By Lee Allen, Special to Tucson Local Media
Johnny Appleseed was a folk hero of the 1800s, a traveling environmentalist on a mission who planted apple orchards along his trek through the American Midwest.
Artisanal baker and entrepreneur Don Guerra doesn’t consider himself a folk hero, but he, too, is an environmentalist on a mission—to build a grain-based economy in Southern Arizona, specifically one created around heritage/heirloom Sonoran white wheat introduced here by Spanish priest Padre Kino a couple of centuries ago.
The first variety of candela wheat to reach the desert borderlands and adapt quickly became a major staple crop until the mid-1960s, when border mills closed down and commercial production declined. Then came Guerra and his Barrio Breads.
Guerra said he once read that Father Kino helped start 20 different regional bakeries using this grain. While he may not be walking in Kino’s footsteps, Guerra is just as passionate about what he does. He is a proponent of local—local everything where possible, but especially in his flour that was once used to prepare communion wafers and feast breads.
“I want to help ensure that locally produced, sustainable farming, with a place to market the natural and healthful varietals, continues to grow,” he said, acknowledging his affiliation with BKW Farms in Marana where his wheat is grown.
Operating under the state’s cottage industry food law, for eight years, he mixed and kneaded and baked his bread in his converted home-garage-turned-bakery. Crazy hours, 80 or more on an average week beginning each evening with a culture starter that needed tending at 2 a.m. in order to be ready for the oven as the sun came up. He went through half a ton of flour every week to bake the 600 loaves that sold out at distribution sites where crowds waited in line to pick up their order when his delivery van arrived—driven by the baker himself.
Each step in this journey has been forward movement. Named one of the Top 10 Bakers in America by Dessert Professional magazine, he received a $100,000 Department of Agriculture local food promotion grant in 2015 which, along with personal savings and Go-Fund-Me contributions, allowed him to take that next step: a retail bakery.
Now the crowds still wait in line, an even longer one, at his brick-and-mortar spot at 18 S. Eastbourne Ave. in Broadway Village. His oven is larger, a four-deck Italian appliance that can handle a hundred loaves at a time, accepts formed dough and turns it into a crusty palate-pleasing product with an irresistible aroma. He has helpers to assist in the prep, baking, and retailing of his heritage grain products and can now turn out up to 3,000 loaves a week.
The larger oven has also allowed him to expand his operation into commercial sales and Barrio Bread can now be found in numerous local restaurants around town.
Not content with this level of success—remember, he’s on a mission—Guerra acts as a design consultant for other bakeries, gives lectures around the world on the baking of bread, has begun working together with a Tucson tortilla maker (La Mesa Tortillas), is partnering in a Barrio Sandwiches effort at Arizona Theatre Company (stand by for an expansion of this effort in the future) and because there was apparently an hour or two in the day that hadn’t been earmarked, he and the Wong family at BKW Farms have formed Barrio Grains LLC.
“I want to replace some of the commodity flours so prevalent in today’s marketplace and substitute local products made with local flour—breads, pastries, cookies, muffins, tortillas, spirits, and beers,” Guerra said. “If we look local, that’s going to be true sustainability for our regional grain economy and Barrio Grains will be a leader in sourcing local grains from area farmers and getting them into local kitchens.”
For Guerra it’s a passion—and a bucket load of sweat equity—but he’s always enjoyed working hard.
“When I’m idle, I feel out of place because I love putting in a solid day working with bread,” he said. “It’s organic in nature, always evolving. I’m just there to kind of give it a life form. My story is one of passion, persistence, and a love of community.”
So where does he go from here? He wants to do a lot of things, but said he can’t do them all alone, so he’s busy forging relationships.
“I want my legacy to be that of a sustainable local grain economy developer that has helped develop, maintain, and move forward that mission,” he said. “My goal in life is to make meaning.”