On The Rise – Fernhorn Bakery, Part 2
Island Resilience, June 2024

On The Rise – Fernhorn Bakery, Part 2

By Jane Valencia

Thomas Vroom and Jordan Ashley Beck own and run Fernhorn Bakery. In true Island fashion, the story of their bakery is nested within several stories related to the local economy and resilience. In Part 2 of this series, we learn about the wheats that Fernhorn uses to create their delicious, nutrient-dense, and unique-flavored breads.

The French word, terroir, refers to the combination of factors, including soil, climate, and sunlight, that produce a region’s characteristic foods and unique flavors. 

“The reason we use Washington-grown grains,” Thomas explains, “is location. What cultures have had throughout history is their terroir. This food tastes the way it does because it was grown in that location.” Certain kinds of cheeses or varieties in wines are examples. 

“We can be a global community and still have our local foods that are cherished and taste different. We’re not going to escape globalism at this point, as much as some people want to. But having Washington-grown wheat will be different. Because we get more rain, we get a lower protein, and so the gluten’s not as strong as in Eastern Washington, where they can produce a higher-protein flour. I do get some wheat from Eastern Washington, but the predominance is Western Washington, and the more local, the better, for climatic reasons.”

Thomas drives up to Chimacum or to Skagit Valley. His story of buying grains locally extends into stories of the farmers from whom he buys.

“The farmer up in Chimacum has been a grain farmer his whole life. He’s a third-generation grain farmer who grew up on the Eastside, but now he lives in Chimacum. He’s farmed grain there for a quarter century. And he works with the Breadlab, growing out new varieties or varietals that they produce.” 

The Breadlab is a Washington State University plant-breeding program that “explores the diversity and quality of locally grown grains for various culinary uses.” Regarding wheat, the Breadlab breeds for climate stability, disease resistance, flavor, and baking quality, and has trial fields throughout the region.

Thomas continues, “There are purple wheats, blue wheats, and a whole color spectrum of wheats that are fascinating and flavorful. And they have different attributes … we’re not so interested in that we have to have these giant Instagram-worthy loaves. We just want to provide a solid food for people that’s nutrient-dense, and that they can know they’re only a couple steps away from the person that grew it. The farmer in Chimacum who I get from also mills it: The loop is very tight, from the field to the person’s plate.”

Thomas has met a lot of the farmers from whom he buys wheat. At a grains conference, he met and talked with a couple of the Skagit farmers, and with Cairnsprings Mill – which mills wheat only from farmers committed to soil health. Cairnsprings Mill makes sure that farmers don’t use neonicotinoid-coated seeds, due to their documented harmful effects on humans, pollinators, and wildlife; nor can they use glyphosate, a harvest aid.

Regarding connection, Cairnsprings Mills states, “Most of our farmers come out of our personal network; so personal, they even casually swing by the mill for coffee and a piece of toast.”

As one delves into the stories behind the work, the loop is indeed small … and fascinating! 

For instance, Thomas speaks of farmers outside our region. “There are some great farms over on the east side of the Cascades that have some beautiful wheats that I want to try. Getting them over here is the issue. Some of them only sell a minimum of a pallet. It’s a little more difficult to get that, store it, and use it before it can start to turn. In my situation, I don’t have proper green storage.”

One of these farms is Moon Family Farm in Horse Heaven Hills, southwest Washington, where it is extremely dry. They are fifth-generation. According to Thomas: “They do no-till and dry farm everything. They never irrigate, because it would be ridiculous to even try in that arid climate, but they get incredible wheat. It’s so flavorful. They’re so deliberate in the way they farm.”

Moon Family Farm briefly describes their growing techniques. “Foremost, we use the dryland cropping method: an ancient, natural farming technique, honed over millennia by generations of farmers, and perfectly adapted to our ecosystem. We grow a single crop, on a single field, by carefully preserving the precipitation of two years to nourish it. No irrigation water is used in the production of our grain.” 

Doesn’t that make you want to find out more about dryland cropping?

Furthermore, Moon Family Farm’s commitment to low-impact food production that regenerates healthy land, extends to every acre of their farm. “We restore degraded lands and return native sagebrush steppe to the landscape. We provide wildlife and pollinator habitat and refuge. We host university research on better-adapted grain varieties and farming techniques.”

Philosophies and actions like these underlie the ingredients that make up the breads that Fernhorn bakes and sells.

In the world of locally grown wheats, quite an array of choice is possible. At the same time, it’s ever-changing and one needs to be flexible. A particular type of flour may unexpectedly become unavailable. “I learned the hard way when I started coming up with formulas like, okay, my pizza dough has durum and this wheat and that wheat. And then all of a sudden, the durum was no longer being produced.”

“Sometimes I like to get red wheats, purple wheat, blue wheat, green wheat, brown wheat all lined up, and look at the variation of colors, which are all so pretty. Anytime I get a new wheat, I’ll bake a hundred percent with that one just to see how it reacts, and try to figure out that wheat before I start incorporating it into loaves. My whole-wheat loaves are a mix of red, purple, and blue wheat.” 

To be concluded in Part 3. Join us as we return home to discuss 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.

June 5, 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.