…on our 250-acre farm just outside of Ottawa Ontario. I work with heritage grains and research, and develop niche markets for these varieties of grains.”
Shelley Spruit thought she was done running a food business in 2014 after selling a farm-to-table banquet hall she’d operated on her Ontario farm.
But this fourth-generation farmer, who is also a chef and baker by trade, was just getting started.
Not long afterward she launched Against the Grain Farms, a new business and subsidiary of the family’s 250-acre farm and began producing small plots of rare and specialty grains sourced worldwide.
It began seven years ago by planting small plots of grains they’d never grown on their farm before.
“My husband and I had been farming at that time 25 years and we’d bought an additional 50 acres of land that year. We were very interested to see what we could do as far as growing out some different grains, maybe developing a little bit of a niche market, looking at things that were more available to different soil types, that kind of thing.
“That’s what started us on the journey. We didn’t know exactly where we specifically were headed.”
She worried that if large numbers of consumers began to shun nutritionally superior wheat-based foods and switch to nutritionally inferior rice and tapioca flours, what that would mean for Canadian farmers who don’t grow those kinds of crops. Plus, she began asking what the implications were for global agriculture, in an era of changing climate, to be losing diversity and becoming more reliant on fewer and fewer food crops.
“I began this journey learning some startling facts, one that agricultural biodiversity has dropped 75 per cent in the last 100 years,” she said.
Always in her mind was what prospects might lie in creating collaborations between farmers growing healthy, wholesome grains and buyers who’d want to use them in their end products.
Rreport of the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)
“I think because I am a chef by trade and I’d had my own business for 15 years, I saw the potential for small independent chefs and bakers, specifically artisan bakers, to start using these grains to start to talk about the terroir of grains, the way that chefs love to talk about the terroir of olives and wine… and from some of the conversations and collaborations I was having with people in Europe I saw that they understood this..
She began reading about older strains of wheat and delving into research looking at how some were better tolerated by those who felt adversely affected by gluten. She also started looking for seed sources and other farmers interested in this. Seed for her first small plots of quinoa were provided through the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs which was trialling varieties of quinoa at the time. They were a failure, but a few of the wheats and barley varieties she’d also planted looked promising.
“I learned a lot that first year and became really interested in, OK, there’s some of these that are pretty interesting….and some of these did pretty well. That second winter I did a lot more research on what was going on farmer to farmer and what are they doing internationally, and where people who were interested in seed regeneration and seed sovereignty and that kind of stuff,” she said. “I came across an older gentleman who was very involved in the seed movement and the restoration of heritage grains in the United States, who was no longer able to keep up a large amount of grow outs.
The first year you might plant a handful but if you harvest and store properly you’ve got an abundance, right, so…
…we jumped in the truck that March and drove eight hours into the back end of nowhere and we sat and talked with this older gentleman and he shared a wealth of information, and he gave us a box of different types of grains some of them had been five, six seven years since they’d been grown out. I brought them home and did seed germination tests and really that spring is when I delved into growing…”
She’d soon connected with the participatory plant breeding (PPB) program at the University of Manitoba and met Professor Martin Entz whose work has included farmer participatory organic crop breeding for improving cultivars best suited to farmers’ needs.
Ultimately, she felt a sense of ‘mission’ developing, said Spruit. She met with chefs and bakers, and learned about their interest in sourcing healthy, wholesome Canadian-grown ingredients for their artisanal breads and menus. And she was talking to more and more farmers about what they needed, too. A really interesting network collaboration began to emerge between everyone, said Spruit. Meanwhile, her own variety trials in heritage wheats, barley, rye, and various types of dried beans expanded.
What Spruit ultimately created was a business producing heritage grains, not to be stored in the vault for future use, but to be grown to renew local business and revive healthy eating. Against the Grain Farms’ aim is to renew the production and use of locally grown heritage grains, said Spruit. They are the missing component in many regional food systems and development of markets for them increase farmers’ cropping options and foster collaborations across value chains.
Spruit took her interest in participatory plant breeding for reviving these ancient grains a step further when she applied to Nuffield Canada and was accepted as a scholar with the global program in 2018. The two main questions she explored during a two-year stint of travel and study were how participatory plant breeding can build resilience for farmers against the perils of climate change, and how farmers could be both developing and benefitting from terroir identities for grains.
Those questions took her to the United States to see farmer-led trials for a culinary participatory plant breeding network there, and to Denmark to meet growers who’ve developed a co-operative to produce regionally adapted wheat, rye and spelt varieties processed and marketed to large commercial end users. It was impressive how farmers working together can scale up what might otherwise be viewed as a niche market, she said.
In Scotland she met more farmers reviving farm viability in a similar approach.
Spruit was also able to expand her understanding about gluten intolerance and wheat varieties while at international conferences, including a first-ever heritage grain conference in Italy. There researchers from agriculture and medicine talked about different wheat varieties and gluten intolerances.
“They were doing collaborations between universities, agronomists and the medical industry. I found that fascinating, that there wasn’t this silo of farmers over here and plant breeders over here and the medical field over here. They had formed these collaborations where they were trialling these different grains in different soils, different milling, and then were taking it back to the medical field and the universities that were studying, through a simulated gut, all incredibly advanced technologies… what the reactions were with these different grains.”
Spruit travels also took her to what’s known as the world’s “cradle of wheat,” which is the country of Georgia, in the Caucus region of Eurasia. She met plant breeders from around the world, and grain restorers like herself.
“Most of our grains that we know come out of Georgia, so it has become the hotspot for international plant breeders going there to select parental lines,” said Spruit.
She learned more about their work finding traits for improved resilience to disease, pests and weather, and the search for new flavour and quality characteristics.
Spruit now speaks at farm conferences and other venues sharing her vision for a seed-to-table value chain for Canadian-grown heritage grains and the important role of participatory plant breeding in developing it.
As 2021 unfolds, she’s busier than ever with Against the Grain Farms. Her website, which declares “if it doesn’t have a story, we don’t grow it,” now lists a wide range of retail and wholesale products sold both direct to consumer as well as wholesale to bakers, restaurants and food manufacturers. There are detailed descriptions of how these grain-based products are grown and processed, their nutritional benefits, and their intriguing histories and origins. “Loaf by loaf,” she says, “we can reduce consumers’ fears around gluten and instead shine a light on the benefits of fresh stone-ground grains.”
Spruit’s own journey has just begun, but it is most certainly one worth taking. This isn’t just about growing her own personal business, she says, but about creating partnerships between other farms and food businesses to renew the production and use of locally grown heritage grains.
“I feel that is the heart beat behind Against The Grain Farms” she said.
Contributor: Lorraine Stevenson