Heritage Grains. Why They Are Worth it.

copyright Edmund Rek/rekfotos.com

Unhulled Turkish bulgar wheat at the Slow Food Conference in Turin, Italy. One of the first cultivated wheats.

Heritage grains may be the final cog in the wheel of the good food and sustainable farming movements. These special grains were bountiful leading up to the 1900’s and vital to westward settlements in North America. They were grown for their adaptability, nutritional value, animal feed and fermented for spirits.

By the 1950’s the population transitioned from rural to urban communities, therefore changing the direction of food and farming. At the same time, micro-food communities were pushed aside by large agri-businesses and huge food chains monopolized hybridized wheat and limited the choices for the increasing number of the suburban consumers.

Striving for the quick and convenient, food became overly processed and shelf-life won out over nutrition. Slowly these older varieties of grains, and much of the food our grandparents and great grandparents ate, became harder and harder to find.

In the past 10-15 years, however, a new generation of farmers and advocates are finding ways to revitalize our food choices. Similar to the environmental movement of the 1970s, smart, dedicated individuals such as Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin offering insights for consumers and leading them away from foods grown on industrial farms. Huge online campaigns are forming (Top 20 local food advocates on Twitter link) where conscience eaters are demanding nutrient dense food grown by sustainable farms.

As a result, it is becoming easier to understand the cost of industrial farming. Fruits and vegetables growers who use pesticides, fungicides and herbicides disturb the natural habitat of bees and contaminate of ground water. Documentaries are exposing poor animal husbandry that result in unappetizing caged chickens and sick feedlot cattle. What’s harder to see is is how modern wheat was bred to fit the needs of large scale farming.

Heritage grains can offer everything that industrialized wheat cannot.

Our wholegrain flour is really a 100% whole grain FLOUR. Want to know more? Kall the kaptain.

1. Whole Grain Nutrition. The outer layer of the grain contain most of the nutrients and when freshly milled it has a wonderful taste and texture. (Enriched white flours are an indication that the good stuff has been removed.)

2. Sustainability. These older varieties adapt to their growing conditions. Seeds don’t have to be purchased from outside the farm they can be planted each year collected after harvest. Hybridized grains tend to lose vitality with a shorter life-cycle. Heritage grains are an asset that stays on the farm, year after year.

3. Diversity. Food mono-cultures dominated by a single seed species can inhibit long-term agricultural diversity. Growing buckwheat, rye, barley, durum and spelt can offer so much more than a single crop of dwarfed wheat. The soil benefits greatly with crop rotation and seed variety. Nutrients remain in the soil, which lends itself to organic farming and offer more variety in our diets.

Heritage grains connect us to a time were micro food communities were the only option, where you knew the person who grew your food, or you grew it yourself. We have the unique benefit of living in modern cities with modern conveniences that can offer connections to these special grains through a new breed of committed farmers. CIPM and K2Mill are our main grain suppliers. Look for heritage grains at farmers markets, through subscriptions to Community Supported Agriculture, food artisans and at farm-gate sales. Currently, we are using buckwheat, rye, durum, red fife wheat and spelt all grown and milled in Ontario.

(We will be creating a page to post your favorite whole grain recipes soon.)

Farmers Market Selling Secrets

By participating in several farmers markets, over the years, we have learned a few ways that help us to increase our sales and maximize our presence.

Here are some tips that you can use if you are selling:

1. There is an old saying in the retail business, “Pile it high and watch it fly!” Have plenty of product on display.

2. Add some risers to the table legs. It gets items closer to the people who may buy them. Remember three-foot marketing and try to have items within reach. Folks like to pick and hold, examine and fall in love with things before they buy.

3. Have labels and prices that are easy to read. Make it apparent what you are selling even from a distance. You have a split second to capture someone’s attention amongst many vendors and things to see.

4. Sample. Sample. Sample.

5. Acknowledge someone as soon as they come to the table. Especially, when you are helping someone else. A quick hello, or smile is all it takes.

6. Offer a special price for buying more than one item. Buying in bulk should offer some benefit.

7. Create different heights with your display. Baskets and risers work well.

8. Have items neatly arranged and as things sell. Re-merchandise so the table looks full and not picked over.

These are just a few things that we have tried that work for us and may help you whether you are planning a yard sale, lemonade stand, or run a retail store.

Feel free to comment below of you have any tips to share.

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Can Farmers Markets Sustain Small Businesses?

IMG_1126A few years ago we discovered an endangered heritage wheat (Red Fife), that became the canvas of our creativity and a gateway to the farmers markets. Evelyn’s Crackers is in our 5th year and can still be found at several farmers markets in Toronto. Our crowning achievement was representing Canada at the Slow Food Conference in Italy and being recognized for our advocacy of heritage grains and establishing a link from grower to consumer. We realize being recognized at the global level for our dedication is an honor, but more importantly it raises awareness of these forgotten grains and provides initiatives for growers, millers and food artisans to use them. Each year more farmers markets are forming and for vendors to continue to make long term commitments there needs to be a more focus on the ability of the farmers markets to grow small businesses.

Within our first season at the farmers market we were contacted by a local butcher to merchandise our crackers based on their customer requests. To sustain our business, especially during the off-market season, we have to sell to retailers. The costs associated with wholesaling are much more and the margins are much less. For example, if I have 10 stores that order $100 every month that is $1000. 50% is the cost to make the crackers, the labels, packaging, bar-code and nutritional analysis. That does not factor in the cost of delivery, or any credits that would be given for breakage or expiration, not to mention chasing down past due invoices, or the possibility of not being paid due to insufficient funds. Some retailers will not pay before 60 days, therefore greatly affecting cash flow. The exposure in stores raises the awareness of the brand but there are many more costs involved.

To generate significant revenues you are looking at at least 200 accounts. That number of stores requires a distributor who takes up to 35%, on top of the 40-60% of the retailer takes drives up the retail price significantly. It doesn’t take long to see the pressures within the industry to source cheaper and cheaper ingredients to make up for these extra costs. To continue using heritage grains grown organically and nearby we offset these extra costs by delivering to stores ourselves and selling at farmers markets.

It  takes 2-3 years to establish a following, however the benefits to selling at farmers markets is the ability to build a brand, have instant feedback and to experiment with flavors and methods of production. We offer many more items at the farmers markets than we ever would through our retail partners. Our margins are better and we can connect and sell directly to consumers. Ironically, our application was rejected for at a new market starting its second season this year because a few of our crackers are being sold in a retail store nearby. Their reasoning, “You are too big for the market.”

There are significant failures to see the importance of farmers markets it’s ability to sustain small businesses. There is a failure to understand the food system and how it relates to the small producer and the challenges associated with competing with the agri-industry for prices and market share. Farmers market vendors should be encouraged to wholesale. You cannot build a local food economy one day a week, 5 months out of the year. The farmers market needs to move beyond the impulse buy because small businesses can make an impact. To date, Evelyn’s Crackers has purchased over 3 tons of Ontario grains. There is serious disconnect when our limited success strikes against us.

New farmers market organizers are missing opportunities to look beyond the market. They are getting caught up in surveys instead of being leaders and working towards a long term vision and creating a market identity. Not very often someone with “skin in the game,” or vendors making a living in the farmers markets are part of the decision process, or creating priorities of the market, or who should attend. Those who have the most at stake should have the biggest voice.

The farmers market has been part of every day in every corner of the globe for eons. We, in North America, are rediscovering ours. Evelyn’s Crackers is only one example of what is coming out of the farmers market and as one of the first artisans to use endangered grains we certainly cannot become big enough.

Take The Whole Grain Challenge

(Photo credit: (c)2016 Edmund Rek/rekfotos.com)

Throughout history, farming has been the cornerstone of many great civilizations. The ability of early societies to store food (mostly domesticated grains) in quantities beyond what they needed changed the how they ate. Efforts needed to do be nomadic and search for food, were now directed to settling and growing their own. Thousands of years later not much has changed, but things are very different.

In North America our lineage of farming has been established by cross-breeding and hybridization. The process has evolved to control crops and animals to maximized production and increased yields. In the 1950’s the population grew and industrialized farming was there to meet the demand. Aided by supermarkets, fast food chains, and interstate highways the food distribution network spread like a crack through ice. Unfortunately, the majority of the farmland was a mono-culture of mostly wheat, corn and soy. Verlyn Klinkenborg explains how, “Large-scale industrial agriculture depends on engineering the land to ensure the absence of natural diversity.” (Learn more  here)

Over the past several years public health and environmental concerns has grown a geater interest in local foods and motivation for farmers and ethical food producers to connect to make the change. Focus on heritage varieties and ancient grains, raising grass-fed & grass-finished beef, wild pigs, free-range chickens and heirloom fruits and vegetables is the goal. Non profits like Slow Food are strong advocates for these endangered varieties and encourage farmers to grow them, chefs to cook them and consumers to eat these diverse foods. (See the Arc of Taste: Canada/US).

Prominent food companies (Unilever/Kraft/General Mills) are supplied by factory farms, who choose shelf life over nutrition to overcome the challenge of a vast distribution network and to meet the consumer demand of close-by convenience. Prior to this, agricultural cooperatives were necessary within smaller communities by sharing seeds, equipment, harvesting, processing, transportation even marketing within a group of farmers that enabled a local commerce that was difficult, or impossible to do so otherwise.

We are seeing the return of the agricultural co-operative with a renewed focus in quality vs quantity. There are several co-ops within the GTA who bring goods from a group of farmers close by to sell at farmers markets and CSA drop-off locations: Quinte Co-op, Hope Eco Farms, 100km Foods, just to name a few. These passionate groups offer us access to more locally grown foods and enable farmers to sell more of what they grow for a fair market price.

Beautiful produce, eggs and fresh meats are not the only benefits from buying farmer coops. Building relationships with growers show transparency into their farming methods and offer insights into heritage foods they are growing. Meeting the families to whom they are feeding is a real inspiration.

At the end of the day, when the consumer is King, better food choices are available to many of us. Big-box-stores such as (Walmart/Cosco/Loblaws) are taking note and offering local and organic foods in addition to conventional staples. These profit driven companies are finding their customers value more ethically produced foods.

For the choices and diversity of good foods to grow and become more available there will need to be challenges and  a few sacrifices. Convenience for one, more time in the kitchen is another, but this can be a reality and it is becoming a reality within micro communities. If you are up for the challenge, one of the ways to participate can be as simple as eliminating white flour from your kitchen and your diet. Harken back to those early civilizations and just use whole grains purchased from a farmer or miller nearby, or someone connected the person who grow the grains. And try this for a month and see what happens. See if it sticks. See if the flavour and and the satisfaction makes a significant impression on you and your family.

Stay tuned for more details about the Evelyn’s Crackers “Whole Grain Challenge”…(continued)