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Growing against the grain Add to ...

Last summer, Matt Lowe looked at his daily bread and realized there was something wrong.

The Nelson resident and West Kootenay Eco Society member had signed up for a city challenge to eat local for the entire month of August. It was going pretty well until Mr. Lowe noticed there was no grain produced within the requisite 100 miles.

Grain silos in the area sit unused, relics of a local agronomy supplanted by the push to centralize Canada's grain production in the Prairies.

Mr. Lowe decided it was time to bring these crops back to the region.

"I thought about it," Mr. Lowe recalls, "and realized that if we could re-establish grain growing in the area, we could dramatically reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. Grain is a staple - we eat a lot of it. If we had our own supply it would automatically address issues around climate change, peak oil and food security for us."

Though Nelson's mountainous topography is not an obvious place to grow grain, Mr. Lowe was aware that the nearby Creston Valley was historically a very fertile area. About 75 miles (120 kilometres) from Nelson, on the other side of the Selkirk Mountains, the valley is the region's largest growing area.

When he called a meeting in December, he discovered he wasn't alone in his concern. Suddenly he had farmers, millers and bakers all champing at the bit to get their hands on a local product - as well as a long line of potential customers.

"The biggest surprise was the response from the farmers," he says. "They said, 'Get us a hundred names and we'll grow the crops.' "

It was decided the project would take the form of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) to insulate the farmers from any income shortfall due to poor yield. The farmers would be paid for the seed up front, and 200 shares in the project would be sold at $100 each. Shareholders would be able to visit the farms and be available to help if needed. If all went well, each shareholder would receive 100 pounds of grain. About half the shares were sold when the project was confirmed last month, and the rest have been selling steadily, with only 25 still available.

Nelson residents Gusti Callis and his wife, Lisa, were quick to put their money down, even though neither is a big grain eater. "We see this as the way to deal with rising food prices and how to reduce our carbon footprint," said Mr. Callis. "The more successful this project, the more farmers will want to get involved, and the Kootenays will be in a position to start meeting the food needs of its own people."

Deciding what grain to grow was a lengthy process. Four months were spent researching suitable crops and establishing connections with seed suppliers. The three farmers interested in taking part in the pilot project were not certified organic, although they had untainted land and were happy to farm the crops without the use of pesticides or other chemicals. Organic certification, however, is costly, so it was agreed they would grow naturally and not worry about an official stamp. In April, the decision was finally made to go with five different grains: three wheats, spelt and oats.

One farmer had already successfully grown hard spring wheat, and a local bakery had been impressed with the taste. An ancient grain called Polish wheat (also known as Kamut) was picked because many people with wheat allergies are able to eat it. The third wheat, Red Fife, was on the radar locally, following a radio interview with Vancouver Island's Sharon Rempel, an expert on heritage wheat.

Red Fife, Canada's oldest wheat, originated in Ukraine in 1860; until 1900, it was Canada's only wheat. A landrace grain, it is genetically diverse and adaptable to different growing conditions. Just like grapes grown for wine, the wheat develops a distinctive terroir depending on the nature of the soil and environment in which it is grown.

"As soon as we told the farmers about it, they all wanted to grow it," says Mr. Lowe. "We are only planting 15 acres of grain all told this year, and even the farmer not designated for Red Fife has decided to grow some anyway, just out of interest."

The seed was planted from late April to early May and harvest is expected in September, with shareholders receiving their 100 pounds in October.

Ms. Rempel has seen a huge increase in interest in heritage grains in recent years with similar projects in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia. In 2006, more than 200 tons of Red Fife seed were harvested from coast to coast on farms in Canada. Last fall, Ms. Rempel organized Canada's first Bread and Wheat Festival, on Vancouver Island with eight local bakers providing Red Fife bread to more than 900 attendees.

People, she says, are no longer prepared simply to accept the food that's on the supermarket shelves.

"It's important that people can source an identified grain from a particular producer in order to trust what they are eating" she explains. "We're developing a parallel universe to commercial agribusiness, where communities are reclaiming their food and growing it in a closed loop that cuts out middlemen, corporations and government. And I say, 'Bravo.' "

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