By Kathy Johnson
The kitchen of John and Nancy Hellerman’s Goodwin Creek Farm and Bakery was warm and fragrant from the 60 to 90 loaves of freshly baked and baking bread. In the little room leading outside, a large Hobart machine steadily mixed dough for more.
In the cozy house on their 50-acre farm just south of Avon on Route 151 the Hellermans make Italian-style ciabatta, baguettes, French white, seven-grain and other whole wheat and white breads and muffins.
This wasn’t their original plan, which envisioned a farm with an agri-tourism angle where visitors could pick their own tomatoes and gather fresh eggs, but it is the current operation, and one that many area residents find very satisfying. John, originally from upstate New York, was formerly a builder and renovator and Nancy, from Chile, is an architect and language translator.
“We’ve been working here just about four years now,” said John. “When we started out, our idea was to just do chickens, eggs and produce. Our hope was that we work real hard in the summer and then take a couple of months off in the winter.” He smiled to admit that that didn’t work out. “That was the plan.” Across the room Nancy laughed too as she created more loaves from the large mix of dough and put them into six-part commercial bread pans to rise. “One thing we found out was that the restaurants and whoever your customers are, they want you to be predictable and regular and that presented some challenges.”
They started raising Red Star chickens and others considered heritage breeds. “We’ve had bad luck with those from the predators,” John explained. “For some reason, the predators seemed to prefer the heritage breeds and tend to leave alone the Red Stars and some new meat birds. I think it is something about the white color. They don’t look like anything in nature maybe. Everybody loves the red birds. We love them, the hawks love ‘em, and the foxes. Everybody loves them and they’re easy to catch.”
“We were doing the farmers’ market and selling our produce,” Nancy explained. “So one weekday we discovered that deer had attacked the garden and they ate it all. Completely. Down to nothing! So we needed to do something because we had a commitment to the farmers’ market, so we started baking muffins.”
“We would go out at night and look,” John said, “and typically there was one deer or something like that. Come to find out, in the middle of the night, 7 or 8 deer would come and they were just walking the aisles like they were skilled harvesters and they would eat everything. We put in 600 strawberry plants that were just starting to do well and they ate all the plants. Sometimes they ate the plants and left the berries. Anyway, that got us into the baking business.”
“We started with the muffins,” said Nancy “and then we did some bread and the next thing we knew we were selling to restaurants and caterers.” Their previous experience in baking was limited, but they seem to have the hang of it. “My mom says it’s in my genes,” Nancy said. “My great-grandfather fled from Spain to Chile and he started working in a bakery at age 12 or 14 and he ended up having a whole team of bakeries in the south of Chile.
“I do enjoy baking actually. I never thought of being a baker; I’m an architect. But I’ve been learning a lot of new things, like I had never even tasted sourdough before. We started because people were begging for sourdough and now we can’t keep up with it.”
Their first recipes came from books. “We kind of evolved,” Nancy said. “Top bakers from all over the world have helped us. We’ve read their books, emailed them and asked questions,” John said. “They are really nice people,” added Nancy, “Bakers are more humble in a sense.”
And local chefs have been very helpful. They’ve asked the couple if they can make a certain type of bread and the Hellermans try. They agreed that the good thing about working with chefs, who are reputed to sometimes be temperamental, is that “they know what they want and they will tell you when it’s not right.”
They are baking for Revolutionary Soup and The Local in Charlottesville, Rebecca’s Natural Foods, Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton, Ambrosia and Basic Necessities in Nellysford, Fardowners in Crozet and the Greenwood Gourmet Grocery and Crozet Great Valu. “We take a few loaves into Great Valu and it is usually gone immediately.”
The Hellermans try to take Monday and Tuesday off, but coming off the snowstorm and New Year’s they have been hard at work trying to catch up. This was a small day when they would do 90 loaves. On a good or normal day they will make 400 loaves of various breads. They are working 20-hour days right now, but they are getting faster and better at what they do. “Usually the process we are currently doing here occurs at 3 in the morning,” said John, “It’s a busy little home bakery.”
“We have actually have customers calling us,” Nancy said, “asking like ‘What time are you coming over the Great Valu, we’re waiting for you.’” It’s a nice problem to have.
“It’s been pretty tough,” John admitted. “But we’re getting more organized. This summer we hope to get back to the produce again and have a lot more to offer. I like doing the garden and being outside. We invested a lot of money this year on woven electric fences and they seemed to work pretty well with the deer.” They are hoping to “get ahead of it” and be able to do the baking and the produce and the eggs. They’ve also raised some meat chickens for themselves and are thinking about raising meat chickens commercially. There are also ducks and geese around the barnyard.
They started with a home oven, then added a little Hobart mixer and then added a half ton mixer and the commercial ovens. They’ve also purchased 15 big plastic bins allowing John to fill the bins with breads and then fill their SUV with the bins to make the deliveries. If it is a busy day, they have to make several trips.
“I hope that by the end of this year we will actually have a new facility built with new ovens and a lot more oven space. Things are going pretty good today, but sometimes we’ll have 70 loaves baking and 60 or 90 loaves waiting to go in the oven and they’re not very patient. Once the loaves were ready to be baked, they have to go in the ovens. So, hopefully we’ll have a lot more space and be able to move through our day a lot quicker. Right now our big goal is to shorten our work day to like 10 hours.”
Future plans (actually a part of the original plan) include a shop that would be open on Saturdays. They have the permit in hand. “What I’d really like to do is have a situation where people can interact with the farm more,” John said. “If the timing works out, they could go pick a few tomatoes, pick some peppers. I want to have a chicken coop where people can go in and gather their own eggs. It’s really neat. I had a blast gathering eggs for the first 6 or 8 months. It’s very rewarding. We hope to kind of share that with people and have them come on Saturdays and let see some of the fun things about farming.” John met Nancy on a trip to Chile. After he came home, Nancy came for a visit and then another. He got busy on the farm and soon his vision for it became her vision and they decided to get married. There was a Christmas wedding two years ago. “Everything was all decorated. I recommend a Christmas wedding for anybody,” John said.
“It made wonderful memories,” agreed Nancy. Goodwin Creek was on its way.
Goodwin Creek breads can be found at many local stores and restaurants or you can contact the Hellermans at www.aftonvirginia.com.