Amy Butler serves croissants at Medford’s Artisan Bakery Cafe, one local business weathering historic increases in wheat flour. - Bob Pennell

Daily Bread

A three-month supply of wheat berries cost Bob and Debbie Russell $2,000 when the couple decided in 2005 to purchase Eagle Point's Butte Creek Mill.

Two years later, the price for a 28,000-pound load of wheat berries had more than doubled, only to hit an unbelievable high this month of $9,000.

"I don't think anybody saw it coming," Debbie Russell says.

The Russells' is just one local business dependent on wheat flour, which is in short supply worldwide. As foreign countries whose wheat crops have failed pit their currency against the low U.S. dollar, basic staples like bread, cereal and pasta are hitting historic prices. February saw the largest monthly increase since January 1975 for bakery and cereal products — 1.8 percent.

As bushels of wheat attained a record price of $12.70, the Russells and local bakers last week were contemplating raising rates for their finished products, which in some cases already were increased just a few months ago.

"We don't have any choice," Debbie Russell says. "We just hate to."

Visitors to the circa-1872 mill and its country store can expect to pay between 20 and 35 percent more for whole-grain flours and cereals and muffin, biscuit and pancakes mixes, says Bob Russell. If they didn't raise prices, he says, the couple would have been charging less than the products cost to produce.

"People are pretty understanding," he says.

Milling some of his own whole-wheat flour has helped Dan Allen, co-owner of Medford's Great Harvest Bread Co., absorb some of the skyrocketing wheat costs. He also speculated on the cost of white flour over the next six months and locked in a price for his supply over that period of time. But prices for every other grain, such as rye and semolina, that Great Harvest uses in baking are through the roof, too, he says.

"This is the first time ever, in nine years of business, that we had to do two consecutive price increases in four months," Allen says.

"Things are getting really kind of scary "¦ and there's no end in sight."

Some experts say wheat prices may be close to topping out. But whether prices are due to come down, and when, is unclear.

A baker for 26 years, Scott Brechtel is adopting a wait-and-see approach before charging more for bread and pastries at his Artisan Bakery Cafe in Medford. He says he typically increases prices — usually driven by the cost of butter and eggs — about 1 percent every year. Whereas flour used to be a fairly reliable way of distributing cost among various items, it's become a factor for the first time in his memory, Brechtel says.

"Us, as bakers, we're starting to go, 'How much can we actually demand for our products?' "

But Brechtel admits the gamble makes him nervous. By year's end, he expects to pay $30 for a 50-pound bag of flour that cost him $8 last year. A dollar per bag was considered a large increase in past years, he adds.

And it isn't just small businesses who are feeling the hit.

Three times in the past year, Sara Lee raised what it charges supermarkets for its bread and bagels — an average increase of 25 cents per product, the Los Angeles Times reported. Store-bought bread is running between $3 and $5 per loaf, according to The Associated Press.

In response, some consumers are baking more at home, an endeavor that costs about 60 cents a loaf, says Michael Bittel of King Arthur Flour Co. in Norwich, Vt.

But savings gleaned from home-baked goods may not be that transparent, Brechtel says.

"People think they're saving money by baking at home," he says, explaining that bakeries buy flour cheaper than individual consumers.

Meanwhile, bakeries up and down Interstate 5 are closing their doors, Brechtel says. It's any customer's guess at when the cost of daily bread will become too much.

"By the time they decide to raise prices," Brechtel says, "it's almost too late."

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Share This Story