Heritage Grains. Why They Are Worth it.

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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.)

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.

Salone Del Gusto Slow Food Italy 2012

Turin, Italy is the home for the Slow Food Mother Earth Conference every two years.

We are back from the bi-annual Slow Food conference in Turin, Italy as Canadian delegates showcasing our crackers and shortbread made with Red Fife wheat (a once endangered grain). Along with other delegate farmers and artisan food producers representing Canada and the Slow Food Ark of Taste we soon discovered hundreds of other like minded dedicated people from all over the world committed to putting endangered foods and heritage traditions back into the mainstream.

There was so much to see and taste and visitors took advantage of every minute of the 6 day conference. The former Winter Olympic ice-skating arena was filled to capacity with international delegates representing North & South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. In the same complex, a former Fiat factory, housed two massive areas dedicated to foods from all over Italy and a mixture of small and large producers offering a never ending supply of food samples described in just as many banners and signs.

After visiting dozen and dozens of little booths a welcomed respite to the hustle and bustle could be found in a third area dedicated to taste workshops with real-time translators to explain the multiple courses of unique and hard to find foods, beverages and cooking traditions. Many were sold old out quickly, but we were able to attend several. Among our favorites were: Spanish cava, Italian Barolo, Scottish beer (only organic brewery in the country), Tibetan rice, Italian seafood and Italian heritage beef.

Each workshop began the same. First the headsets were handed out, the flight of wine glasses were filled and then the food was served. But not before hearing about the region the food came from, the history and tradition and the advocacy behind reintroducing these flavors.

For a first time visitor, the sheer vastness of the three areas: International Salone, Italian Salone and the Tasting Workshops could independently be the sole focus for the conference. There was so much to see and taste that it will keep many slow-minded people coming back.

Cheeses aged for three years from Gascony, France. All hand shaped and individually flavored with herbs and spirits. This booth drew quite a crowd.

Salt cod from Norway was close by our booth.

Tubors from around the Globe on display. There were 21 different types of millet.

Dawn Woodward, Canadian Delegate for Slow Food Terra Madre Turin, Italy, 2012

A beautiful display of global rices. Truly astounding to see these foods and the efforts made to grow and eat these ancient varieties.

Impressive to see an event on this grand scale and the use of cardboard chairs and wooden pallets as the bases for all of the tables for the hundreds of booths.