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Desire for healthier food leads Ligonier couple into the baking business

| Tuesday, April 11, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Racks of pretzels wait for toppings and other preparations before baking at WildFire Bread in Ligonier, Pa. on Friday March 31, 2017.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Loaves of bread set out to cool at WildFire Bread in Ligonier, Pa. on Friday March 31, 2017.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Nate Johanson places baking sheets of pretzels into a large oven in preparation for opening at WildFire Bread in Ligonier, Pa. on Friday March 31, 2017.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Nate Johanson removes loaves of bread from their baking containers at WildFire Bread in Ligonier, Pa. on Friday March 31, 2017.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Kristen Johanson sprinkles toppings onto pretzels before baking at WildFire Bread in Ligonier, Pa. on Friday March 31, 2017.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Zander Johanson helps his mom Kristen Johanson as she selects loaves to be put on display for sale at WildFire Bread in Ligonier.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
From right, Kristen Johanson and Nate Johanson make final preparations before opening for the day as their son Zander Johanson watches videos on a laptop at WildFire Bread in Ligonier, Pa. on Friday March 31, 2017.

There's more to WildFire Bread than just sourdough.

Some art, some science and a full measure of passion for clean food and healthy eating go into the hearty two-pound loaves sold by baker Nate Johanson and wife Kristen at their Ligonier Township shop.

The Johansons have been selling their homemade sourdough breads and pretzels, along with cookies and granola, in the former Joann's Sandwich Shop just north of the borough for a little more than a year. The baking is done in the back room in a wood-fired oven on wheels that Nate built.

Prior to that, Nate says, “I was selling bread to friends, giving to it to family and friends, and getting a lot of great feedback. I've been a home baker for about eight years and into sourdough for five years.”

The shop is open from 4 to 8 p.m. Mondays and Fridays, often with the parking lot filled and cars parked along Route 711 beforehand.

On a recent Monday, Sean Lenhart of Ligonier Township stopped for the Bavarian-style lye-dipped pretzels.

“Nobody else in the county has them,” he says. “The lye makes them one step better.”

Another regular customer, Alyson Holler of Laughlintown, says she goes through two bags of Kristen's granola per week.

“I told my boyfriend, no more bread,” she says. “Our freezer is full of their bread.”

The Johansons' road to Ligonier started when they met in Pittsburgh. It passed through England, where Nate worked for a special needs toy-making company, and looped back to Pennsylvania in late 2007, where they have since lived and worked on a series of organic farms.

Nate credits his bachelor's and master's degrees in fine art, with an emphasis on large-scale sculpture, in giving him the necessary skills to fabricate a portable oven massive enough to bake 24 of the large, country-style loaves at once.

The Johansons' passion grew out of a desire to improve their health through better eating while abroad.

“We were beginning to be passionate about healthy food and we were not finding what we were looking for easily in England, so we thought maybe we could grow it ourselves, even though we had no idea what that would entail,” Kristen says.

Added to that, Nate wasn't happy with his job.

A conversation with Gerry Pickering, the late partner of Kristen's mother, Jeannette Chamberlin, provided the impetus they needed to follow their vision.

Pickering related a visit to Polyface, the Virginia farm of author and organic farmer Joel Salatin.

“Joel Salatin is like a guru of sustainable, grass-fed, perfect circle-of-life farming. The more we heard, we thought, this is the answer we're looking for,” Nate says. “Gerry said, ‘Your mother and I want you to come back to America. How about if I give you some seed money to get started? You can stay at your mom's house while you try to find your own farm.'

“Two weeks later, I walked into the office and said, ‘I'm quitting to go be an organic farmer,' even though I didn't really know what that meant at the time.”

That led to stints on various small organic farming operations around Western Pennsylvania and a “mini-internship” on a Wisconsin farm that also baked and sold sourdough bread and pizza.

“For various reasons, we moved from one location to another, thinking about our future in farming and how we were working incredibly hard for very little money,” Kristen says. “We loved it, but it was really hard work, and we had high standards for feeding poultry with organic — or at least non-genetically modified — feed, and that was expensive and hard to find. We had to think of ways to supplement our farming.”

“(The Wisconsin) experience was critical to how we started this, because it gave us a way that we could imagine making a living while doing things we loved,” Nate says.

Along the way, Nate's experiments with sourdough taught him something about his own health, which he hopes can benefit others.

“The reason I got into sourdough was that I had a skin condition my entire life, a skin irritation due to wheat. What I learned was that it wasn't due to the wheat, it was due to the blood sugar spikes I was getting from unfermented wheat products,” he says. “As soon as I started fermenting wheat, I noticed there was a dramatic decrease, or almost a curing of the skin condition I had, in maybe a month or two. And here I thought I'd be on the Head & Shoulders train the rest of my life.”

Nate followed up his observations by actually testing his blood sugar and finding that there was a dramatic spike when he ate regular bread but almost none with sourdough.

He uses organic flours to avoid the insecticides, fungicides, bleaching agents and other compounds used in growing and processing conventionally farmed wheat.

“I thought, there's gotta be a link between all this stuff that's being sprayed onto wheat and the gut,” he says. “That's why we only use organic wheat flour in the bakery.”

WildFire Bread faces west to a view of Kananga Farm, the grass-fed, heirloom beef operation of Kim and Dianne Miller, whom Kristen describes as their mentors. She and Nate worked with and learned from the Millers on their former farm near New Alexandria, and moved to Ligonier partly to continue the relationship.

The Johansons are living on a small Cook Township farm with a rent-to-buy arrangement, Kristen says. They hope at some point to start a weekly pizza night like the one they saw in Wisconsin.

Nate constructed his oven on a trailer so that he could take it with him, if need be.

Currently, Nate prepare about 70 loaves for each sale.

There is always a plain white, what Nate calls their “most digestible and versatile” bread, along with one or two others from a rotation including jalapeno cheddar, cranberry pecan, honey oat, cinnamon raisin, asiago herb, caramelized onion-poppy seed, roasted red pepper-garlic, chocolate walnut and Four Seasons Rye, using beer from Four Seasons Brewing Co. in Latrobe.

White bread is $7 per loaf, while others are $8 or $9. Pretzels range from $3 for plain to $4 with pepperoni from nearby Foxley Farm hogs.

For a while, they tried three sales a week, but that proved too much given the time that sourdough baking involves. Prepping and baking for two sales adds up to a 60-hour work week for Nate, not to mention Kristen's full-time involvement while the couple also raises son Zander, 5.

“The fermentation process is not a fast process,” Nate says. “I say I work at the speed of sourdough.”

They're pleased with customer response to their products, which often sell out.

“I want to put good bread in the hands of good people,” Nate says. “People who know sourdough know why it's exciting and better for them.”

Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5750 or smcmarlin@tribweb.com.

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