2012 Blazer Distinguished Community Service Award winner
Canadian Mennonite University is pleased to present its 2012 Blazer Distinguished Community Service Award to Winnipeg’s Tall Grass Prairie Bread Company. In doing so, CMU pays special tribute to company owners Paul and Tabitha Langel, and Lyle and Kathy Barkman. The awards ceremony honouring the Manitoba company took place Sept. 28 in the CMU Laudamus Auditorium during the University’s annual Fall Festival.
It took strong faith and more than $40,000 in private loans and savings to start a community-based, environmentally sustainable organic bakery in the 1980s. As a business, it was risky. Who could predict growing a church-kitchen bakery into a thriving business? Who could be sure that customers would pay six or seven times higher on bread prices so the bakery could pay farmers enough to sustain their organic grain operations? Who could have foreseen the goodwill of the community, starting with a customer who would give back a paid-for loaf on opening day to use in blessing the new venture?
In 2012, “the little bakery that could” presents both a lifestyle and a business model. It shows what a group of friends can achieve with a good idea done well. The innovative company today employs more than 60 people, with everyone earning fair wages and what the owners describe as “a good living” – above standard industry pay. One location has grown to two; they have opened a second business, Grass Roots Prairie Kitchen, selling preserves, baking products, and organic sunflower oil. Their organic grain is ground at the downtown site, and the oil is also pressed on site – not only to save on the cost of fuel, but also to save on the use of fuel, to help conserve finite resources.
Sitting around a small table at their Winnipeg Forks location with guests from CMU, the owners serve a generous selection of Tall Grass Prairie cinnamon buns, delicious breads, and local fruit. Tabitha Langel, who focuses on the baking operations, pours lemon-flavoured water from a large mason jar and places it on the table. The four owners gather round the table, shoulder to shoulder, chatting about an afternoon conflict resolution meeting they will attend – a customary practice for the company that helps maintain healthy working relationships.
“If any of us have issues or are angry with each other, we won’t make bread while angry,” explains Lyle Barkman, who takes care of technical and mechanical aspects of their operations. The bread, they feel, is an expression of reconciliation and blessing, and it needs to be made in a wholesome environment.
“We have undergone a lot of change, but the core vision has never changed,” says Paul Langel, who takes care of the company’s website and promotions.
Their core vision is simple: to serve nutritious bread, made in a spirit of blessing and reconciliation; steward the earth’s gifts; share among neighbours; pay suppliers and workers well; nurture the soul and the body. They strive to nourish, bless, sustain, and heal.
“Our philosophy is about reconciliation,” adds Paul, “and about how we work that out in our world: person to person, us to the land; rural to urban. We focus on blessing and respect for everyone.”
Coming as a group from the Grain of Wheat church family, the partners fundamentally agree that their work is bigger than themselves.
Kathy Barkman, who prepares the company’s financial records, comments on the contributions of the partners and of their employees. “Our diversity, and what each of us brings, is a gift,” she says. “It is humbling when stories come back to us about what we have done here. We are making something that is so basic. We make bread, but we are baking love into it.”
In terms of their future plans, new ideas are always considered, but after recent expansions and new production introductions, they are looking forward “to simply living” for a while, preserving and sustaining what they have built, and keeping their partnership alive and well.
“We experience the faithfulness of God to us daily,” says Tabitha. “We therefore choose to stay faithful to one another.”