Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Hestia Organics: Reconnecting Farming and Food

Kalissa Regier’s great great grandfather emigrated from West Prussia in the late 1800s and established a farm near Tiefengrund, a Mennonite settlement due north of Saskatoon. The family has farmed in this area ever since.

Kalissa didn’t originally plan to become a farmer. She moved to BC to study music, but part-time restaurant jobs led her to think more and more about food.

She realized that the grain and other crops grown on Saskatchewan farms were not simply commodities to be sold on the world market. Agriculture was all about feeding people nutritious food. As a farmer, she could play a key role in the world of food.

Shortening the Gap
Kalissa and her parents weren’t interested in industrial agriculture with its focus on exports of high output commodity crops that feed into a chain of large multinationals. Their goal was to maintain family farms, increase rural development, and protect the land. They began the transition to growing organically and started focussing on smaller-scale specialty crops.

The Regiers have 1,400 cultivated acres with 1,000 in production every year and 400 planted with green manure and resting. They are currently growing 10 different field crops, including wheat, barley, oats, rye, lentils, flax, and hemp seed.

Hestia Organics began selling its products at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market in December 2011. “I wanted to shorten the gap between the field and the consumer,” Kalissa explains. “I’m accountable for the product from the time the seed is planted in the spring to the time someone buys it and cooks it.”

What Are People Looking For? 
Personally selling the crops at the Farmers’ Market provides Kalissa with an opportunity to find out what products people are looking for and to adapt to what they want. The beluga lentils have proven to be extremely popular. Shaped like caviar, they look gourmet and hold their shape well when cooked.

Kalissa also has the time to talk to people about the different grains and to provide recipe suggestions. Wheat berry salad is one favourite.

Challenging Crops 
Some crops are more challenging to grow than others and this influences the family’s decisions. They are phasing out the golden flax as it’s a troublesome crop and difficult to clean. “Anyway, I love using brown flax in baking,” Kalissa says. “It adds lovely little brown specks.”

“Hemp can be a headache,” Kalissa says. “It’s difficult to grow organically as it grows really slowly and delicately at first. For the first six weeks, it has trouble competing with the weeds.”

In addition, hemp is a controlled substance and you need a license to sell the seeds. The simplest solution is to remove the outside shell, which isn’t digestible, and sell hemp hearts.

Hands On 
All the Hestia Organics products are weighed out individually and packaged by hand. It may sound time consuming, but it provides Kalissa with greater control and more options. At Christmas, she put together small gift packages with three different products and recipe cards.

“I’m challenged to help people see these products in a different way. They’re organic and they’re grown by someone you know,” Kalissa explains.

Vertical Integration
Kalissa believes that small-scale vertical integration, the merging of different businesses at different stages of production, can work well for small family businesses.

The Regiers are building a processing plant on the farm and setting up a stone mill so that they can sell stone-ground flour. Kalissa says that stone-ground flour has lots of advantages. “You can control particle size and produce really finely ground, soft flour using the entire grain. The industrial milling process removes the bran and germ from the flour to extend its shelf life – but that removes most of the nutrients.”

Kalissa is also looking for a flax mill so that Hestia Organics can sell freshly-milled flax seed.

One of her long-term plans is to purchase an expeller so that she can sell cold-pressed flax and hemp oil. “I really like hemp oil as a salad dressing,” Kalissa says.

Rural Infrastructure 
Purchasing proper grain-cleaning equipment is a significant investment. Fortunately, Kalissa has found a nearby business that can clean her grain for her. Unfortunately, very few small-scale processors remain on the Prairies. The hemp fibre could be put to good use if there was a nearby processor, but the cost of transportation makes it prohibitive.

The Next Generation 
Kalissa Regier is the former Youth President of the National Farmers’ Union. In 2010, she organized the Campaign for New Farmers, a national campaign focused on raising awareness of the rapidly declining number of farmers in Canada and on developing government policy and educational opportunities to better support young and beginning farmers.

Kalissa currently represents young farmers at the United Nations Committee on World Food Security.

Photo: The recipe for Morpheus Medley, a lentil-barley salad, is one of several tasty recipes on the Hestia Organics website.

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