What is Regenerative, Organic Grain?

Updated: Feb 4, 2021

I get this question all the time, usually in a confused, tired, and increasingly bored tone. It is often followed with the skepticism-laced comment, ‘Like, what does that even mean?’

Consumers are getting fatigued with carrying the burden of understanding and, worse yet, validating the myriad natural food label claims found in grocery stores and specialty markets these days. When we ‘vote with our dollars for a better food system’, it would be nice to know that it is working to transfer a monetary incentive to the types of supply chain participants that share our values.

Hence the popularity of farmer’s markets. You can buy your food right from a farmer, crafter, or baker, and ask the question directly as to how it was made. Usually there is a story and a conversation that makes the purchase even more valuable in the eyes of the customer. This is how people pay for ‘experience’ and it’s considered one of the gold standards in modern food marketing strategies.

I had the great fortune recently of an even more exciting ‘food buying experience,’ on two of Manitoba’s leading organic grain farms. Amy Nikkel and Dan DeRuyck farm grain, mill it, package it, ship it and market it themselves, to a range of retail, restaurants, and household customers across Manitoba.

Now, readers who don’t know me need to understand that in my 25-year career in Canada’s commodity grain business, I visited quite a few flour mills. I may have even toured all the major oat mills in this country. And if you’re a fan of big and cheap food, most of those are stunning manufacturing plants.

The setup at Amy’s farm, Adagio Acres, is striking in its resemblance to a commercial mill. All the same equipment, cleaning standards and food handling processes are in place, only on an exceedingly small scale. That is because ‘naked oats’ is a relatively new ingredient in the pantry section, and most people don’t know the difference between it and porridge made from regular oats.

Taste is the biggest difference by far. I decided last week that we’re never going back to regular rice after trying Adagio’s Naked and Wild rice-oat blend. Another thing you get with that wholesome, nutty, complex taste is nutrient density. And, I will argue here, there are additional benefits to eating these foods that accrue to our precious natural environment.

Amy explained to me how the "naked" oat variety differs from conventional "hulled" oats. When a naked oat is being harvested, the grain is easily knocked loose from the hull, and the hulls and straw are spread back onto the field. Conventional 'hulled' oats retain their hull at harvest, which is fine when the grain is fed to livestock, but as humans lack the ability to digest hulls, oat mills are left with the task of steaming the grain multiple times to remove the hulls. In addition to removing a lot of the grain’s natural flavor and nutrition, the steaming component of the commercial milling process requires significant amounts of heat- energy that Adagio Acre’s mill does not.

Over at DeRuyck Top of the Hill Farm, Fran DeRuyck spends long days pouring wheat, rye and spelt through another tiny-yet-commercially-viable mill, to create a range of organic whole-grain flours. These too are incredibly flavorful com-pared to big-brand commercial flours – we can even taste the difference in home-baked muffins and cookies. I think this is because mainstream, cheap flour has had all the grainy-ness pounded out of it, before being shipped incredibly long distances, and stored in wholesale warehouses for who-knows-how long. Artisanal bakers insist on fresh-ly-milled flour because once the coat is cracked open, grain starts to oxidize, i.e. spoil, like when you cut open an apple.

Dan has built a highly efficient commercial cleaning plant on another yard, where he processes both his and his neighbor’s organic grains. This provides a valuable service to the small community of Manitoba’s organic grain farmers. They often ship organic grain that contains a lot of ‘dockage’ or waste material to places like Montreal, British Columbia, California and overseas.

Top of the Hill Farm is situated on the escarpment south of Treherne. Dan has cattle on the land, that he also markets himself after having it killed, cut, frozen and packed by the local butcher. There is a family of elk that live in the forest that borders on the land that he farms. He under-seeds the organic wheat fields to clover, which fixes atmospheric nitrogen and deposits it naturally back in the soil. The increased population and mix of phenotypes between the two different plants in the field creates a resilient stand against weeds and diseases.

If you’ve read this far, and still care to continue, you must be like me and fascinated with innovations farmers are deploying to work with Mother Nature to produce the finest foods. I also adhere to the belief that ‘farming’ means to raise food and sell it to people, which some of my old commodity friends might take issue with, which is fine, but important to point out here for a couple of reasons. Firstly, we’re exploring ways to monetize ecosystems services in food markets, and secondly how to account for unpriced externalities in the commodity supply chain. Conscious consumers flock to farmers markets and certified organic retail brands in support of natural food systems, but regeneration is different.

Both Top of the Hill and Adagio Acres are certified organic and audited to ensure practices adhere to the national organic standard established for Canada’s food system, which basically means no chemical fertilizers or pesticides. ‘Regenerative agriculture’ means something a lot more complicated, making it tricky to apply. It’s a set of principles that practitioners implement to support species diversity, ground cover, soil biology, grazing, and other largely unquantifiable outcomes.

The organization leading the conversation nationally about regenerative agriculture is Montreal-based Regeneration Canada, whose mission statement includes ‘cooling the planet’. They make this bold statement because leading global climate scientists and soil scientists alike understand there is a strong connection between ground cover and the cycling of atmospheric carbon thanks to the work of plants, roots, soil biology, insects, birds, trees and wildlife.

It is admittedly premature to claim that the two Manitoba farms/mills/food brands that I visited are solving the climate crisis. There still is no agreed upon standard to prove regen-erative agriculture is happening or working to achieve desired outcomes. But that need not slow anyone down from simply buying more of these brands and less of the others based on wellness attributes, both for the eater and the environment.

On top of the taste and health benefits, buying these two brands really does help the planet.

To sum up:

- The distance from farm to plate on Adagio Acres and Top of the Hill pantry products are, on average, 2-4 hours total, from the field, through the mill, and into the cities.

- Their cleaning and milling processes are designed and mechanized to use a minimum amount of energy.

- The farmers care for forests on their property and consider them crucial ecosystem that are theirs to maintain for the benefits of natural capital on their farmland, for wildlife, family recreation, and future generations.

- Their land rotations ensure no deterioration of soil organic matter, which can be considered a proxy for its ability to hold carbon.

- No commercial fertilizers mean no nitrous oxide emissions came from these farm businesses.

Stay tuned to this blog as we continue providing public awareness about the booming regenerative agriculture movement, how food choices influence agricultural systems, and opportunities for new local economies.

Next up, I will be profiling producers of juices and snack foods that have had similarly amazing impacts in their communities and customer groups. Go to https://www.prairieroutes.com/meet-the-farmers for a list of our current vendors.

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