hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues September 2021


Local bread, local flour

Bakers’ plans for grain mill would fill gap in region’s food system



Julie Sperling and Doug Freilich stand in front of the wood-fired brick oven where they bake their breads at Naga Bakehouse in Middletown Springs, Vt. photo by Joan K. Lentini


Contributing writer


Julie Sperling and Doug Freilich are getting ready for a barn raising this fall.
The couple started their wood-fired bakery, Naga Bakehouse, more than 17 years ago, and ever since they’ve been producing rustic sourdough breads and a variety of other savory creations and a few sweet ones.

Now they’re taking their role in the local food movement a step further – by setting up a new facility for milling flour from locally grown organic wheat and grains.

They’ll use the flour in their breads, as they’ve already been doing on a smaller scale, but they also hope to offer a new line of locally milled flours, pancake mixes and other grain products.
The milling operation will be housed in a repurposed timber-frame structure – a 19th century barn from western New York that has been disassembled and hauled to Vermont.

The couple’s neighbor, Luke Larson, whose Green Mountain Timber Frames specializes in restoring and renovating these historic structures, is working with Sperling and Freilich on plans to put it back together – with some modifications to suit their needs – at the bakehouse property in Middletown Springs. They expect the reconstruction to start later this month or in early October.

Sperling and Freilich see their mill project as a step toward their dream of a “small is beautiful” food system for the future – one in which they partner with organic farmers in the region to produce the local grains that will supply the mill.

“We’re at the point where we’re trying to use the value-added piece of the business to give a leg up to local farmers and food producers,” Sperling explained. “We end up getting a better product, and we keep the dollars local and reverberating in the region.”

The project also represents a new step in the evolution of the hands-on business they started nearly two decades ago to allow them to live in sync with their values.

Baking for work-life balance
Sperling and Freilich settled on the idea of becoming artisanal bakers soon after they started a family. As parents of young children, they were determined to find a path in which their work and family would not be at odds with one another.

“Especially when our kids were little, we wanted to be available to our kids, friends and family,” Sperling said.

They also yearned to set their own priorities in a way outside jobs wouldn’t have allowed. Though they each had earned degrees in environmental studies from the Antioch New England graduate program in Keene, N.H., they didn’t aspire to traditional career-track employment. But at Antioch, they had been introduced to concepts like “community resilience” that continue to guide their choices.

“We were in transition, with a professional job that we no longer had, and a young family, living in Pawlet,” Sperling recalled. “We asked ourselves, ‘What do you want to do?’ We both wanted to stay in the Northeast, but we didn’t want to be cold in the winters.”

Baking became a solution to the latter problem. Sperling said they also were influenced by Bread and Puppet Theater, the politically oriented theater company based in northeastern Vermont that shares its own homemade bread with audiences at every performance.

“One day we went to the Waitsfield farmers market and sat and watched what was happening,” Sperling recalled.

What they witnessed spurred them on. They recognized that making something perishable would be a good strategy for a business, as people have a lot of repeat needs and would keep coming back.


Building a business, oven first
By 2003, Sperling and Freilich applied to the Vermont Community Loan Fund for a grant through a program that gives producers access to technical skills. They used the funds to bring a renowned masonry bread oven builder, Alan Scott, to their property in Middletown Springs to help them build an oven.

That October, in preparation for Scott’s visit, they had a large rectangular slab poured, 18 feet by 36 feet. The oven would take shape on the edge of this footprint.

Before that, “there was literally nothing here,” Sperling said.
Seeing that others were interesting in learning from this master oven builder, Freilich and Sperling announced that Scott would be leading an oven-building workshop and charged a modest fee for participating. An army of people showed up and, working with the Naga Bakehouse owners, built the oven under Scott’s guidance.

“The oven is quite large,” Freilich said. “We always say it can comfortably sleep four.”
After the oven was finished, community volunteers constructed the bakehouse building to shelter the open-air oven, a necessity for a commercial bakery.

An intense period of trial and error and experimentation followed. Thanks to the Pawlet Scholarships Committee, a private charity that helps town residents pursue their educational goals by paying for college tuition and continuing education, the couple was able to attend classes at King Arthur Baking School in Norwich. Sperling attended King Arthur’s weeklong intensive beginner course as well as a sourdough bread course, and Freilich also took a course there.

After a scant 6 months to practice and refine their techniques for oven firing and sourdough bread baking, they went to their first farmers market around Memorial Day 2004.
“It was trial by fire,” Freilich said.

They still had a tremendous amount to learn, but their decision to get into the baking business was quickly validated.

In the years since, he said, Naga Bakehouse has blossomed into a vibrant, value-driven business that provides the family livelihood and allows them to “make a splash in the pond” by advancing their dreams of a reinvigorated local food system.

Sperling and Freilich attribute part of their success as artisanal bakers to the luck of their timing. They got started in the early days of the “locavore” movement, as interest in local food and agriculture grew and more people began to seek out locally grown, high-quality produce and food products.

“Look at the trends over the last 20 years, like the growth of farmers markets,” Sperling said. “We have been really lucky with the upswing of this movement.”


Room for milling and more
Today, the success of the business has brought the need for more space.
“But it’s not just about having the square footage,” Freilich explained. “We were looking to provide an inspiring space for ourselves and our workers so that we will feel creative.”

Since its beginning, Naga Bakehouse has added several buildings to its out-of-the-way campus. Soon after the oven and the bakehouse were constructed, Freilich and Sperling realized that firewood storage was a necessity for a wood-fired bakery. The next building they put up was a simple, unobtrusive pole barn for this purpose.

It didn’t take long to run out of space in the bakehouse, so the couple obtained a basic grant to construct an overflow building for packaging and storage. Naga Bakehouse chose to construct an octagonal building with a “living roof,” meaning it has greenery on top that provides habitat for birds and insects as well as natural insulation and soundproofing for the building below.

For now, the only space available for milling is in the bakehouse, and their professional flourmill is set up there. But although the bakehouse seems spacious when it’s devoid of activity, it is too crowded on baking day -- and whenever the bakers are preparing a batch of dough or firing the oven -- to allow for flour milling.

“At this point we have to make a choice, to bake or to mill,” Sperling explained.
And switching back and forth is a poor option, given the time required for reconfiguring the space for milling or baking.

But it’s not just space for milling that they’re seeking.
“We need workspace, storage space, and space for order fulfillment,” Sperling explained.


Rebuilding a timber-frame barn
They had discussed their needs with Larson, their neighbor who restores and repurposes historic timber-frame structures.

Then when Larson was visiting the Finger Lakes region of New York, a local excavator mentioned to him that he had been hired to knock down and bury an old timber-frame barn in the town of Genoa. Larson went to see the barn and then informed Freilich and Sperling of the opportunity.

They drove out to western New York and saw the standing barn and stood inside it. It was overgrown with vines and packed with junk, but Larson was able to see its potential. He disassembled the frame and transported it to his workshop in Middletown Springs.
“It’s like a puzzle with all the pieces numbered,” Freilich said.

Some of the larger beams are massive, about 18 inches thick. The structure has a footprint of 32 feet by 42 feet and dates back to the early 1800s.

Before the frame is raised, Freilich and Sperling can request changes to adapt the timber frame to their needs. As of late August, they were still weighing their requirements. They also were considering how to move things in and out of the barn easily.

“We’re trying to think of ropes and pulleys and levers, so we’re looking at Eric Sloan’s books,” Freilich said.

This year, they secured a $75,000 grant from Vermont’s Working Lands Enterprise Initiative to support the project. The mission of this state program is to “grow the economies, cultures and communities of Vermont’s working landscape” to optimize the use of farmland and forests.


A gap in the local food system
Sperling and Freilich have sought for years to incorporate local ingredients in their products where possible.

Naga Bakehouse has been a weekly vendor at the Burlington farmers market for 15 years, except in the pandemic year of 2020. Most Saturdays, Sperling brings home a quantity of surplus vegetables from one of the many farmers at the market.

In mid-August, for example, she scored four flats of cherry tomatoes.
“We fire-roasted them with olive oil, oregano and sea salt to preserve them,” she said. They would become delicious toppings for some of their baked goods.

Although Sperling and Freilich have forged relationships with farmers in the region, some of whom they got to know as fellow vendors at farmers markets, it became clear to them early on that the most difficult raw ingredients to source locally were the most essential for their products: grains.

Soon after founding their business, the couple began to learn about efforts to support grain production in New England.

When the price of feed grains spiked in the mid-2000s, adding to the stresses on Vermont dairy farms, University of Vermont extension professor Heather Darby began encouraging dairy farmers to consider raising feed grains for their cows, rather than being completely dependent on commodity prices for feed grown outside the region.

Darby held a blitz of workshops on grain production for Vermont farmers. At about the same time, in 2004, a new group called the Northern Grain Growers was forming, and Freilich and Sperling were tapped to serve on the founding board. They were highly motivated to learn and connect with potential farmer partners, but at first it was tricky.

“The farmers were speaking one language, and the bakers were speaking another,” Sperling recalled. “The farmers would talk about planting depths, varieties and harvesting times and techniques, and the bakers would talk about crust and crumb and protein levels. And there were no millers in the room, because there were no millers.”


Rebuilding a lost network
In the early 19th century, less than a quarter mile from the present-day Naga Bakehouse, a gristmill made flour from the grain grown by local farmers.

Powered by the current of the Poultney River, the mill stood near the intersection of the Poultney Road and Sundog Lane, the dirt road on which Naga Bakehouse is located. But in 1811, an unusually destructive spring flood washed away this mill and wrecked havoc on many other structures along the raging river.

Vermont was once dotted with gristmills, sawmills, distilleries and creameries that sustained a regional farm-to-table food system, but most of this essential infrastructure vanished long ago.
Without access to such essential processing services, farmers can only produce certain products for the commodity market. Theoretically, farmers could invest in their own processing capacity, though that is often beyond their financial means and may require labor and management that they don’t have.

As Freilich and Sperling seek to re-create the missing infrastructure for milling grain, they said they’re finding that doing so often involves reaching into the past for solutions and inspiration.
For many years, the couple has been getting to know farmers and inviting some of them to partner with Naga Bakehouse as grain suppliers. They prefer having many suppliers to help mitigate the risk of crop failure and also to support more farmers.

“We would rather work with 10 or 20 farmers than with one farmer growing 1,000 acres of grain,” Sperling explained.

Last year they brought on another local farmer as a supplier by persuading Tim and Brooke Hughes-Muse of Laughing Child Farm in Pawlet to harvest their buckwheat cover crop instead of tilling it in. The farm specializes in growing sweet potatoes but also grows buckwheat in rotation to control weeds and condition the soil.

Last year, Laughing Child Farm grew more than 4 tons of buckwheat, which Naga Bakehouse transformed into buckwheat flour and pancake mix.



Julie Sperling shows off one of the flour mills acquired by Naga Bakehouse, which is best known for its wood-fired sourdough breads. The Rutland County business will soon expand its milling operation for locally grown grains. Joan K. Lentini photo


The machinery of milling
Over the years, Naga Bakehouse has acquired four different grain mills, from tabletop kitchen models to a professional Austrian stone mill that resembles a large piece of furniture. The new timber-frame building will finally provide the space to easily select the best mill for the job, and Sperling and Freilich will be able to set up each mill for processing a different type of grain or flour.

Naga Bakehouse was able to acquire several of its flourmills from farms going through transitions. One of those was Four Star Farms in Northfield, Mass., which gave up its flourmill operation when it switched from growing grains to producing hops for beer.

“We were able to buy all of their milling equipment and all the processing equipment – the seed cleaner and grain dryer,” Sperling said.

At the time of this purchase, Naga already had been milling flour on a smaller scale as well as buying in local flour made from local wheat.

Then a couple of years ago, Naga bought a mill from the Beidler Family Farm in Randolph Center, Vt. The family had originally gotten into growing grain as feed for its organic dairy herd, later adding grains for human consumption and flour milling. In 2013, they imported an Austrian mill but only used it for five years. In 2019, they decided to sell their cows.

“The Beidlers called us before they put the mill on the market, so we bought their beautiful, high-capacity, professional flourmill,” Sperling said.

Because this mill can crank out 150 to 200 pounds of flour an hour, it functions as Naga’s main workhorse.

But Naga’s milling operation involves much more than making flour. Sperling and Freilich also clean the grain and dry and test it. Milling is only the final step, prior to baking.

“We are our own test kitchen,” Sperling said.
In addition to testing recipes, they also try out different batches of flour made from grain produced at various farms, using different mills and milling protocols.

The baking operation itself is demanding, but Sperling and Freilich say they still find many things to enjoy about their chosen work.

“Our workdays are long,” Freilich said. “We start between 4:30 and 5:30 in the morning and try to be done at a realistic time. We see the sun coming up and the moon setting. In artisanal wood-fired baking, time has a different feel. It’s like in yesteryear, when you didn’t get off the farm very much.”


Visit nagabakehouse.com for more information about Naga Bakehouse.