Tumbleweed Bread running a subscription service out of the San Luis Valley, part of home-baking rise

Candace Krebs
The Ag Journal
Jessica Larriva, owner of Tumbleweed Bread, shows off the packaging she uses for her naturally leavened and fermented sourdough loaves and pastries. The bread is sold through a subscription service and will also be available for sale at farmers markets in Alamosa and Monte Vista this summer. [Tumbleweed Bread photo]

When Jessica Larriva moved to Monte Vista to provide full-time caregiving to her mother, she needed a home-based enterprise that offered flexibility.

She found the solution through Colorado’s Cottage Food Act, which allows her to sell artisan-style breads made in her own home kitchen.

Larriva talked about her business and her interest in heritage grains during a monthly webinar series hosted by the Sangre de Cristo chapter of SOIL, which stands for Slow Opportunities for Investing Locally, a nonprofit set up to provide peer-to-peer lending.

The chapter uses tax-deductible donations to provide interest-free loans to area farmers, ranchers and food entrepreneurs. When the loan is repaid, the money goes back into a revolving fund to support other food entrepreneurs, as determined by the members.

The chapter distributed $20,000 worth of loans in its first year. The most recent awards were made to Badger Creek Ranch, of Canon City, and Jumpin’ Good Goat Dairy LLC, of Buena Vista.

Larriva had the right background for starting Tumbleweed Bread. Prior to her return to Colorado, she lived in Portland, where she was the head baker at Tabor Bread.

At Tabor, all of the flour was milled in-house, and the bread was “hearth-baked” in a big stone oven. She thought the San Luis Valley might benefit from having access to bread made in a similar style.

She currently sells between 50 and 80 loaves a week, mostly through a subscription service. When the pandemic hit, she started offering doorstep delivery across the San Luis Valley.

“It felt good being able to provide that service for our community,” she said.

Her whole-wheat naturally leavened loaves are priced at $5 each to keep it affordable. She’s also experimented with specialty items like turmeric onion loaves, sourdough with dark chocolate and peppers, all-organic dark chocolate chip cookies — made, like the bread, from sourdough that ferments for 48 hours — and seasonal items like hot-cross buns.

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The rise of home-bakers

Micro-bakeries are an example of small home-based food businesses that have flourished during the pandemic, according to Andy Clark, owner of Moxie Bread Co in Louisville and president of the Colorado Grain Chain, a nonprofit advocacy group that promotes specialty grains.

Clark said he could think of several such examples in northern Colorado, including a woman in Boulder who mills and bakes bread weekly and hops on a bike to deliver it throughout the community.

“On Instagram, I’ve seen a ton of home bakeries pop up this past year, just not necessarily in my area,” Larriva agreed.

They both noted the wide range of specialized equipment designed to cater to small home bakers. In particular, Clark recommended the mock mill, which is about the size of a blender and costs between $300 and $600. It allows home bakers to buy specialty grains in bulk for a low cost and then grind their own grain, as needed, making for exceptionally fresh flour.

There’s also a KitchenAid mixer attachment for less than $200 that accomplishes the same thing.

Larriva does her baking in a small Rofco brick oven, made in Belgium, that is popular with home bakers.

In order to stay within the Cottage Food Act, which allows for manufacturing at home, food producers are limited to $10,000 annual gross on any one product. (Each different type of bread or pastry counts as a separate product.)

“There are basic rules about what you can do, and it only pertains to certain foods,” Larriva said. “Most baked goods are okay. Beyond that, you are required to take a food handlers course and label your products appropriately.”

All sales must be direct to the consumer, either at a farmers market or through online ordering and delivery. Wholesale is prohibited. The act doesn’t extend to more perishable items, such as pumpkin pie, an item Larriva said she loves to bake.

Still, the provision offers room to grow a sizeable business, with some bakeries, such as Raleigh Street Bread in Denver, developing a large following.

Being in the San Luis Valley surrounded by farms has created some unique opportunities, Larriva said. She lives just 10 minutes from Mountain Mama Milling, a small stone-ground organic flour business owned by Kris Gosar. She buys wheat flour from him, and also grinds some of her own rye. She’s also procured authentic yellow and blue cornmeal from Bow and Arrow Brand, a business unit of the Ute Mountain Tribe located southwest of Cortez. And her neighbors on surrounding farms occasionally grow other unusual grains for her to try.

“I’m slowly realizing all of the amazing resources we have down here in this area,” she said.

The scene isn’t quite as diverse as a place like Boulder, she added, where there are at least four small mills in operation, according to Clark. But Clark pointed out that more large conventional farms are looking into specialty and organic grains, as the market continues to expand.

One limitation to small-scale grain growing is the difficulty of getting grain cleaned in small batches, Clark said.

The result can be consistency issues, with chaff, bugs and debris sometimes remaining in the kernels. But Clark said in his case he was willing to work around it to have local grain with unique flavors.

One potential solution, he said, would be to scout for an old wooden cleaner at an antique auction. Such implements can often be purchased for $2,000 or less.

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Baker as storyteller

Liz Carlisle, who conducted the conversation with Larriva during the webinar, is the author of two books about reviving regional grain economies: Lentil Underground, and Grain By Grain, which was co-written with Montana organic pioneer Bob Quinn.

She said she got to know many farmers who were bucking the commodity trend while working as a legislative aide to Jon Tester, an organic grain farmer who successfully ran for the U.S. Senate in 2006, defeating incumbent Conrad Burns.

That inspired her to go on to graduate school to research and write about the topic. She now teaches in the Environmental Studies Program at the University of California-Santa Cruz.

Micro-bakers like Larriva serve as ambassadors who can play a pivotal role in reconnecting consumers with the source of their food, Carlisle said.

“A baker or a miller has a chance to be a storyteller and really re-establish those connections,” she said.

That sense of community, as well as the chance to provide an educational component, is important to Larriva. In recent months, she purchased a derelict building in Monte Vista, and “with the help of many loans,” is renovating it to create a community bakery. On the adjacent lot, there’s room to put in a garden and greenhouse where educational programming can be offered down the road.

“I’m really inspired by the community aspect, and I want to tap into that spirit,” she said.

The Sangre de Cristo SOIL chapter will host its next monthly webinar on May 27. The featured guest will be Woody Tasche, founder of the Slow Money Institute, a nonprofit that encourages and supports micro-lending activities around the country, with headquarters in Boulder.