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 growth.photo: 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.