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Meet Jed English – part of our field crew and our resident baker.

Jed grew up in a big homeschooling family just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, with six brothers and four sisters. His childhood memories include a love of nature as he and his siblings explored the neighborhood woods. But, thanks to his father’s love of literature, Jed also enjoys getting lost in a good book. Jed’s family was also very engaged in the life and worship of their local church.

“As a kid,” he said, “I had dreams of being a writer or an artist. Then in high school I became interested in teaching. But during college I ended up focusing on art.”

Even as a kid he could find his way around a kitchen – making pizza and cinnamon rolls for his family. Then in high school and college he had two mentors – one was a leader at a New Jersey beach ministry where Jed worked for two summers, and the other was his painting professor at college. Both, he said, greatly influenced him, and one aspect of what that they passed on was their “contagious love of good food and cooking.”

At that point, Jed was a student at Covenant College near Chattanooga, Tenn., where he was a studio art major. That afforded him the chance to study painting and drawing abroad for a semester, which he did in Aix-en-Provence, France.

Besides those months being a time of personal growth and independence, he said, it was when his love of food and good bread was really developed. “The experience of the daily trip to the bread and pastry shops helped me see the value of having local fresh bread, and the idea that bakers could improve the quality of life for an entire community.”

Then, during his senior year of college he started making bread and selling it to his classmates. “People loved it, and I almost always sold out of whatever I baked,” he said. “It was pretty basic stuff, but I loved doing it, and that was when I first really considered the possibility of baking professionally.”

So after graduation, he decided to work at a bakery. “There is an excellent artisan bakery in Chattanooga named Niedlov’s,” he said. “If you’re ever passing through there, look it up.”

After he worked for them delivering bread, he moved into the production side, splitting his time between mixing, shaping, baking, and bagging. “I used my time there to get to know the bakers, grilling them with questions about bread and baking. I could see that bakery work not an easy job. The pay is never very high, the hours can be weird and long, and the stress of can be overwhelming. But the appeal of it is still there for me: working with my hands making good food to support a community, providing employment for people, building up local economies, and connecting to an age-old tradition.”

Good food, he believes, is a foundation for culture and has a spiritual quality. “Historically, the social fabric was more closely interwoven with the growing, cooking and eating of food” he stated. “And in France, they still appreciate that.”

What brought Jed to Abraham’s Table Farm? Well, it’s a long story, but his connection to Joel and Megan Barr really began before Jed was born, when Joel’s family and Megan’s family and Jed’s family all lived in Norfolk, Va., where they attended the same church and were good friends. In fact, Jed’s mother gave piano lessons to Megan, and Jed’s older brothers were young playmates with Joel and his older brother. The Englishes and Barrs stayed connected through the years, and while Jed attended Covenant College, he roomed with Daniel Barr, Joel’s younger brother and current field manager at ATF.

“I first visited the farm in May 2019, and experienced an unseasonal snow storm,” he recalls. “Seeing as I hate the heat of southern summers, I thought it was awesome. The following year Joel offered me a full-time position for the farm season and I accepted. So this is my second full year commitment.”

The funny thing is, when he came to ATF Jed had no intention of doing anything with bread. But Megan (an excellent baker) and he eventually talked about bread, and she showed him a book that detailed how to build your own oven and create your own sourdough culture. “I was sucked in” he said. “And I couldn’t shake the idea. So I approached Joel and Megan about the prospect of building an oven on their property for the farm. They thought it was a great idea -- the only parameters were that I had to shoulder the responsibility of ensuring the funding was there and the details would all be worked out satisfactorily.”

Although he had never headed up a project quite like this, he grew up in a family that was always trying creative ideas. Besides, he stated, the book was thoroughly detailed, and others on the farm helped him along the way. But building the oven wasn’t his top priority. “While I was excited to try building an oven,” he said, “baking was what I was truly interested in. It’s been such an adventure though. If you told me a year ago that all this would happen, I honestly would have been pretty shocked to hear it. Really, this kind of came out of nowhere, but at the same time the roots of it go deep and it just made sense to happen when it did.”

Along the way, he has discovered some amazing things about the significance and important health benefits of sourdough bread. “I’m by no means an expert,” he said, “but sourdough is more properly called wild yeast, or natural leavening. Natural leavening is the way all risen bread was made for thousands of years until about 200 or so years ago when commercial yeast was developed in laboratories and baking soda was first brought into use.”

But, he noted, the benefits of using the sourdough process include more interesting flavors, significantly higher nutritional content, and longer shelf life without added preservatives as compared to dry or fresh yeast. The key is the diversity of microbes in the sourdough culture as compared to the monoculture of using commercial yeast.

With yeast breads, you produce CO2 and alcohol during the bread making process. But with sourdough, he said, healthy bacteria is present in the natural leavening, which makes it more easily digestible. More research is being done, but the testimonies are certainly out there of people who can eat naturally leavened bread without any problem while they normally have a reaction to yeasted breads.

When he isn’t busy with his bread duties, he is usually in the field. “Working with the chickens and hand weeding grass in the garden beds are his least favorite jobs. “On the other hand, there are a lot of enjoyable things about working in the field,” he said. “I like the physical activeness of it. I enjoy working with the cows, and trellising tomatoes, and the first harvests of all the different crops.”

[NOTE: If you are interested in reading more of Jed thoughts, he writes more on his blog.]

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