The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Economics of fermentation

jocelyn's picture

Economics of fermentation



Another interest of mine is all things fermented which lead me to a web site that has a short essay that I find very relevant here, especially to those interested in converting the hobby into a business.


Any thoughts?





copyu's picture

That essay is really to the point of all this home-baking, pickling and brewing 'business'.

Last year, I made a very traditional rye bread as a present for a German friend and he loved it so much that he asked me to make more, for him and for his parents-in-law. He offered to pay me for the 'work'. I tried to explain, as politely as possible, that the 'work' was my pleasure, but that the TIME [3-day-builds] was a luxury I could not afford.

PS: I've sent that link to many friends. Really worthwhile read! Thanks again.


neoncoyote's picture

Thank you so much for posting that. I'm forwarding and bookmarking.

pattycakes's picture

Friends have asked if I will start a subscription bakery. I would bake once a week, deliver bread to subscribers, etc. When I think about the finances and the amount of time, I just don't see how it would work well. I asked one of my friends how much she thought a big loaf would sell for. She said $10. It boggles my mind that people would pay that much for bread (although I'm sure there are places in NYC and SF that it happens). I also cannot imagine myself charging my friends that price. Then I think, well, what if I made 3, 6, 10 loaves? Big deal. Many hours spent in a precarious attempt to be consistent to earn at the most 75 dollars after expenses? That doesn't really pay me for time, gas, driving...and it might take some of the pleasure out of my usually inspired and impulsive bread making.

That's why this essay makes so much sense. If each of my friends just took a gift when I baked, randomly, and then at some point brought me a pie, a pot, cookies, it would all work out. I actually think that's the way it works right now! Nothing needs to change for me, but my friends just won't get bread on demand.

Thanks for a spur to my thinking about this.


mredwood's picture

Makes me long for a community I never had but always wanted. Yes the time and energy involved to be a business is exhausting and one must have the youth and stamina to do it. As we do it for love we are ok about not doing it when we don't feel like . To not do it when 10 families are counting on your bread when they bring over the yogurt and milk and veggies they have toiled to do doesn't quite seem right either. An economy of mostly gifts is a wonderful idea. It's the expectations that we have that ruin it. Loved the article. Best bed time story I've read in a long time. Sure wish I could taste that soda.


jocelyn's picture

Thanks for your comments!

The community aspect of this article is also what touched me the most.  I live in a city amongst stressed out professionals (of which I am one, as much as i hate to admit it).  The idea that someone would do his own bread, saurkrout, kimchis, kombucha, tomato sauce and other canning, in the context of a family of 5 kids is very far from the standard, too say the least. The (new and long awaited) flour mill probably pushes us over the edge into weirdo territory...  So it does not seem possible to establish the kind of community described in this article.  When I have given bread a few times to neighbours, I have received a nice bottle of wine in return, which is nice and appreciated, but defeats the purpose.

So I am pondering about ways such a community can exist, if at all possible in such an environment.  Maybe the web can help us connect with locally similarly minded people?  It does globally for all users of this fantastic forum.  

I sure would like to know how to make his soda, though.  I am tempted to try baker's yeast, water, sugar, fresh ginger juice, let it out a few days, bottle it, then put it in fridge...  Cannot be so bad!  But kombucha is so satisfying that it seems worthless to explore this area more.  Also, Nourishing Traditions has several recipes of traditional fermented drinks such as this.

Aprea's picture

I am so happy we have this connection.  I too am a slow-food advocate, and have been feeding my family using Nourishing Traditions.  I also have a small time subscription bread baking business.  We are in the process of completing a large Alan Scott wood fired brick oven.  It has been a strenuous, but deeply rewarding experience.  I am not sure why I am doing this though.  The work that I do to feed my family is unbelievable.  I drive to a small farm to trade bread for vegeys, a different direction to trade bread for eggs.  A different farm for raw milk and range free chickens.  A different farm for grass fed beef.  A co-op for grains.  I ferment our own sauerkraut, make stock and freeze into jars.  I also go to a big farmers market to buy huge boxes of tomatoes - process and freeze them.  My extended family and friends think I am crazy - but my husband and children know that I will go to the ends of the earth to nourish and nurture them.  Perhaps the internet age has given me too much knowledge for my own good.  When I go to the grocery store - it is only for "staples".  I look at the way people feed themselves with mass produced food and I feel sad...  We are starving for community - And I cant help but think that the sacrifices that I make for this lifestyle will benefit our health down the line.  

proth5's picture

Apparently this is one of those topics that pushes a button for me.

But, both of you have children - right?  What a blessing for you because in an agrarian society - the kind that the author of the article describes and longs for - children are a great engine for getting work done.

My first assignment, at 4 years of age was to pick up sticks and bag yard waste.  It is a pretty low skilled task on the agricultural totem pole, but saved the labor of those who had more skills. (I don't remember much from those days but I do remember the bagging because I once raked up a dead baby bird.  It was pretty icky and I cried.  Was told to "grow up.")  I also remember scubbing pots - both in the kitchen and in the greenhouse.

At 5 I could pull weeds (a promotion!).  If one realizes that you will be punished for uprooting useful plants (not only immediately, but by not having food), a small child can learn to distinguish weeds from food plants.  My neighbors ask me how I do it.  "Long years of practice."

A child of 10 can sew his/her own clothes (yes, on a sewing machine) - or at least mend them.  Even Robert Owens - who was pretty enlightened on the practice of child labor - let 10 year olds work in the fabric mill (but only for a half a day and they got to go to school.)

And although it would only be in my family that children that young would be entrusted with the sauerkraut cutter - they can be useful with the saurkraut stomper.

We are unaccustomed to letting children work in precision tasks because we do not insist that they learn them.  Yes, some time is spent instructing them, but that is an investment for permanent gain.

Of course, as children get older and stronger they can take on other tasks - floor scrubbing, simple baking, turning a mill, processing tomatoes.  The list is endless.

Children don't really want to work.  But I clearly remember my Grandfather intoning "He who does not work, also shall he not eat."  My Grandmother was a really good cook.  I didn't want to put that whole thing to the test.

At least my parents believed in education.  With "homework" the only valid excuse to not have to engage in some task vital to the home, there was good reason for those good grades.  But even homework gets done eventually.  There is always something useful that a child can do.

But we don't want to treat children this way (well, some people don't).  We think of childhood now as a time to be carefree and play.  This phenomenon of Mother working herself to a shadow while children merely entertain themselves is the melding of two different eras.  One - for the mother - of a time when food was pulled from the fields and everyone (except the very smallest child) was expected to pull their weight and another era  - for the child -  when economic efficiencies (such as mass produced food, labor saving devices, etc) would give everyone a world of ease and leaisure.

It's madness.  And not so much madness in the goal, but in the execution.

Again, this is why I reject as an economic model this system of small production and barter.  Yes, I enjoy as a belief system making my own bread (and flour, and, etc) but it is supported by economic efficiencies that allow us the freedom to adopt these belief systems.  I like having more than two sets of clothes (one to wash and one to wear...) and as much as I love my Diamant, I think I love my washing machine most of all.  You cannot assume in any economic model that a person will have family, land, or capital.   If the system does not allow for the ascent to dignity of the penniless, landless, loner, it is simply a fantasy.  This is somewhat personal to me because in the society  that supported the system of small holding production that the author of the article so longs for, a woman natured like myself could at best hope to be the useless detritus of society .  Instead I am economically self sufficient, well traveled, and productive.  I have the opportunity to share with others and potentially change lives for the better. Yes, I am regarded by much of society as disposable, but because of the opportunites that I could sieze in a society that rewards hard work with "impersonal" money, I don't have to care.  When we speak of "economics" we must consider the edges of society, not the cuddly core of how we wish it might be.

I have apparently thought about this in great depth.  I'm going to try to stop, now.

sharonk's picture

Thanks, Jocelyn, for this timely article,

I often have 3-4 ferments going at once, kombucha tea, water kefir, milk kefir and sourdough bread. I ferment the krauts in another part of the house, so that's 5. My family's health has improved dramatically and the visits to the doctor have decreased to almost none. The idea of trading goods or bartering is an old one that eventually transformed into currency for goods. I would love to return to simpler ways, if they truly are simpler, and barter with people for goods. I do put a piece of time into my ferments but I plan and manage my time carefully so it's second nature by now.

I have had a similar experience giving away my gluten free sourdough breads to some friends.

They say "You should make bread regularly and I will buy some from you every week".

I say, "How much would you pay for it?"

They say, "Seven or eight dollars"

Then I explain the ingredients alone cost nearly that much.

I have sat down and crunched the numbers looking at how many loaves of bread I could make in a day, the expenses against what I could charge for it and what I found is that if I charged $15-$20 a loaf, I would make $10. an hour for my time after expenses.

And then I would really need to hire someone so that would speed the process and perhaps we could churn out more loaves but it wouldn't be enough to pay them and pay myself any more than $10 an hour.

I don't think those figures account for the sourdough build time, either.

My answer has been to offer bread baking classes and write a book about my sourdough technique. This way I share my knowledge, get paid respectfully for my time, and empower others to bake artisanal and extraordinarily healthy bread.

Thanks all for sharing,






proth5's picture

Let me preface this post with the warning that well, it just wouldn't be proth5 without "a hint" of the curmudgeon.  I also have been working  too many hours, can't bake, have gotten sick (did I mention too many hours? ), am hacking up furballs (yes, if I just ate more fermented foods...), and can't do anything but type and think. Fish gotta swim...

The great Peter Drucker left work in the "for profit" sector because he felt that once companies were owned (via shares sold in the stock market) by "pension funds" who impersonally demanded a certain return or the shares would be sold to purchase shares in a company that would give the desired return, that his particular (and groundbreaking) style of management consulting was no longer useful.

Yet, he was no wooly headed idealist.  He believed that it was a business's duty to make a profit, so that it would continue to employ people.  He believed that this was the highest duty of the entrepreneur - to employ people.  He believed in profit.  He believed that the person who took the risk and had the ideas deserved his/her fair share and that the fair share for the person who innovated was greater than that who toiled.  Drucker saw a difference between managing a company to make a reasonable profit and obligatory responsibility in the publicly owned company to maximize profit.  I can cite the best example of this in the recent news.  The owner of Bob's Red Mill could decide that he was rich enough (and he is, and deserves to be, a wealthy man) and give away his company.  The CEO of a publicly held company could not.  But that horse has left the barn.  The "family owned" business becomes rarer each day.  The publicly held company will (almost) never turn back.

Robert Owen of New Lanark held similar beliefs long before Peter Drucker.

I think about these men and their ideas quite a bit when I think about the business of bread baking in particular and food production in general.

I find it hard to subscribe to the notion that there is a limiting factor of a very small size to the effective execution of a craft product meant for general consumption.  Maybe Lionel Poilane can be a model to us in this regard.  His bread is produced in vast quantities in the Bievres facility and yet because of the design of this facility his bread is still renowned (Although I have to tell you, he was one clever marketer.  I was an inmate of a French business school located near his facility and discussion often wound around to the "pain Poilane.")  If it is a matter of fermentation of a specialized product requiring a certain batch size, yes, this can be a limiting factor on the size of the vessels in which one must ferment, but to say that food cannot be nourishing and satisfying unless produced by an amateur or on a very small scale is not a conclusion with which I can agree.  There is a long European tradition of things like bread baking and milling being the realm of professionals - complete with guilds, apprenticeships, and the economics of scale that one mill for several towns or one town oven, brought. And that is not to say that we don't see aribtrary food regulations that protect large businesses and make it difficult to produce craft food items (perhaps we should concentrate our energies on those...)

And I'll gloss quickly over the ideal of the extended family living together or nearby or having to become "accepted" by a town in order to eat.  I would have to say things not suitable for a family web site.

Certainly there is a pastoral ideal shared by people who do not labor with their hands to wrest a living from the earth.  But economic specialization - large scale economic specialization -  is what makes us so very rich here in the 21st century.  Why just the other week I went out and bought a couple of pairs of socks.  Little miracles they are.  Finely knitted with three ply yarn so fine it can barely be seen by my old eyes.  How they did not cost me the monetary or actual price of many weeks of labor is thanks to economic efficiency.  The factory that spun the yarn could not exist without efficiencies of scale, nor the one where the socks were machine knitted.  Their cottony softness is the result of trade on a global scale.  I love my socks (Yes, people tell me to "get a life") and I will care for them like the socks I knit myself, because I understand their value.  I only bought a couple of pairs because I try not to need a lot of clothing (but I did need the socks - wool socks in the tropics are just a bit too cozy) and I was completely insensitive to their price.  They were made in the USA and that was one of the criteria I used for selecting them.  I think that we can put the role of money in its proper place (that is, I do with fewer clothes so that I might not have to insist on the cheapest clothing) without denying the wonders of economic efficiency. (I won't get started on my shirt - which is made of fabric so fine that only royalty could dream of it until there were ginning,  spinning, and weaving mills to produce such things...)

So it is with our food.  While it is lovely to dream of these communities where more people are farmers, I contend that we cannot turn back the clock so easily.  One time I challenged the editor of a well known "back to the land" magazine to put this question to the food writers (who so often live in garden friendly Northern California) who call out for more small farms and for people to eat local food, just how this redistribution of property - and the massive retraining of individuals who don't know where pickles come from  - would take place.  She seemed enthusiastic about it, and then never followed up.  How could she?  This takes us away from a pleasant dream of a simpler and more wholesome time (a time, by the way, that saw my grandmother bear the horrible effects of bovine tuberculosis from that locally produced unpasteurized milk that so many exalt)(Sorry, Aprea, the cows "looked healthy" on our neighbor's farm.  Such a simple process,  pasteurization.  Such a tragedy it would have saved us.  But fortunately, the choice is yours and I do wish you well with it.)  when our food was produced on little farms by trusted neighbors.  It puts us into the realm of redistribution of wealth and creating futures where the sky is not the limit, and not all children deserve a college (let alone a high school) education;  to a world where working the land will be required for more people than those who really want to do it.

I live in the city.  Yet my garden produces enough for me and one more family.  My bread wanders across property lines.  I can choose to share and create community. I enjoy digging in the dirt, turning the compost, canning, baking, milling, and feeding the levain.   My neighbors enjoy the products, allow me to "poach" some of their property, and enjoy watching me work, but are deeply horrified at the thought of bugs or live beneficial bacterial (I leave the question of what exactly raises my bread undiscussed) or what really lives at the bottom of the koi pond.  They are artists - in a style that I do not enjoy.  They have nothing to offer me.  In the author's belief system they should get nothing from me, but I have extra and it is amusing to me when they finally figure out things like the stuff that is growing in my yard free for the cutting is the same fancy organic lettuce that pay an arm and a leg for at the store or that those yellow things hanging from vines are very tasty beans. I clean the garlic pretty well before I give it to them because once they saw it pulled fresh and got really scared.  I guess the amusement value for me is enough.  I can choose to create that community only because I do not depend on them for anything. Only because I am funded by impersonal money and so are they.  What would happen to them in the world the author describes?  But I must still go out and work for a living.  I have the temperament to produce edible things for a living - I rejoice in consistency and repetition - I am fascinated by making production efficient - I love me some cool tools - I mentally don't mind hard work(but do have some physical limitations)  -  and I enjoy the process for the process and am even more gratified when total strangers like and buy my product than when my friends say they like it - I care more about the quality of the product when it goes to strangers, because, well, they pay money for it  - but there are other things that I am really, really good at - and do enjoy.  Currently they pay better.  When my chosen profession becomes obsolete - and it will - I will figure out how to run a food business.  But my ability to start this will rest on the money that I earned elsewhere.   Without the capitalization, I would be unable to try to produce "craft" food.  That is reality.  How a landless, penniless, (metaphorically) family less person could have the ability to function in the author's idealized world of food production is something I have not yet figured out.  I know how it worked in early European agrarian societies, however, and I'm so glad that I avoided that fate.

There are communities that evaluate technology and allow the adoption of only those technologies that keep them on track to their spiritual goals.  The Amish are an example of such a mandated agrarian society.  It is a belief system, though, not an economic system.  They are astute business people and some (when the value of their land is figured into their net worth) are extremely wealthy (something with which I have no problem).  But as ideal as this life may sound, people leave the Amish community.  They leave even though they will never see their family again.  They leave at a perceived risk to their immortal souls.  But they leave.  They leave because the belief system cannot accommodate the expanse of their human spirit.  It is good that they have a world to go to when they leave.  I, personally, will take a factory farmed chicken over a belief system that limits the human spirit.  This may be a false choice, but even though it may be, I would make that choice.  The author of the article puts forth a charming, yet limiting belief system and calls it economics.  This, I cannot accept.

I find the author particularly disingenuous in his scorn for his students wanting to attend Penn State to get a good job and earn money rather than the pure joy of learning.  The author should know better than anyone that Penn State costs a pretty penny to attend.  So how are these students to pay for this pure learning?  From whence does his salary come?  (As I think of it, he delivers to students his expertise and gets only money from it?  How common!) I don't expect that he has offered to teach for free so that money and love of learning might be in their proper place.  Or does he limit his classes to only those  students with whom he can share a special bond?   Does he realize that it is the wealth borne of economic efficiency that would allow such vast numbers of young people to waste time on any kind of education when they should be out tending to the crops, making clothing, and chopping wood for the winter?  To have 10% of a fairly large population think that they should learn for pure joy can only happen in a society that is wealthy indeed.  What about the reality that it is the endowments from the great "robber barons" that created the foundations of so many of our universities?  That his salary is what allows him to not care about selling his food products?  He takes the gift and simultaneously disdains it.

We love our bread and we love our hobby of baking it, but this love cannot be expanded into economic rules for the whole world.  Can we do better for food production?  I think about that every day.  My morning egg in Okinawa is more delicious that the best that Whole Foods in the US has to offer.  Yet it is the product of a mass food production system.  Is it as good as one fresh from under the hen? Well, I don't know - but it is pretty darn good .  Okinawa is a tiny island.  Even large farms are tiny by American standards and one might guess that the production methods are different.  But there are trade offs.  When the sweet potato season ends - they are gone.  Grocery stores regularly run out of milk.  Peanut tofu (and peanut tofu is one of my new favorite foods - yum!) season is over and so it is gone also.   Even at my luxury hotel, if you don't get to breakfast early, you are not going to get that delicious egg.  I realize over and over the reasons that the whole world thinks of the USA as a very, very rich nation. Japan is a developed country and yet these things are true.  I have spent significant time in the developing world.  Things are not so easy there.

I would like to have those pastoral fantasies or the foodist agendas, but I am a bit too involved in the business of production to allow for it.  While it gives us a nice warm feeling to think of a world of great food, community, justice and balance, the realities are grittier than most would like to contemplate.  Again, the belief systems may be compelling, but they must be viewed as such.  The Amish stand out as an example of such a belief system because they have managed - with great effort - to keep going for a couple hundred years (interestingly, although the Amish maintain a stronger sense of community than most of us in The World, they enthusiastically embrace capitalism.)  Other belief systems - the Shakers - the Oneida Community - The New Harmony Community (founded by the once successful capitalist Robert Owens who went a bit nuts and tried socialism) were unable to sustain themselves.

I have acknowledged on these pages that I am extremely fortunate to be able to make some of the choices I make.  I believe my choices in life (fewer and better things, not focusing solely on "lowest price," growing my own food, sharing with others even though they cannot share with me) are "the change I want to see" in the world.  But unlike the author of this article, I will never discount that it has been my enthusiastic pursuit of success in the "the money economy" that made this possible and I will never, ever assume that my individual path is one that can be adopted as a total system, because it cannot.  Again, this leaves us in a world where folks must for some period of their life participate in "mass market" or "commodity agriculture" (and a farmer selling to Organic Valley is hardly this) or "the money economy" only to at some point, later in life, money earned and wisely invested,  turn to craft food production.  Or it requires an economic unit that not all can achieve where one person labors in "the money economy" for the cash to pay for the car and the gas to drive around to the family farms, to build the wood fired oven, and provide the health insurance, while the other is occupied with providing food that supports a belief system.  That is an unsatisfying solution, for it requires a split of worlds - one concerned mostly with money and the other one that is "right."  It is as distasteful to me as hearing Michael Milken being called a philanthropist.

So while joining my fellow posters in a level of enjoyment in the nice reverie presented in this article, and agreeing with a few of the individual points, I must reject it as "economics."  Somehow I believe we can do better. Do I know how?  No, I do not.  But I do know that the "how" cannot rest upon a limited belief system or discount the role played by capital earned under current economic rules.  Without answering the fundamental question of "how does a penniless, landless, person alone" live a life with dignity under a proposed solution, there is none.