Historic grains glean premium prices

By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer

One interesting specialty market which has gained traction in the last decade is the ancient grains movement which seeks to bring back historic varieties to cater to a higher end market place. Many who grow these historic grains are also certified organic to maximize their potential profitability within that same market.

While the science is mixed on what, if anything, these historic grains bring to the table in terms of significant quality difference from modern varieties, there is no doubt there is money to be made in growing them.

Mark Gibeau of Heritage Harvest near Strathmore decided to get back into agriculture in a modest way in 2006. Gibeau knew right away with his small amount of land he would have to take a different approach than most.

“It was quite apparent that you can’t run the big boys, and the conventional system, on small acres,” remembers Gibeau. “We looked into other alternatives of things. We started looking around for niche market kind of things, and one thing led to another. We came across this Red Fife.”

Gibeau, who is indeed certified organic, did not realize at first what he was getting into.

“We had to overcome some agronomy issues with the Red Fife, and learn how to grow it basically,” confirms Gibeau. “It’s a very tall plant. It doesn’t mature evenly. Come harvest time you had kernels that were in milk stage to ones that were so ripe they were falling out in the same plant. There were some pretty good reasons agronomy-wise why they quit growing it.”

But with some ingenuity, some machine know-how and some perseverance, Gibeau methodically sorted out the puzzle.

“Over the years we have figured it out and developed different kinds of machinery and come up with different seeding methods,” says Gibeau. “Now we are having some success with it. We built an air drill that is 20 feet wide that seeds 96 rows in 20 feet. Every 2 and 9/16 inches. So basically we broadcast the seed. There is a better potential to compete with weeds because there is no spaces in between the rows. We seed heavier than most wheat varieties on the prairies. About three and a half bushels per acre.”

Getting the harvest off also poses its challenges.

“Come harvest time per acre we spend a ton of time just processing that material to get the grain out of it. And on conventional scales it doesn’t yield super well. We also have to harvest really slow. We have two Massey 410 combines. They are not just small they are tiny,” says Gibeau with a laugh.

Gibeau knew coming in finding markets for his historic wheat variety would also take a lot of legwork and extra effort.

“We go as far down the value chain as we can. We actually have a flour mill. So we put it in the ground and we also deliver it to the bakery door, all in house. We get a premium price for the product, but we also have to invest the corresponding amount of labour.”

The upside for Gibeau is the character traits of Red Fife make it perfect for organic agriculture as well as the tastes of higher end customers in Calgary.

“This is a very tenacious plant. In a growth foot race with Canada Thistle it will win. For us, it wouldn’t be feasible to be in the agriculture business if there wasn’t something like this. The biggest advantage of this crop from a customer point of view is a lot of the restaurants and bakeries I deal with buy the Red Fife grain for its taste. It has a more nutty kind of taste to it, and sort of a deeper grain taste to it. There is more punch.”

Mazen Aljarrah, wheat seed breeder with the Field Crop Development Centre at Lacombe, is a curator of sorts for the over 130 historic seed varieties the centre keeps on hand and grows. Aljarrah says there is definitely some scientific basis to what Gibeau is saying about the qualities of Red Fife.

“If we want to talk about wheat landraces (domesticated and historic varieties), they were grown through the combination of natural selection and also selection performed by farmers over generations. They are usually very well adapted to climate and conditions of regions where they were bred. From the quality side, it is well known farmers were selecting not only for high yield but were focusing more on their own needs. So they were looking for good milling and baking quality.”

Aljarrah says the Field Crop Development Centre continues to breed these historic varieties because they also have desirable traits they want to tap into and integrate, such as better performance than modern varieties in a lower nitrogen environment.

“Those landraces offer a good source for our breeding program and trying to get those quality traits, good taste, quality milling and nitrogen transfer, into the new cultivars,” says Aljarrah.

Lori Oatway, who is in charge of quality analysis at the Field Crop Development Centre, defers to her colleague’s knowledge of the individual varieties, but knows from research there is almost no difference in protein quality between modern and historic varieties of wheat. For Oatway, the bottom line is modern varieties incorporate some of the best traits of these historic seeds, but also have greater disease resistance and are suited to the large scale agriculture of today.

“Historic grains do have good traits that we can pull into a new line,” confirms Oatway. “But when we have grown the historical varieties, especially the really old ones, you do realize yield potential has greatly increased on the new varieties over the old ones. Those historical varieties will have niche markets here and there; especially for some growers who want to hit a target market with a specialty brand or something like that.”

Oatway is pleased there are farmers out there who are growing historic grains and making a profit in doing so. However, she warns it is a business you have to consider carefully before getting into it.

“A lot of these historical varieties are de-registered,” says Oatway. “So they are registered for awhile and then when they are no longer deemed to be a crop in high production they can be de-registered. If you could find enough seed, Red Fife or something else, you can still plant it on your farm. Although you might have a hard time selling it to a grain elevator if they didn’t know what variety it was. If you were packaging it yourself, and selling it (direct) as that variety, you could certainly grow it that way.”