Category Archives: Grain

A hunger for opportunity

Country Guide – Feb 25, 2020 – By Lorraine Stevenson

“As a grain farmer, I felt I needed to be part of that conversation,” says Shelley Spruit. Canadians were turning away from the foods our farmers grow, creating a unique business opportunity. Photo: Jeff Clifford Photography

Shelley Spruit likes to say she began a thriving farm business with a single cup of seed. In fact, there’s a certain rightness to her choosing those exact words, as if it was a recipe. After all, Spruit can run a kitchen and turn out five-course meals just as well as she operates a farm and produces bountiful crops.

Spruitt, you see, is a chef and baker by trade as well as a fourth-generation Ontario farmer who has farmed outside Ottawa with her husband Tony for just over 30 years. Here, the couple has grown mostly corn and soybeans on their 250-acre farm before beginning an entirely new venture here five years ago.

That new venture is Against the Grains Farm, a subsidiary of the family’s farm, with a goal to engage in trialling and growing out varieties of ancient grains, and selling a variety of commercial wholesale and retail products made from them.

The idea for the business itself was planted when Shelley was eyeing selling another farm business she’d operated for over a dozen years. Her farm-to-table banquet hall had been a popular on-farm destination, offering meals made from ingredients sourced on their farm and from surrounding neighbours, plus delicious breads she’d baked from scratch. It was a time of learning about consumers’ interests in agriculture and dietary trends, too, says Spruit.

Selling the banquet hall business back in 2014, she thought at the time she might be getting out of the food business. Instead, she was about to transition right back into it.

“This was at the time of the gluten-free craze,” says Spruit. “I was really concerned about that, and I felt as a grain farmer I needed to be part of that conversation.”

She was watching, with growing alarm, consumers switching to nutritionally inferior rice flour and tapioca starch-based products, and knew what people were going to miss both from a cultural and a culinary perspective if they eliminated grain-based foods from their diet.

She also saw gluten-free diets leading to even more disconnection between eaters and what Canadian farmers actually grow. The last time she checked, she says, there was precious little rice grown on Canadian farms.

Initially, Spruit did set up a few plots of quinoa, millet and coloured corn to explore opportunities and options for what they might grow for new markets. But her attention was soon being drawn to ancient strains of wheat and other heritage grains as she began to read and learn about older strains of wheat and the research around the world looking at how some were better tolerated by those adversely affected by gluten.

“All too often the word ‘niche’ conjures up a small and perhaps marginal enterprise,” Spruit says. Instead, it’s all about Courtesy Shelley Spruit

This was around the time Spruit began sourcing out that single cup of seed, finding heritage varieties of grains, getting pseudo-grains like quinoa and amaranth from small seed companies or through connections she began to pursue with others interested in ancient grains.

What struck her was just how many varieties of wheat and barley were still to be found around the world.

“That was a real eye-opener to me,” she says.


EASTERN ONTARIO: Growing, packaging, processing, marketing ancient grains a winning strategy for Winchester farm

Farmers Forum – Oct 19, 2020 – By Connor Lynch

“It was my answer to Uncle Ben’s,” says Spruit. Now she gets asked to talk to farmers around the world on how to find new opportunities in old Courtesy Shelley Spruit

WINCHESTER — When bigger is seen as better, going against the grain to focus on locally-grown ancient grains might seem at best misguided.

But Against the Grains at Winchester has done just that and built a thriving business growing, processing, packaging and marketing ancient grains.
Shelley Spruit, who farms 250 acres with her husband Tony is a grain farmer but also a baker and a chef. They’ve been farming together for over three decades, getting their start in pig farming before transitioning to a crop farm. Spruit, who’s from what’s now Barrhaven in the Ottawa-area and is a trained chef, opened her own banquet hall, which she ran for 11 years.

About six years ago, after selling the banquet hall, Spruit started hearing about the gluten-free trend. It got her curious about grains other than your bog-standard corn or soybeans, and different species within those alternative grains as well. In a related way, local was becoming a buzzword. Spruit had been local before it was cool but as it started becoming a broader conversation she noticed something. “People were talking about local meat, veggies, but nobody (was) talking about local grains.”

It didn’t take long to grow a new business. “Three years ago, we had six products,” she said. “Now, altogether, we have 22 on our website.” The farm sells retail and wholesale, does some of its own processing, markets to chefs and restaurants (primarily in Toronto, anywhere from 20 to 25 pre-COVID-19) and even sells grain to other companies to use for their own private labels.

Pulling off an operation like this wasn’t for an inexperienced hobbyist. (“There’s a) huge amount of upfront cost for infrastructure. Grains have to be stored properly and mills are few and far between.” Some mills want as much as five tonnes at a time, she said, but the first crop of a heritage grain might only yield a half-tonne.

The business’ bread-and-butter has shifted gears with COVID-19. Before the pandemic, wholesalers and small manufacturers were their biggest buyers. Now it’s a lot more direct to consumer or closer-to, adding local grains to Community-Supported Agriculture produce boxes and introducing products to local stores looking for local products.

Spruit’s background with both farming and as a professional chef has helped her see both sides and speak both languages, a boon for a business rooted in farm country but marketing to cities.

The processing and value-added parts of the business are by far the most difficult, Spruit said. “There are very few options for milling, flaking, polishing, roasting, sprouting. So every step is like re-creating the wheel. We have to ship or have had to set up our own processing to make it financially feasible.”

Growing is the easy part, she said. “Getting the grains ready and in useable form for the client is the big challenge.”

The farm also participates in and advocates for participatory plant breeding, something Spruit herself is passionate about. She wrote a report for not-for-profit Nuffield Canada as part of its ag scholarship program earlier this year. A Nuffield scholar, Spruit argued that the on-farm breeding of grains, particularly ancient varieties such as hers, are a “highly relevant and necessity-driven response to weather challenges,” particularly in light of a changing climate, she argued in her report. “Given unpredictable weather patterns, self-replicating seed stock contributes to greater seed adaptability and plant resilience within the Canadian food system.”

It’s all part of making sure farms remain viable businesses for farmers, she said. “We do what we do because we feel that seed sovereignty, developing markets outside of commodities, is going to be important going forward. With what’s going on, it’s not good to have all your eggs in one basket.”