Farm to College: Spotlight on Bread Alone

Dan and Nels Leader at Bread Alone in Lake Katrine, NY
Dan and Nels Leader at Bread Alone in Lake Katrine, NY

“For what a bakery can do to be a relevant part of the local sustainable food economy - I think we do a good job.” Nels Leader, son of the founder Dan Leader, is understandably proud of Bread Alone’s accomplishments. In 1983, Dan moved his family from NYC to Boiceville and started selling bread in the Hudson Valley and to NYC via the newly minted ‘NYC Greenmarket’. This fall they moved into their brand new 26,000 square foot facility in Lake Katrine.

Ciabatta means slipper in Italian
Ciabatta means slipper in Italian

Touring the new baking facility with Nels Leader I am struck by the ways the latest technology (e.g. UV filters in the bread cooling room) are so effortlessly married to the human touch (hand formed loaves). There is also a lot of space in their new home. It does not feel crowded as I weave around shining new machinery, neatly organized shelves filled to bursting with bags and boxes of ingredients, and flour dusted bakers. There is obviously room for expansion, which is good news for proponents of organic farming methods.

I asked Nels why Bread Alone uses organic flour.

Bread being loaded into the oven – with the help of a very fancy computer system
Bread being loaded into the oven – with the help of a very fancy computer system

When Dan started baking he wasn’t getting results that he was happy with. It wasn’t the bread that he was used to getting like when he was traveling in France. He realized that the flour that he was using was just not good enough. So he visited farms out west to learn more about wheat growing - and he went to organic farms and he went to conventional farms. The experience of being at organic farms and seeing the soil, seeing the wheat, talking to the farmers, it was an obvious thing to him - organic wheat is better. His realization of, “to make good bread, I need to have organic wheat”. At the time it wasn’t organic. It wasn’t certified organic. This was right around the time the organic conversation was starting.

Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, which feels right on the money in terms of how long it took for a law to pass if the conversation was starting in 1983.

Bread Alone currently gets their hard red winter organic wheat from La Meunerie Millaniase, out of Montreal, Canada. As Nels explains:

Hand pouring muffins
Hand pouring muffins

We’ve worked with many mills over time. Central Milling is really great - they have a great relationship with their farmers - but the wheat is coming from all the way across the country. For all of these issues it is a conversation - it is not a black and white issue. It is not this is good and this is bad.

For example, organic honey vs local honey. We can’t get local organic honey. It is a discussion we have had many times. We put honey in three of our breads and we would lose the organic certification if we used a local honey. So it is one of those sacrifices - in order to fit the certification, which is important for a lot of reasons - like selling to a place like Whole Foods - we can’t use local honey. There is a huge gray area - so we try to be upfront about the conversation.

It makes good sense that bread, a daily staple, be part of a nuanced conversation - college is, after all, a place to think.

Cheers to knowing where our food comes from!

Farm to School is a series that highlights the sourcing of Bard College and The New School. These are written as part of my role as the Food Sustainability Advocate with Chartwells.