On The Rise – Island Bakery Makes Good, Part 1
Island Businesses, Island Resilience, May 2024

On The Rise – Island Bakery Makes Good, Part 1

By Jane Valencia

Visit the VIGA Farmers Market on Saturday morning, and you’ll come upon Fernhorn Bakery and their selection of fresh-made sourdough organic breads and bagels. Taste, and you know you’re eating a bread like no other, attentively made, nutrient-dense, and with unique, vibrant flavors. Please join us in a conversation with Thomas Vroom, the baker, and Jordan Ashley Beck, the maker, who tend to the business of this family-run bakery.

Thomas Vroom loved “Bill’s Bread,” handmade on the Island and available only a few days a week at Thriftway. But, as a commuter, he could never purchase it. This kind of bread, rather than packaged bread, was what Thomas wanted to feed his family. It wasn’t until 2018, when he suffered an ankle injury that left him unable to walk for a time, that he acted on his interest. He began reading about sourdough, then started making it, and hasn’t stopped baking bread since.

Regarding the starter, Thomas explains, “I had a book that laid out the steps of how to build it yourself with just flour and water. Everything that the starter needs is in the wheat already. The starter is made with flour, water, and time. The wheat berry has the bacteria and yeasts; humans provide the optimal environment for fermentation to occur.”

Thomas experimented with different wheats and grains for making starters, but keeping several starters going is laborious. He now keeps just a rye and a wheat active .He feeds the starter only whole grains, which provide nutrition, minerals, and bran – nutrients that are stripped out in commodity flour.

Jordan explains, “The life that the grains Thomas uses gives to the bread is so much more abundant than from a highly processed flour that has sat on the shelf for a long time. These ones just come to life the minute he starts working with them.”

“The first time I used Washington-grown grains was such a difference,” Thomas continues. “Just in the feel of the dough, it feels much more alive than the stripped-down commodity flour. I’m sometimes surprised people can even bake with commodity flour. It is a testament to wheat that it can go through an industrial process and still make a loaf of bread, but often it is supplemented with malted barley to give it a boost. Still though, the fresh local wheat is much better.”

When Thomas began baking, his family soon had more loaves than they could eat. Eventually, he began giving bread to friends.

“Then our friend, John Runyan said, ‘This is the best bread I’ve ever had. Let me buy it from you.’” Jordan says. That led to starting a bread club for six people. “We were baking at that time out of my childhood bedroom. And then we grew, got our first little Rofco oven and had 32 people with a wait list. It was really kind of exciting.

“And then came the pandemic. We reevaluated everything. Thomas is an electrician by trade, and I’d been managing that business. He was so much happier making bread. And that was the great reckoning: what are we doing with our lives? Are we spending our time well? Are we happy while we’re doing it? We were really lucky to live in this kind of family compound and felt secure enough to be able to take a leap and try it.”

They closed the electrical shop. During the pandemic, Bill Freese retired from professional bread-baking. So, in April 2021,Thomas and Jordan moved their baking into Bill’s Bakery, technically a food processing facility on his property. From there, Fernhorn Bakery began selling at the VIGA Farmers Market, Thriftway, Vashon Bakery, and some farm stands, and to continue their bread club and online orders.

Needing to expand and have more available electricity, Fernhorn Bakery recently moved, and now bakes in the Wax Orchard Cannery, a fascinating old agricultural building and piece of Vashon history. The ability to run multiple electric ovens at a time has upped production. The walk-in refrigerator provides a low-temperature space for the dough’s slow fermentation process.

Thomas explains the process for making their bread:

“The first day you have to build the starter up. Anywhere from 10 to 20% of the loaf is from the pre-fermented wheat, and it takes about a day to build that up. The next day, it gets mixed up and that starts the process of fermenting the entire loaf. When the dough is ready, it gets shaped and put in the refrigerator. During that time period is when all the flavor develops and the yeasts do their work of converting the sugars which give rise to the loaf. The fermentation alters the phytic acid – which makes some of the nutrients more available during digestion. It’s like any pre-fermented food, like sauerkraut or kimchi. It makes some nutrients more available.”

On the third day, the bread is baked.

With this fermentation process, does Fernhorn Bakery find that some customers with problems tolerating wheat are able to eat their bread?

“Absolutely,” Jordan says. “We hear that a lot.”

Thomas explains, ”That results not just from the fermentation, but also because the grain is locally sourced. It hasn’t been put through an industrial process, stripping the naturally occurring minerals, fiber, and vitamins, and then enriching the white starch which is left over. Various stabilizing chemicals can be used in different parts of the process of the journey of the wheat berry from field to flour, such as when the grain or milled flour is being stored before packaging. These chemicals don’t have to be listed as ingredients.”

“One of our customers who can tolerate our bread,” Jordan continues, “can also only tolerate wheat from Europe.”

My daughter had found that to be true for her, too, during her semester in Italy.

“Generally,” Thomas explains, “countries in the EU have different food standards than the United States. Wheat has been grown and used more locally longer, because food traditions demand this. Still, though, some areas of the EU have lost production of their staples for their food traditions. At work over there are the same forces that would like to capitalize on everything possible for profit.

“The fact that some food traditions in Europe have been able to withstand these forces, and that in more rural areas, the food is ‘cleaner’ due to the nature of the small-scale agricultural techniques – they produce flours similar to those of our local grain economy. Europe has plenty of monocropping and chemical agriculture, but they also ban more pesticides than our U.S. Department of Agriculture or Food and Drug Administration does.

“The stronger food traditions demand that certain processes be less chemical-laden. Germany’s beer purity laws and Ireland’s dairy rules are examples, and the list goes on.”

Return next issue for part 2, in which our conversation ranges through the lively terrain of Washington-grown organic wheats, Vashon-grown wheats, and food security.

For a list of where to purchase bread on-Island, or to order loaves online, visit Fernhorn Bakery at https://fernhornbakery.com/. You can also purchase Solidarity Loaves – gifts of bread for someone in need. See the website for details.

Visit Fernhorn Bakery on Saturdays at the VIGA Farmers Market.

May 9, 2024

About Author

jane Jane writes about what it means to be an Islander, and how we can nourish healthy community. A harper, storyteller, and herbalist, she also shares tales and art that she is sure the Island told her. Having lived with her family on Vashon for 20+ years, she is convinced of the Island's magic.