Home on the range
February 29, 2012
By Alexandra Van Tol
On a warm summer’s day the lineup stretches out the door at The Roost Farm Bakery just north of Victoria.
On a warm summer’s day the lineup stretches out the door at The Roost Farm Bakery just north of Victoria. Inside the one-level farm cottage, a squad of cheerful staff put together scrumptious sandwiches, serve up ladles of homemade soup and arrange brownies and scones on plates.
Nowhere to sit? Try the full-sized school bus near the side door. Decked out with lacy tablecloths and comfy chairs, the old white-and-blue behemoth offers a funky seating alternative (still roadworthy, too, though no one’s gonna risk it).
No room on the bus? No problem. Two acres of picnic tables and Muskoka chairs dot the gardens and grounds. If you’ve got a few crumbs to spare, the free-ranging chickens will come and hang out for a while. When you’re finished lunch, you can shop for fresh cheese, bison, wine and gifts in the garden market, or let the kids count the fish in the pond while you plan your next trip. Maybe wood-fired pizza next time.
This is the relaxed pace of life at The Roost Farm Bakery. Nestled at the foot of a 10-acre ocean view hobby farm that grows everything from blueberries to prize pumpkins to Hard Red Spring wheat, the bakery offers a casual place for the community to kick back. Hamish Crawford, a Scottish immigrant who made his way to the island (and this property, purchased sight-unseen from the province’s sale of land previously used as an experimental farm) about 20 years ago, owns the farm.
Crawford’s been working on it ever since. In the first few years, before there was money for tractors, Crawford dug three-foot holes for all the apple trees. A few years later, in went the grapes and four acres of grain.
“About 13 years ago Hamish came up with idea for the bakery,” says Dallas Bohl, who now co-owns the bakery with his wife, Crawford’s daughter Sarah. “He wanted to have a place to have a coffee and a sticky bun and have fun with the farm.”
While Hamish had purchased the property to be used as a farm, his penchant for projects made the bakery a natural extension. Crawford’s wife Sylvia had no idea what to expect when she first opened the doors to the bakery 10 years ago.
“On that first day, they had about six cups and four plates,” laughs Bohl. And despite a quick growth in demand, the bakery operated for years with a delightful old-school approach, from handwritten chits all the way down to baking bread inside a residential-grade oven. When the bakery turned over to the younger generation’s purview a few years ago, some of the systems – including the ovens – were upgraded to better accommodate the bakery’s busy production schedule. Bohl laughs as he recalls the state of the old oven before it was swapped out: “That oven was on nonstop for about three or four years,” he says. “You could see clear through to the bottom of the floor.”
Though the mechanics have changed, The Roost stays true to its simple roots. The grain that’s used in the bread is grown and milled on site once or twice a week, depending on demand. The bakers start their work at 6 p.m. and continue through until just before breakfast, crafting anywhere from 50 to 100 loaves each night. Roost grains feature in every loaf that’s churned out, although none is made with 100 per cent Roost flour due to its denseness.
“It’s a little bit denser because we don’t process it as much,” explains Bohl. “Our sifted white isn’t bleached, and there’s still some bran in it.” He says that typical whole wheats are less healthy than The Roost’s white: “When you get whole wheat from a store, they bleach it, take all the bran out, and add the bran back! It’s unreal.”
The freshly milled flour makes a difference in the taste profile of all Roost’s products, from bread to pizza dough. Behind the bakery is a simple shed where the milling happens.
“First we put the grain through the cleaner to get out the pebbles,” says Bohl. “Then it goes into the stone mill. When it goes through it gets ground into full-on whole wheat. All bran is in there. From there we can put it into the hopper and separate the bran.”
Crawford leads me to the next room, where buckets of flour stand at the ready for the bakers to come and grab.
“We do about two hundred pounds at a crack,” he explains. “The main product is the sifted item. It looks a bit like Robin Hood but it’s still pretty dense and it’s quite full-on. About 50 per cent of the bran has been taken away from that.”
As for The Roost’s whole wheat variety? It’s entirely unsifted, leaving it with all the bran intact. “It’s got the wheat germ in it, it’s got all the bran. It tastes quite different. It’s quite nutty and harder to work with,” says Crawford.
He goes on to explain that, while Vancouver Island’s climate is good for growing wheat, it’s tough to come by enough acreage to make a go of it as a sole source of income.
“Over time the markets changed and you couldn’t make sense out of growing 50 acres of wheat if you were selling it as wheat,” he says. For it to be a profitable undertaking, the Roost moved toward selling the wheat in a value-added format: as breads and baked goods. “The wheat’s worth about 10 dollars a bushel. That’s about six or seven cents a pound if you sell it as wheat. If you sell it as flour, you only add a few cents per pound . . . but if you sell it as a loaf of bread, you convert it to 10 dollars a pound. That’s the multiplier that makes sense out of it.”
But just baking the wheat into bread isn’t enough for Crawford. In addition to his passion for classic cars (a Model-A Ford, a 1964 Jag and a 1968 Jag roadster share space with the buckets and barrels in one of the farm’s outbuildings), he’s added greenhouses, rows of grapes, exotic birds, egg-laying chickens and a wood-fired pizza oven to the mix. This year marks the opening of The Roost Winery, a culmination of several years of planning, municipal permission-seeking and grape growing. In his downtime, Crawford is hard at work in his garage, making a giant horse-drawn pumpkin carriage that can be used for weddings and other special events.
“Hamish thinks the farm is 20 acres,” jokes Bohl. “No one ever told him it’s only 10.”
All jesting aside, Bohl shares Crawford’s passion for expanding and offering a unique experience. “Never stop growing and looking at what else you can incorporate,” he says, “or how you can become better and more valuable to your customers.”
Words to grow by, indeed.
Alexandra Van Tol is a B.C.-based freelance writer and editor.
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