Farmers of the Future

Young entrepreneurs use their education and hard work to make their mark in the local farming community

Sarah Vallintine is filling a need with her new business, <a href=

this site Sillycakes Gluten-Free Bakery, buy more about in Cumberland. “I’d say only 10 per cent of my customers actually have issues with gluten. The rest have just decided to go gluten-free because they believe it’s a good thing to do.” Photo by Lisa Graham” src=”×399.jpg” width=”602″ height=”399″ /> Sarah Vallintine is filling a need with her new business, Sillycakes Gluten-Free Bakery, in Cumberland. “I’d say only 10 per cent of my customers actually have issues with gluten. The rest have just decided to go gluten-free because they believe it’s a good thing to do.” Photo by Lisa Graham

Cupcakes and cookies and pies—oh my! We all love the taste of baked treats, but for a growing segment of our population with gluten sensitivities, treats made from wheat don’t spell delicious, they spell disaster. That’s why Sarah Vallintine decided to open Sillycakes Gluten-Free Bakery in Cumberland—so everyone can enjoy tasty baked treats without worrying about getting sick.

Vallintine, 37, remembers being sick for most of her life, but it wasn’t until she was 27 that she finally found out why. The culprit was wheat—or gluten, to be more precise. “I remember a lot of pain while I was growing up,” recalls Vallintine. “I knew there was something wrong and over the years I saw a lot of doctors. Finally, after years of wondering, I was diagnosed with Celiac disease.”

Celiac disease is a common autoimmune disorder where those affected react to a substance called gluten. When one has Celiac disease, repeated exposure to gluten damages the villi and the micro villi of the small intestine. The villi are fingerlike structures that line the wall of the small intestine. These villi increase the surface area of the intestine, helping the body absorb nutrients. When the villi are damaged, proper breakdown of food is prevented, and nutrient deficiencies occur. This damage causes a wide array of symptoms, such as diarrhea, anemia, osteoporosis, joint pain, chronic fatigue, skin lesions, infertility, and dementia, to name but a few.

Gluten, which in Latin means ‘glue’, is a protein found in all forms of wheat, as well as other grains such as barley, rye, triticale, and sometimes oats. Gluten is what makes baked goods rise so nicely and what makes those baguettes so chewy. But for those with Celiac disease or with gluten sensitivity, gluten just makes them sick. Even just a tiny particle of gluten can mean hours of agony. “That’s the hardest thing when you have Celiac disease,” says Vallintine. “You always have to be vigilant about cross contamination.”

Living with undiagnosed Celiac disease causes many people to become severely malnourished, though it seems they eat normally. “I was always pretty skinny,” says Vallintine. “No matter what I did, I couldn’t put on muscle. It seemed I was always sick too. It wasn’t until after I went off gluten that I was able to get healthy again and finally put on some muscle.”

Thankfully, now that Celiac disease is on the radar of more doctors, less people are suffering for years wondering what’s wrong with them. Unfortunately, studies show that gluten intolerances are on the rise. The incidence of Celiac disease is four times as common as it was 50 years ago and it’s believed that people with gluten sensitivities make up seven per cent of the population. There are a few theories for this, but most attribute it to problems with over-hybridized wheat varieties or simple over-consumption of gluten products.

Sillycakes’ most popular item is their cupcakes, which many customers say are better than ones made with traditional wheat.  Photo by Lisa Graham

Sillycakes’ most popular item is their cupcakes, which many customers say are better than ones made with traditional wheat. Photo by Lisa Graham

Though a growing number of people are being forced to live a life without gluten, more and more people are voluntarily choosing to avoid gluten because they think it’s a healthier way to live.

“Most of my customers don’t even have Celiac disease,” Vallintine says. “In fact, I’d say only 10 per cent of my customers actually have issues with gluten. The rest have just decided to go gluten-free because they believe it’s a good thing to do.”

As a result, sales of gluten-free products have tripled during the last five years. “Gluten-free living isn’t a fad,” Vallintine says.

For those who must avoid gluten, though, saying goodbye to popular foods like bread and cakes can be quite burdensome. “When I was first diagnosed with Celiac disease it was really difficult,” she says. “It felt like I was missing so much. I remember that birthday parties were especially difficult because I couldn’t share the birthday cake with the others. I wanted to eat what my friends were eating. So after a while I started dabbling in gluten-free baking.

“My first experiments didn’t go exactly as planned,” Vallintine adds with a laugh. “In fact, it was quite the disaster at first. I made a few hockey pucks and what my mom called doorstops.”

Actually, anyone who has tried gluten-free baking will agree that baking without gluten is not easy. In fact, successful gluten-free baking is almost an art form.

According to Vallintine, things baked without gluten are very fragile. Gluten-free baked goods are also affected by environmental considerations such as altitude, temperature, and humidity—more so than normal baking. “There isn’t much structure for the dough to hold onto with gluten-free baking,” explains Vallintine. “It’s definitely more difficult than normal baking.”

After years of experimenting and much trial and error, Vallintine has mastered the art of gluten-free baking. Instead of hockey pucks and doorstops, Vallintine now bakes delicious gluten-free breads, hot dog and hamburger buns, gluten-free cakes, and everything in between.

Since Vallintine can’t use regular wheat flour she has to use other grains for her baking. “I try to keep my baked goods as healthy as possible, so I use flours such as rice flour, garfava, sorghum and coconut flour,” she says. “Rice flour has a milder flavor so I use that with coconut flour for the delicate baked goods such as cakes and pastries. Garfava and sorghum flours work well for buns or savory items.”

Though there are many people eschewing wheat, wheat alternatives are still on the pricey side. “The flours I use are more expensive than regular wheat flour, and I also have to use a lot of eggs in my baked goods,” Vallintine says. “Normal baked goods may not even have eggs. Those two things combined mean that gluten-free baking is normally more expensive.”

However, as more manufacturers of gluten-free ingredients enter the market, Vallintine hopes that the prices of her ingredients will come down.

Sillycakes Bakery offers the usual baked goods—golden loaves of bread, rows of cookies and muffins, glistening pies— but so far, Vallintine’s most popular item is the cupcake. “People say my cupcakes are the best,” Vallintine says proudly. “Even people who eat wheat say they can’t tell the difference. Actually, that’s the best compliment you can get when you’re a gluten-free baker—that someone can’t tell the difference between a normal baked good and my gluten-free baked good.”

Vallintine also makes gluten-free themed birthday cakes. Nicole Doucet is one of Vallintine’s regular customers and one of her biggest fans, especially after Doucet ordered a gluten-free birthday cake for her son’s third birthday. “I asked for a gluten-free chocolate zucchini cake. My son won’t eat veggies, so I try to hide them in baked goods. Everyone raved about how good this cake was. Not only did the car-themed cake look great, it tasted amazing!  By far one of the best cakes I have ever had!” Doucet says.

Though Vallintine’s cupcakes and birthday cakes are quite the rage, she’s also becoming known for her larger cakes, including wedding cakes. “Sillycakes is the only bakery in the Valley doing custom gluten-free wedding cakes,” Vallintine says. With gluten-free diets so popular, many wedding organizers have realized that gluten-free desserts need to be on the menu.

“Sometimes the bride gets a regular cake for the majority, then a gluten-free one for herself, a Celiac. Sometimes just a dozen cupcakes or a cake or pie are ordered for the gluten-free guests.” But according to Vallintine, sometimes the bride-to-be will taste the Sillycakes gluten-free wedding cake and decide it’s what she wants for everyone.

Though Sillycakes has only been operating for a few months, Vallintine already has a large following of regular customers. “Ninety per cent of my customers say they found out about me from my Facebook site. The Facebook site is good for continued communication too, as my customers get updates via Facebook that state what days I’m baking, what I’m baking, announcements, etcetera.”

Vallintine bakes from Tuesday through Saturday out of Carmie’s Cafe, located in downtown Cumberland. “Before it was Carmie’s Cafe this space used to be a commercial bakery,” says Vallintine. “However, Carmie doesn’t use the commercial ovens, so they’re mine to use. As a result, there are no issues with cross contamination, so I can call my baked goods completely gluten-free.”

And since Carmie’s is also a full functioning restaurant, even when Vallintine isn’t baking, the baked goods can still be purchased during Carmie’s regular hours, including Sundays and Mondays from 8:30 am to 3:00 pm.

Sillycakes offers almost all the baked goods one can imagine. Vallintine makes bagels on Tuesdays, and other days she bakes breads, buns, cookies, muffins, scones, and of course, cupcakes. However, if someone pre-orders, Vallintine can usually accommodate any sort of baked item a customer may need.

“I try to accommodate special diet restrictions if I can. I can create sugar-free baked goods, and dairy-free items as well,” she says. “For example, the sugar-free breakfast muffin is very popular. It’s sweetened with apple sauce and it’s delicious.”

As well as getting the baked goods directly from Sillycakes, customers can also find Vallintine’s gluten-free goodies at Rhodo’s Cafe and Bistro, Amante’s Coffee House, and Benino Gelato.

Though Vallintine is enjoying the adventure of managing a gluten-free bakery, she has bigger plans for the future. “I’d like to open the only entirely gluten-free bakery/cafe here in the Comox Valley,” she says. “At an entirely gluten-free cafe you can walk in and order absolutely anything on the menu and know that it’s gluten-free. That’s heaven to me.”

Though baked goods such as cookies and cupcakes would never be considered health food, having the choice makes it easier for those with gluten sensitivities to cut gluten out of their diets, especially children. And like many others who have struggled with Celiac disease and serious gluten sensitivities, Vallintine knows that cutting out the gluten was the key to regaining her health.

“I just hiked the Comox Glacier with my husband,” says Vallintine with a smile. “There’s no way I could have done that when I was sick!”

For more information visit  or find them on Facebook.

The Birds and the Beans, <a href=

also known as (from left), Kelsey Knoll, Natasha Tymo, Jay Baker-French and Foster Richardson. The group leases local farmland to fulfill their business motto: “Feeding people fully.” Photo by Lisa Graham” src=”×399.jpg” width=”602″ height=”399″ /> The Birds and the Beans, also known as (from left), Natasha Tymo, Jay Baker-French,  Kelsey Knoll and Foster Richardson. The group leases local farmland to fulfill their business motto: “Feeding people fully.” Photo by Lisa Graham

It’s not that often that the right business opportunity drops into your lap in the final days of your university education. But ask The Birds and the Beans how they ended up farming in the Comox Valley, and they’ll tell you that’s pretty much what happened.

The Birds and the Beans are Kelsey Knoll, Natasha Tymo, Jay Baker-French and Foster Richardson, a group of four new farmers and friends leasing land to grow vegetables and staple crops, and raise pastured poultry for sale at farmer’s markets in Courtenay and Campbell River. They recently completed studies in land and food systems at the University of British Columbia, and have come to the Comox Valley in hopes of turning their dreams of sustainable, local food production into a reality. By doing so, they’ve joined an active community of local farmers, and become the latest in a growing group of young people choosing to make farming their career.

“We were all in that in-between stage of finishing school and not sure what we were going to do,” says Knoll. As it happened, Knoll bumped into a university professor who told her that a farm family in the Comox Valley had land they were looking to lease, and maybe they would be interested? Knoll reported the news to her friends over brunch, saying: “Wouldn’t it be funny if we went there and did it?”

It wasn’t an immediate yes. The friends starting asking questions—how much land was available, what type of soil did it have, where is it? They were important questions, and the foursome needed answers.

“We decided we won’t know until we ask, so what’s the harm in sending an email?” says Knoll.

That email connected them with Edgar Smith of Beaver Meadow’s Farm, a certified organic and third generation farming operation off Anderton Road in Comox. The farm is best known for producing Natural Pasture’s cheese and beef.

The Smiths had a former cranberry bog laying fallow, and with some discussion, The Birds and the Beans were able to negotiate terms for a lease. They were also able to find pasture for chickens on Amara Farm.

To say it all happened very fast, and rather unexpectedly, would be accurate.

“There were inklings of it before hand,” says Richardson. They were studying agricultural sciences, and they fully expected farming would be in their future. Baker-French and Tymo even made a trip out to Abbotsford to look at farmland, but nothing ever came of it.

“We talked about it and dreamed about it, but this kind of just happened,” continues Richardson. “Everything fell into place at the right time.”

“It wasn’t going to cost us much to give it a shot,” adds Knoll. “Usually that’s the number one barrier to young people—the capital, the land, and the equipment.”
As it turns out, getting land was only the first step in launching the farm. Tymo, Knoll, Baker-French, and Richardson were well aware they were launching a business. They would be putting time, money, and labor into growing food and taking it to market for sale. They would have a product and they would have customers. It was important to all four that they be in agreement about what they were trying to accomplish.

Photo by Lisa Graham

Photo by Lisa Graham

The group spent the winter of 2012 establishing goals and expectations for themselves that went from the personal, “We’re going to stay friends!” declares Knoll, to the practical: “What do you want to plant and how much do you want to work?”

“There was a lot of planning,” says Baker-French. “We did a lot of conceptual planning and groundwork meetings. We wanted to make sure we were on the same page.”
Eventually, they found themselves a catch phrase that gave direction and purpose to their farming plans. “Feeding people fully,” says Baker-French.

“We want to be able to produce a full and complete food diet,” says Richardson.

As anyone who eats local food knows, vegetables are pretty easy to find, especially during the late spring and summer months when growing conditions are ideal. Likewise, there are a number of good sources of local meat, poultry, and pork. However, that’s only one part of a healthy diet if you’re a meat eater. Dried beans, grains and other storage crops—the stuff vegetarians live on—are hard to come by.

“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if people could get all of their calories from our farm?’” says Knoll.

So along with the chickens, broccoli, kale, swiss chard, zucchini, kohlrabi, edamame, and potatoes (to name just a few of the vegetables currently growing on the farm), this spring The Birds and the Beans planted drying beans and quinoa, an increasingly popular gluten-free grain known for its high nutritional value, which originated in the Andean region of Ecuador, Columbia, Bolivia and Peru.

“People are trying to breed it for northern climates,” explains Baker-French. “We got about 50 per cent of the plants.”

“We’re not going to nail it this year,” admits Richardson of their desire to feed people fully. “But each year a little bit more.”

“Our approach this year is trying things, seeing how they work, and seeing how the fit in this part of the world.” adds Baker-French.

That desire to experiment touches on another aspect of their farm. Richardson, Tymo, Knoll, and Baker-French have all chosen farming because of their keen sense of social justice and environmental awareness.

“I started university in Environmental Sciences and I remember one day in biology thinking, ‘Oh my gosh. Agriculture is destroying the world. I need to do this better’,” says Knoll. “Everyone needs to eat and currently this is done poorly.”

Richardson agrees. “I was the only one that went straight into land and resources. I decided in Grade 11 that I wanted something to do with agriculture,” says Richardson. “I realized how essential food production is to humanity and how it has some problems that could be addressed. I initially wanted to do international development work. But then I realized I could do more to change good production for the better at home.”

So when The Birds and the Beans say they are feeding people fully, they also mean practicing farming in a way that creates a healthy ecosystem and protects the environment. Animal manure becomes compost that is used to fertilize the soil that grows the vegetables and grains. The grain creates straw that becomes bedding for the animals, which again becomes compost. In this way, farms like The Birds and the Beans feed the social and environmental well-being of their customers and the communities in which they operate.

Their approach fits in well with the local, organic farming community in the Comox Valley, creating a built-in support system for navigating the ups and downs of starting a farm business.

“There have been both situational and day-to-day challenges,” says Baker-French. “How do we know if those are ripe?”

Likewise, the group has needed to learn about things like supply and demand, niche markets, and building a customer base.

“The management side of things has been challenging because we’ve always worked for other people,” says Richardson. “But that’s also why we wanted to do this.”
Adds Knoll: “Who is going to buy a hundred cabbage? Who is going to buy 100 chickens and you’ve got 120 more coming?”

“One thing we’ve discussed is maybe we’re being a little silly. Why aren’t we working for someone else and learning how other people do it rather than jumping right into our own business,” says Baker-French.

“We looked at it as we could intern for other people or we could intern for ourselves,” says Richardson. “Year one is a bit of an extension of our education. If nothing else it’s been a huge learning experience and I think it’s been more than that.”

Their fellow farmers would likely agree. Organic farming is not easy—the kind of knowledge needed to effectively run a sustainable farm can take years to build. It depends on an intimate understanding of the land, and the environment in which the farm operates. That sort of knowledge takes time. Yet, Statistics Canada’s 2011 Census of Agriculture found the average age of farm operators was 54, up from 49.9 years a decade earlier. Farmers under 35 years of age represented just 8.2 per cent of the total of 293,925 farm operators in 2011, down from 11.5 per cent in 2001.

Farming is an aging profession in need of young people ready to take on the challenges of local food production. And despite the intensity of their first year in business—“We have been every emotion but bored,” says Baker-French—The Birds and the Beans seem keen to keep on going.

“At this point in my life I would regret not doing this. I have to try. I want to grow food and produce food and this is the best chance to do it,” says Richardson. “I think it’s important to re-establish local food systems. I think there is a lot of room for people to start doing it and I want to be one of those people.”

“We’re well positioned,” says Baker-French. “We’re young, we’re healthy, and we have a bit of cerebral training in food production. Who else is going to do it?”

The Birds and the Beans are at the Comox Valley Farmer’s Market on Saturdays. For more information, call 250-871-4784 or email [email protected]