them. I had been working, helping deliver flyers door-to-door, when Gregg approached me and asked me if I wanted to clean his tofu shop twice a week. So I got involved in his tofu shop basically as a cleaning person. He was trying to sell the business at the time, and I didn't want him to sell because then I'd lose my dishwashing job two days a week. So I offered to be partners with him. And I joined the business in about 1991 or ‘2.

 

Jon Steinman: Jeff's business partner soon after moved back to Kaslo and sold his share of the business to Jeff, and since then it's Jeff that has taken the business to where it is right now. Jeff explains the products he makes and how easily mass-produced products can put a small business, out of business.

 

Jeff Mock: For a while I made tofu and soy milk. When all the tetra-paks came out, there's so many different (soy milk) brands now, there's Silk and all these brands from the States and from Vancouver, they pretty well shut down that part of my operation. My tofu is pretty raw, and the other (soy milk) brands are more palatable, and I didn't want to compete with them, I would have had to really change my direction. So, I'm basically just a tofu-maker, and I make seven different kinds of tofu. I make regular tofu; firm; herb tofu, which has four herbs plus garlic in it. I make hot tofu, which has cayenne and jalapeno peppers; curry tofu, which is basically just tofu with curry power, makes it a nice yellow colour; mushroom tofu; and I make seafood, which is tofu with four different sea-vegetables, four different seaweeds.

 

Jon Steinman: The Silverking tofu products are all certified organic, and Jeff explains the differences between certified organic and conventional tofu products.

 

Jeff Mock: To be certified organic, you have to use all organic ingredients. That means you have to use beans that are not genetically modified, beans that are grown in accordance with organic farming standards, they don't use any chemical fertilizers, and there cannot be any non-organic ingredients in it. I think you're allowed 5% non-organic ingredients, if you're unable to source organic ingredients, which is sometimes quite difficult. I'm not great at sourcing things, I usually just ask other people. I go down to the Kootenay Co-op, and they're pretty good at finding organic sources for me if I'm unable to. All of my herbs for my herb tofu come from Glade Mountain Farm, which is certified organic.

 

Jon Steinman: As I'm sure many of us are unaware how tofu is made, speaking with Jeff presented a great opportunity to find out. He explains a typical day making tofu.

 

Jeff Mock: Making tofu basically involves cooking soybeans. My day starts the night before. I figure out how much tofu I'm going to make the next day, and then I soak enough beans the night before. It takes about one lb of dry beans to make two lbs of tofu. So I'll start by soaking about 300 lbs of dry soybeans, by the next morning they're swelled up to twice their size, and I have a big vat of soaked soybeans, and I start my day, usually around six in the morning. I used to start right away by grinding the first batch of beans. The Health Department, they're making it difficult to just use totally raw products, like I had been. And now I basically use my pressure-cooker as an autoclave, first thing in the morning. And all my herbs I'm going to use for the day, my herbs, my mushrooms, all the things that I'm going to add have to be autoclaved, which means subjected to high-pressure steam for a minimum of about twenty minutes. Usually by 7 o'clock I'm grinding my first batch of beans - I grind them, then I cook them, then the cooked beans have to get pressed to get the pulp separated from the milk. The soy milk is what you actually make tofu with. So I take soy milk and stir coagulant into it, the coagulant cause the proteins in the soy milk to clump and form curds, so then you have a big vat of curds and whey. The whey gets skimmed off, it's basically a clear brownish liquid, and the curds get bucketed into a big form that makes about 30 lbs of tofu at a time.

 

Jon Steinman: As Jeff mentioned, he sources some of his ingredients from local growers such as the herbs he uses in one of his products. This provides a great example of how local producers are very often in turn supporting local farmers. The many products we find in grocery stores that are manufactured in large urban factories, are certainly not sourcing their ingredients from a small local farmer, and there presents yet another advantage of supporting local producers.

 

On the topic of grocery stores, Jeff explains the support he has received from local businesses and residents, and describes the response he has received by some of the chain retailers in Nelson.

 

Jeff Mock: Well, the Kootenay Co-op for sure has been a great supporter of my business and I'm sure of other small local producers. For a long time they were my biggest single customer, and I'd say 50% of my business was through the Kootenay Co-op. They're really dedicated to helping small, organic local producers. They promoted my product for a long time, because it's local and because it's organic. I've had trouble getting into chains here, the only chain that's been really supportive for me, the only large chain grocery store has been Save-on-Foods. And I never expected it would, I thought I'd have better luck in stores like Safeway, but there's a whole rigamarole you have to go through with some of these stores, you have to go to their head office and convince them you have a product that warrants space on their shelves. With Save-on, I just basically walked in there one day and talked to the produce manager, Gerry Spagis and said I've got local tofu, would you like to see it on your shelves? And he said, sure, bring it in. I had it in his store within a week.

 

Jon Steinman: Again we're hearing from Jeff Mock of Nelson-based Silverking Soya Foods here on today's broadcast of Deconstructing Dinner as we meet four local producers on this first of what will be a periodic series here on this program where we will travel to different communities in BC and learn more about the challenges and opportunities that exist for small-scale farmers and businesses trying to produce food for their communities.

 

As was mentioned earlier, the opportunity for small local businesses like Silverking Soya Foods to sell their products in large chain grocery stores like Save-on-Foods in Nelson, is a unique relationship that is not commonly found between local producers and large retailers, and is certainly not common in other Save-on-Foods locations.

 

Given the unique local support of Jeff's products in Nelson, I asked him if his business is viable and what challenges he faces.

 

Jeff Mock: But, yeah, it's been economically viable. It seems like the business has always had its challenges. All our equipment is used, it was used when we bought it, and it's always needing repair, so there's just the challenge of keeping everything running. Economic challenges are just always being able to sell tofu. Like, I could make a lot more tofu than I do, but I have trouble finding a market big enough for all the tofu I could make, so I sort of gear my production to what I'm able to sell. Every time I lose a customer, either because that business closes down, or cause they just decided they're not selling enough of my tofu, it hurts. So the challenge there is finding new customers and keeping the business going.

 

Jon Steinman: I concluded my conversation with Jeff by asking him how local support keeps him in business.

 

Jeff Mock: I rely mainly on local support. I rely on people wanting my product. Everyone's aware that my product is more expensive than the other tofus. Even though they're shipped all the way from Vancouver, they can sell them here for maybe half, two-thirds of the price that I sell mine for. I've gone many years now trying not to raise my prices, but I've seen the prices of other tofus go down, as Vancouver-based businesses, mainly, get larger. They're able to sell cheaper, just because of the volume. If I made 5 cents a cake, or 10 cents a cake of tofu, like, say Sunrise is probably able to do, I couldn't support my family. I'll probably never be able to compete with the large companies from Vancouver. So I need people that want my tofu for other reasons than because it's the cheapest thing, because it's not, I need people to want my tofu because it's locally-produced. And probably the biggest selling factor with my tofu is that it's fresh.

 

Jon Steinman: And that was Jeff Mock of Nelson-based Silverking Soya Foods. Again his products can be found in Nelson at Save-on-Foods and the Kootenay Cooperative Food Store.

 

If you missed any of today's program, this broadcast will be archived on the Deconstructing Dinner website, which is www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner.

 

I'll also mention how these producer spotlights will occur every few months and we will visit other communities throughout BC where small-scale farmers and producers are operating or trying to operate in an industry dominated by incredibly large and influential agricultural businesses, food processors, distributors and retailers.

 

After listening to the four businesses featured on today's broadcast, it certainly provides a glimmer of hope that locally and regionally structured food systems can be viable. And in an age where oil and the necessary resources required to ship ingredients, food and packaging from thousands of miles away are quickly being depleted, let alone are contributing to the increasing temperature of our planet, presents one of many reasons why local and regionally based food systems are and will present a necessary component of our cities and communities.

 

We were witness today to how influential large retailers and local co-ops are in determining the success of local farmers and businesses. When retailers like Save-on-Foods, Overwaitea, Safeway, Costco, Extra Foods or The Real Canadian Superstore are increasingly determining what foods are available to us, their reliance on mass-produced products is a deterrent to creating these local and regionally based food systems that are so important.

 

soundbite

 

That was this week's edition of Deconstructing Dinner, produced and recorded in the studios of Nelson, British Columbia's Kootenay Co-op Radio. I've been your host Jon Steinman. I thank my technical assistant Dianne Matenko. All of those affiliated with this station are volunteers, and financial support for this station is received through membership, donations and sponsorship from local businesses and organizations. For more information on the station or to become a member, you can visit www.cjly.net, or dial 250-352-9600. And should you have any comments about tonight's show, want to learn more about topics covered, or want to listen to this broadcast all over again, you can visit the website for Deconstructing Dinner at www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner.

 

Till next week…


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