LOS ANGELES — If you've been to your local bakery lately and noticed that things are a little more expensive, you're not imagining it. Wheat inflation has hit our loaves of bread and pastries. Consumers will see most of that price increase in local bakeries, where bakers and pastry chefs have had to pass on rising costs to their customers.
Kate McLaughlin said she bakes anywhere from 50-70 loaves for her cottage bakery business, San Pedro Sourdough, all from her home kitchen. McLaughlin sells to the local corner store and donates to several pop-ups and even local food pantries, in addition to special orders. McLaughlin said prices for her locally milled flour have never been higher since this past summer.
"When I started making sourdough, I didn't give price a second thought. And now, when a 50-pound bag of flour goes up almost 25%, I take notice," McLaughlin said as she shaped a ball of sourdough.
As a result, McLaughlin has had to make changes to her baking business, as have most local bakers and bakeries. She's scaled back on marketing.
"I use cheaper bags, I don't put little cards in the bags anymore, I stamp the bags less, "she said.
"I have increased my prices. And Pedro is a working class town, they're not too keen on price increases," McLaughlin said. She's also had to raise prices, an inevitable step for most bakers today.
“I have increased my prices. And Pedro is a working class town, they’re not too keen on price increases,” said McLaughlin. "I also reduced the loaf size. In doing so, I was able to keep the price about 30 cents more a loaf, which most people didn't mind."
Across town at The Kings Roost in Silver Lake, Roe Sie is a local artisan flour miller and supplier. The Kings Roost is also McLaughlin's supplier for San Pedro Sourdough.
"We have artisan bakers craft, which is good for sourdough, high-mount, high-gluten, beehive all purpose, so this is for like your high protein breads," Sie said while walking the length of his storefront.
Sie explained that wheat inflation largely comes down to climate change.
"We've got drought, fires, flooding in some places, and it's causing crop yields to drop. So crop yields, even if we have the same amount of farm land dedicated, the yields on a per acre basis are also going down," Sie said.
The effects of two years of ongoing drought are finally hitting crops across the entire country. The USDA released a report on July 6 that rated 98% of the country's wheat fields as being on land that is experiencing some form of drought.
On top of the pandemic and a country plagued by a labor shortage, all of this equals a perfect storm for wheat costs to rise — fast.
"And so what I'm seeing is just constant jumps in prices so I've been a little whipsawed because my customers come in and say, 'Oh my gosh, the prices went up!'" Sie said. "And then prices will come down and then they'll jump up again. And some grains are completely unavailable."
Sie said he's seen the cost of a 50-pound bag jump up to 40%, including shipping increases, a cost that he's had no choice but to pass on to his customers. But as average consumers, we won't notice this kind of increase in our bags of flour at the grocery stores – yet. That's because large retailers are able to absorb some of the costs. But cottage bakers and local bakeries are buying wholesale and feeling those price increases.
We, the consumer, are paying more for our baked goods as a result.
McLaughlin said that even though wheat inflation is causing her to change how she and other bakers operate, she does not think it will ultimately end her business. She said that despite higher prices, demand from her customers is still high enough for her to keep baking.
"A lot of people in Southern California do have the means to pay a higher price for bread, and they will because there aren't a lot of places where you can get naturally leavened, slow fermented, stone milled, in-house bread…. I'm not doing this to make a huge profit, but I do need to not lose money," she said.