By Dora Taylor
“My real passion is connecting with people, and showing my love for people through baking. Baking is a way of putting smiles on as many faces as possible.” This is the way Owen Postgate, head baker at Rye Bakery in Frome, Somerset, describes his work. Rye Bakery specialises in dishes made from local and sustainably farmed produce, with bread and pastries at the core of its menu.
In March, when their café had to close for the first nation-wide Coronavirus lock-down, Owen and his partner Amy used the time to concentrate on setting up a locally-stocked greengrocer in the bakery space. They managed to do so with remarkable speed, thanks to the strength of local networks within which they were already embedded.
Starting a greengrocer had always been in the couple’s long-term plans for their business, so it took only three days to make the decision, spurred by a need to keep their young business afloat. “We were super lucky with our landlords, who gave us a rent holiday,” Owen said, “but of course there were lots of costs to cover, and lots of suppliers we had to pay from the month before, so it brought us back down into the red.”
As well as filling the shop with produce that they grew themselves—salads, vegetables and herbs from the café’s kitchen garden—the grocer centred around “a small selection of human-scale producers that we could connect up with the market locally. I had always wanted to try and champion the local suppliers that we use,” Owen said.
The speed with which Amy and Owen were able to act to reorganise their business is striking. The family’s personal relationships with their suppliers and their landlord, and their detailed knowledge of their farmers’ operations allowed Owen to negotiate the new arrangements easily, in a way that benefited him, the farmers, and his customers. “It’s not been without its hard work to establish, but we are part of a community that values people, producers, health and wellbeing, and a big part of that is the food you eat.”
The unique interconnectedness of the Frome community and the surrounding area ensured the survival of Owen and Amy’s young business, and those of other local producers. In light of national restaurant closures, their decision to maintain standing orders from suppliers was crucial. As small-scale cheese-makers, meat farmers and grain growers in the area lost vast amounts of business from restaurants, Rye Bakery diverted excess supplies to the shelves of their shop.
One of Rye Bakery’s regular suppliers is Gothelney Farm, a regenerative farm run by Fred Price and his family, which grows heritage cereals and rears forage-fed, native-breed pigs. Owen and Fred are both part of the South West Grain Network, a “non-commodity, small, human scale, regenerative system from field to loaf and to customer,” as Owen described it. The network was conceived at Bread as a Commons, an event held at Gothelney Farm in Somerset in May, 2019.
“[A]bout 50 people involved in the worlds of bread, food and farming gathered to imagine what would be necessary for bread to become a commons,” said Col Gordon, member of the South West Grain Network and Community Collaborator for ‘Who Feeds Us?’. “It was a very theoretical weekend, and a number of folks wanted to take practical steps to make some of the things we’d discussed happen, which developed into the SW Grain Network.”
The South West Grain Network’s first event was a tasting, where around thirty farmers, bakers, chefs and millers gathered in south Somerset to bake twelve different kinds of grain in a variety of ways. “It was the first time most of these farmers had used flavour and baking qualities as a criteria for selection for the following year,” Owen recounted, “We put together a flavour profiling system. What was really different… was the use of flavour and functionality for the selection, whilst most farmers are just using… modern wheat varieties, which are focused on big yields and disease resistance.”
Through this network, Owen and other members forged connections that ultimately ensured the survival of their businesses during the worst of the Covid crisis. “I had a phone call with Fred [in March], and he said, ‘It’s going to be really tough’ and I said ‘OK, I’m going to try my best to buy as many pigs as possible.’’’ He observed that now his customers weren’t spending money going out to eat, they were happy to spend more on food to eat at home. Owen upped Rye Bakery’s orders of Gothelney Farm pork, and Rye Bakery was soon selling three times as many sausage rolls as before.
Owen also saw a marked increase in his community’s interest in where their food was coming from, with demand for local, sustainable and traceable food shooting up. “Our customers were suddenly really appreciative of these treats, and that was really apparent by how busy we got once lockdown started and we were one of the only places you could go to get quality food,” he said.
Rye Bakery has also been buying bulk quantities of grain from Gothelney Farm and Haye Farm in Devon, and sharing the milling costs with another Grain Network member, Landrace Bakery, in Bath. “The only way for us small producers to compete with the bigger players is to really look at sharing resources,” Owen said. “We must eradicate that sense of competitiveness, which is just irrelevant now. It’s about keeping farmers afloat and keeping humans alive with nutritious food.”
As climate change continues to intensify the challenges farmers face in the future, Owen sees networks such as the South West Grain Network as crucial.
“The thing that became most apparent through this network is the sharing, the camaraderie and the common goal,” he said. “Sequestering carbon is just one way of solving a part of climate change that’s really important. We [are moving away] from inputs and heavy ploughing to a focus on soil ecology. Localised networks such as the South-West Grain Network are a vital part of fostering a sustainable food system.”
Owen is aware of how crucial it is to be inclusive in the journey towards a better food system, though, and to “[n]ever judge your neighbour on how they farm.”
“We’re looking at a century of pretty misguided principles, which have led us up to this point,” he said. “How we support traditional farmers and lead them into a more enlightened agriculture, in terms of making it both profitable and sustainable, is so important.”
Who Feeds Us? is a chorus from the people who have fed us throughout the Covid crisis: people from all over the UK, of many different ages and beliefs, from different backgrounds, regions and classes; farmers, growers, community leaders, healers, chefs, beekeepers, and fishers. Who Feeds Us? is an important series about the relevance of food sovereignty to everyone in society. This means putting our food back in the hands of the people, and prioritising nature and nourishment. Tune into Who Feeds Us? by Farmerama Radio via all major podcast platforms or visit https://farmerama.co/listen/