Focus on Food: Growing a Local, Sustainable Supply Chain

There was a time when grain for bread was grown and milled locally in Southern Ontario. But that tradition has long past, forcing Toronto-based bakery Stonemill Bakehouse to source the ingredients for its healthy artisanal breads from Western Canada, the U.S. or even abroad. When the bakery looked at their carbon footprint they found that transporting ingredients to their facility in the Greater Toronto Area was their second biggest source of emissions. The company’s solution is something not every food-related business is currently attempting: bakery owner Gottfried Boehringer has purchased a 100-acre farm in Prince Edward County, Ontario and will be growing rye there to use in their products. Sustainability and health have always been central to the 100-year-old family business that sells in major national grocery chains across Canada. The business relocated to Canada from Germany in 1982. But it was an environmental audit in 2007 that jumpstarted a new era of sustainability at Stonemill. “When you have the in front of you, you see how much carbon you create. The solution was staring us in the face. We couldn’t just sit there and do nothing,” says Boehringer. Stonemill started out, as many businesses do, picking the low-hanging fruit—like installing energy efficient light fixtures, and signing up with Bullfrog Power for renewable energy. The next step was a harder one. The wheat, sunflower seeds and oats they use in their breads come from Western Canada. This is in part because that is where the mills are located. “We ran across sunflower seeds and they were being used for birdseed. It just didn’t make sense,” according to Boehringer. So last fall Boehringer took a leap of faith that characterizes mission-based businesses, buying the farm and starting to build relationships with other local farmers. A small test crop of rye was grown in partnership with Cherryvale Organic Farm, and is being used in a new artisanal product—Prince Edward County Rye (in stores in fall 2013). They were able to find a local processor for the grain in Hamilton, Ontario. This fall, the plan is to harvest 100 tonnes more of rye. Located about 200km east of Toronto on Lake Ontario, Prince Edward County is an ideal location to try this experiment in local supply chain building. The area has been growing its brand as a destination for local, artisanal food and wine. And speaking to at least one PEC farmer at a recent Stonemill event, they seem positive about the experiment. Talking with Mr. Boehringer, I’m struck by his genuine desire to make this very personal project work. As he says, “Things are falling into place in a very natural way, it’s not that we have to shoehorn anything. Ultimately, if we can build a model, and show others that this is doable, we hope it will start to snowball and grow on its own.” I asked him about any challenges around pricing and he admitted he hadn’t run the numbers yet – it’s a plan from the heart. Being a family business means that Boehringer arguably has more freedom to make an innovative and ambitious sustainability decision. Stonemill’s goal is to contract over 2,000 acres for local sustainably grown and GMO-free grains in collaboration with local farmers by 2018. This would mirror a European model where local bakeries contract farmers to grow for them. “Our aim is to build a hub in Prince Edward County. We need to create enough quantity of raw materials so we have the economics for processing,” says Boehringer. “I really believe this can be done and this is the journey to do it.”