On a December evening in 2017, I was standing in the crowded tasting room of a small, fashionable winery I worked for in Sonoma County, CA, holding a glass of Syrah, showing coworkers a picture on my phone of the house I had just bought in Missouri. After ooh-ing and aah-ing over the size of the house and the amount of land around it (an utter impossibility in California’s housing market), one of my work friends asked, “So are you going to start a bakery?”
Fast forward three years. My husband Scott is finishing up the rewiring on a three-deck professional pizza oven, capable of baking over 60 loaves of bread in one go. The oven is a 50 year old beast of pure dial-spinning electrical heat, and one that I did not have a choice but to invest in if I wanted to meet demand. I needed this. (I wanted it too, but still.)
Until March, 2018, I’d lived in the San Francisco Bay Area my whole life. I had been making sourdough bread for a couple of years, and I’d been creating starters in the cellar of this winery all that fall as the harvest had been coming in. The same yeasts that ferment grapes into wine make bread rise, so wine and bread are natural cornerstones of cultivation. The bread experiments of that year I’d brought to the winery staff, and some had assumed that I’d been planning to switch careers. In fact I’d been planning nothing of the sort—starting a bakery in California was out of the question.
I have two children, and at the time, a mortgage and other debts, and the financial toll of starting a bakery in a place so crowded by restaurants, with sky-high overhead and impossible real estate prices, would have been a gamble with the futures of my family that I was never going to take. Restrictions in the Golden State are so numerous that to even start a business in California, expect 30 percent of costs to go to permits. Starting a cottage bakery didn’t seem likely either. Our little house wouldn’t accommodate the bread-making process, and both of us were working full time and overtime to be able to afford our house and the childcare we needed to afford to work full time.
We were caught in an endless loop of expenses and work. We knew we needed more space, and less stress, and in an odd twist of fate, the big house south of Peculiar, MO, was the solution. Scott and I began the process of pulling up stakes, without jobs or family to move to, without having actually set foot inside the strange house we’d just bought in a town of 482 people, just knowing we needed a change.
Four months after we set foot in our new house I showed up in Louisburg, KS to vend, for the first time ever, at a local Farmers’ Market, with my newly branded home bakery—Au Contraire. The market runs 7-11 a.m., Saturdays from June through September, and seemed like a great testing ground for my wild notion that I could make it as a professional baker. The strong support and community of fellow vendors I found there fueled my excitement and drew me further down the rabbit hole of the cottage industry. We all saw the market grow between 2018 and 2019, and interest seemed on the rise. 2020’s market took me completely by surprise.
Prior to opening June 1, Louisburg’s Farmers Market held a meeting of vendors to discuss COVID-19 precautions. Social distancing—including a caution-tape barrier—masks, hand sanitizer, name tags, etc. were all put into practice from day one. I wasn’t sure how many people would want to attend a market during a pandemic, and because I wouldn’t be able to give out samples, I baked somewhat less than my usual amount—about 30 loaves of sourdough and two dozen pastries. I sold out in under an hour. The next weekend I upped my amounts to 40 loaves of bread and four dozen pastries. Again, I sold out in less than an hour. I began taking reservations for my regular customers, to ensure I didn’t sell out before they could get there. By the end of the market season I was baking 50 loaves of bread and five dozen pastries, and still selling out almost every week.
“The food movement is here,” says Ileana Price of Five Mile Farms. “I think it’s still young, but the ball is rolling.”
Ileana and Lucas raise beef and chicken with their three children. They started their farm with some chickens for the kids, and began to raise a small herd of cattle a few years later. Like me, they saw an enormous surge in interest during the summer of 2020, and luckily, they were in the process of moving their family farm to a larger acreage. The biodiverse farming practice that the Prices use is regenerative—it is designed to produce high quality meat while actively improving the land. The increase in demand saw them butchering more than three times the number of cattle they had butchered in 2019, and they plan to triple their number of meat birds as well.
“Everyone had time to reflect and think about things they hadn’t thought about before,” Ileana Price says. “Food matters—food source matters.”
Some of Five Mile Farms’ customers found them because of food shortages at grocery stores, and began a loyal relationship with a provider they could develop a face-to-face relationship with. Pixie Hearn moved to MO within months of us, and started Pixie Chicks Farm in Freeman, a poultry farm where she raises turkeys and chickens for meat and eggs. Like many, she lost her regular job early in the pandemic.
“What I had seen as growing slowly from a hobby to a business has definitely accelerated,” she says. “I doubled my laying hens and quadrupled my turkeys.”
“A lot of people are interested in avoiding the standard food distribution chain,” Price adds. “It’s been proven to be more easily disrupted than people imagined.” When grocery stores started running out of eggs Pixie was there to provide locally grown, free-range chicken and turkey eggs. Many of those customers became meat chicken and turkey customers later.
The last 10 years have seen a steep rise in home cooking trends, so it makes sense that people are interested in quality ingredients in a year when they had to cook for themselves whether they wanted to or not. This is as good a place as any to say that the irony of growing a sourdough bakery in 2020 is not lost in me—at the moment when it seemed like everyone in the country developed an overnight obsession with becoming a bread-baking, beer-brewing medieval innkeeper, I was five years ahead of schedule. As it turns out, however, sourdough bread baking has a long, steep learning curve, and rather than seeing the new national pastime hurt my business, I instead got requests for sourdough bread-making classes—a new area to branch into in the coming year, hopefully.
Much of the food movement in the rural KC area is focused on farming and the production of meat, eggs, produce, and dairy–ingredients. Eric and April Castle own Castle Farms in Pleasanton, KS, where they raise hogs. Eric raised pigs for 4H when he was a child, and now he breeds show pigs for 4H projects, which start in January. Rather than selling off the breeding sows to someone who would use them for meat, they decided to cut out the middleman and begin producing bratwursts, bacon, and more.
“Brats are our number one selling item,” he says. “Prior to COVID-19, we were selling ten to twenty hogs a year. This year we’re over one hundred.”
Some customers have already reserved their orders for October of 2021. The choices producers now face are the tipping point of any small business. Do we expand our markets? Should we make this a full-time job?
Social media has been a game-changer for cottage producers. “There’s so much good that can come from it,” Ileana Price says. I tell her that 90 percent of my bread-making education has come from other bakers on Instagram, and she laughs, “We’re going to the University of YouTube.”
Social awareness of food sourcing and growing practices is definitely driving interest in small producers.
In April, the Castles were invited by a friend, Rick McNary, to advertise on his new Facebook page, Shop Kansas. Within a month, Shop Kansas had over 140k followers, and the Castles got so many orders that by mid summer they had to stop advertising for the rest of the year. The Castles invested in an ordering website to cope with the volume of orders they were receiving. I was also maxing out my bread-making capability as the holidays hit. The Thanksgiving menu sold out in 36 hours.
Part of that decision to limit visibility was of necessity. While I could probably have doubled my orders for Christmas, I would not have been able to fulfill them without more equipment. When one of the three ovens we have in our home broke in the middle of the 12 hour straight Thanksgiving bake, I stomped upstairs and announced to my husband Scott that I’d had it—I was buying a commercial oven. I bought a speed rack at auction—a tall rack that holds 20 26×18 inch pans—to help me get dough shaped into loaves faster, and closed my eyes and hit “Buy Now” on an auction for a 6x6x6 foot used electric oven.
The opinion of every vendor and organizer I spoke with is that the cottage food boom of 2020 is likely to continue into the next year and beyond. Michael Hursey, owner of Casa Somerset Bed & Breakfast in Paola, KS, has been an educational organizer and vocal advocate for local producers for more than 20 years. Recently, he participated in a Zoom conference with over 2,500 organic farmers and food equality activists across the country.
“They say we’re growing. By 2025 it’s going to be a lot bigger. I think a lot of things are going to go our way,” Hursey says.
The decision to expand market opportunities into larger, more urban Farmers’ Markets is now in front of many cottage producers. Expansion means change, though. Pixie Hearn made the choice to process all her meat birds herself, rather than taking them to a plant. “I’m picky about how those chickens are going to be dispatched. I make sure that they are as un-stressed as possible. That’s really important to me, and also that there’s no waste.” She knows that she will not be able to sell her birds at market without going through a licensed processing facility, so her marketing efforts remain focused on selling directly from her farm.
To keep quality high requires time and resources, and knowing your limits. Eric and April Castle have considered joining larger urban markets, but know they would have to hire help to run a larger booth.
“I want to continue to grow,” says April, “but I know we’d have to change some of the things that we do. One of us would have to quit our job. If we can afford to hire someone to work for us, we should be able to afford to quit our jobs.” They also worry about abandoning the rural customers they’ve developed relationships with for downtown areas. “Louisburg has been a sweet spot,” April tells me. “It is a good market that’s good sized and I feel like everybody there has become family.”
Slow growth considerations may make rural producers hesitant to expand into urban markets, but that doesn’t seem to stop customers from heading out from the downtown area to rural KC for their weekend pantry shopping, though. Tim and Cathy Sullivan, who own Sullivan’s Greenhouse in Cleveland, MO, have been vending at the Overland Park market for over 20 years, but chose to sit it out in 2020. Their Garden Pantry brand of organic herbs and vegetables is sold in small garden centers throughout the KC area, and are some of the best quality plants I’ve ever grown. I buy directly from their property in Cleveland, where they are open only one day a week in the growing season. Although only a small percentage of their revenue comes from visitors to their Cleveland property, they keep the greenhouse open to visitors who heard about them through word of mouth. “I’d say about half the people who come here come from the city,” Tim says, “and we don’t advertise at all.”
I see my fair share of customers from the downtown area as well, including one woman who drove from north of the airport to pick up bread five times in the last four months. But there may be no better indication of urban interest in locally produced food than the Miami County Farm tour.
This fall I sold bread at Casa Somerset; I made 100 loaves for the first day and sold out within an hour, and many of the visitors I chatted with came from the metro areas. “Every vendor and farmer I talked to said they had record years,” Mike Hursey tells me. “I think it’s going to get bigger and better.”
One of the reasons for the uptick in agrotourism may have had to do with the fact that people were drawn to outdoor activities as COVID cases in the metro areas continued to rise. A day spent touring a farm or visiting a market looked like a healthy alternative to staying shut up inside or risking a crowded grocery store. Small market vendors saw an increase in regular customers, and were able to rely on steady income and much-needed social interaction.
“Building that relationship with the weekly customer—I didn’t know I needed that in my life,” Ileana says. “It just takes it to another level. We took care of the animal, and when somebody buys it and really spends time on a recipe—what an honor.”
Community is a big part of the rural cottage industry. Producers purchase from each other to make products they in turn sell. For my chili bread I use chilis and garlic grown by Foxfire Farm in Louisburg. I use blackberries from Cy and Dee’s Blackberry Farm for my puff pastry turnovers. This year I finally realized the dream of a local source of quality flour, when Ileana told me about City Farmer Foods, a fourth generation farm in Central Kansas, vending flour at the Overland Park Farmers’ Market.
When Danny and Raffaela Lesslie moved to Kansas in 2019 with their two daughters they had a dream of creating community. One year later, that dream took the form of Cowboy Coffee Post, their artisan coffee business.
“Coffee shops have such a special place in my heart,” Danny says. “As a family, we spend our quality time at coffee shops. The girls ask ‘Can we take a coloring book?’ and we’ll sit there for two hours and just spend time as a family.”
In 2020, gathering in coffee shops was off the table, but with exceptional timing, the Lesslies had purchased a trailer in February that they converted into a coffee truck. They began to work with Anthony and Priyanka Taylor of Brew & Brews Co, a local coffee roaster who I know from their time vending at the Louisburg Farmers’ Market. Together, they created an ethically sourced, rich, dark house blend they call Black Bison. When Raffaela was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in August, the coffee truck activities were scaled back, but with a product and marketing in place, they were able to build an online business selling their coffee. The support they have received for Raffaela and for their business plan affected Danny deeply. Going forward, their plan is to create an organization that sponsors small businesses like theirs with gifts of equipment or upgrades to their operations.
“I think if you do things for the right reasons, it will click. For us, we didn’t do this for a quick buck. Creating community for people, that experience, to have time together—that’s what it’s all about,” Danny says.
Good food has a way of bringing people together. It’s a source of enormous happiness to me that in this year of fear and doubt I have made breads and pastries so enjoyed by customers that they will drive 50 miles to get a couple loaves of rosemary garlic sourdough, or pick up huge orders of galettes and turnovers to deliver to their housebound friends and relatives, or show up unfailingly at 8 a.m. every Saturday to get the cinnamon raisin sourdough their granddaughter loves. That sense of community makes me want to be better at what I do, and make it my focus, not just my hobby.
The oven, christened “Mary Anne” after the tireless steam shovel in the children’s book Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, needs a wiring fix for a short on the bottom deck (which I explosively caused by opening the control panel without turning it off). Two of the deck lights need replacing. But the massive stones inside are intact, the short will be fixed soon, and the two working decks heat to 450° in minutes. Like many slow-growth cottage producers, I’m extremely careful with my business expenses—moving to Missouri took us out of debt, and I’m in no hurry to jump back in. The opportunity to repurpose the retired, antique pizza oven, with 40 years under its hood at the Wisconsin pizzeria it came from, appeals to me from a no-waste perspective.
It’s still a big investment for me to make, especially during a time of unemployment, but the return on it might change my life, if I can become a full-time home baker. The future looks bright for the cottage industry—if there’s any good coming out the other side of 2020, I hope this is on the list.
Tags: April Castle, artisanal food, Au Contraire, california, Casa Somerset, Castle Farms, Cathy Sullivan, cottage, cottage baking, Cowboy Coffee Post, Cy and Dee’s, Danny Lesslie, Eric Castle, Five Mile Farms, Foxfire Farm, Ileana Price, local vendors, Louisburg, Lucas Price, missouri, Peculiar, Pixie Chicks Farm, Pixie Hearn, Raffaela Lesslie, Rick McNary, rural food, san francisco, Shop Kansas, Sonoma County, Sullivan’s Greenhouse, Tim Sullivan, Workfare Incorporated