On-farm millers prefer safe, steady growth

TREHERNE, Man. — The flour mill on Fran DeRuyck’s farm looks more like a hospital operating room with its pristine white walls, gleaming stainless-steel equipment and institutional flooring.

Completing the hygienic picture, DeRuyck wore white pants and donned a white mask as she poured flour into a 50-pound bag inside the garage-sized mill.

The bag will be trucked to customers in Winnipeg who have developed an appetite for DeRuyck’s line of organic flour and grain, which is sold to bakeries and retailers in Manitoba, Ontario and British Columbia.

Fran, her husband, Dan, and his parents, Gerry and Marie, have been growing organic grain and milling wheat, oats, spelt and rye for more than a decade near Treherne. They also clean and process buckwheat and flax and sunflowers.

The DeRuycks have cultivated a base of loyal customers by tapping into demand for organic food, but they have a marketing card that trumps organic: they are local.

“You can buy President’s Choice organic, but what does that mean?” Dan said. “There’s no connection (to a farm).”

In comparison, the DeRuyck name on a five lb. bag of flour provides customers with a narrative.

“There’s a story behind it (the grain),” Dan said. “We try and meet (customers) as much as we can.”

He said people recognize their truck when they drop flour off at the Tall Grass Prairie bakery in Winnipeg.

“They see our name on the truck … and they say thank you,” he said.

“I think that’s the best part of the job … just to talk to people.”

Dan laughed when he was asked if they have a marketing campaign to promote their brand.

“We’re very low key. We don’t advertise. We’re busy enough as it is.”

Laura Telford, a Manitoba Agriculture business development specialist for organic marketing, said organic and local is a powerful trend.

“There are organic associations in different parts of the country who are really pushing that message,” she said.

For example, Foodland Ontario, a local food initiative, now has a Foodland Ontario organic brand.

“Different provinces are really capitalizing on this.”

Sitting at their kitchen table as wind whipped snow across the farmyard in late January, Dan explained how he became an organic farmer, processor and marketer.

He left the family farm near Treherne in the 1980s to become a mechanic in Brandon. While there he met Fran, who was raised on a farm near Baldur, Man.

After living in Brandon and working nine to five jobs, they decided to try farming in 1988. They rented land for several years and then bought a quarter section south of Treherne, close to the farm where Dan grew up.

Dan operated a mixed farm with pigs, cattle and grain with his parents for nearly a decade, but in the early 2000s his father switched to organic production.

“The scale of our farm wasn’t that big. We were doing about 1,500 acres,” Dan said.

“The margins were just too tight…. (So) Dad tried a little 20 acre field (of organic wheat), harvested it, cleaned it and took his bag of wheat to a couple of bakeries…. That’s basically how it all started.”

A year or two later, Gerry built the small mill inside a garage next to his farmhouse, and by 2004 he couldn’t grow enough to satisfy demand in Manitoba.

Dan and Fran responded by converting their farm to organic.

“By 2006, we had our first organic crop,” Dan said. “Eventually we ended up selling everything we (grew), plus Dad’s, and now we’re getting other farmers to grow for us too…. We clean it and process it and make it into flours or flakes, or whatever the bakeries want.”

The DeRuycks now farm 700 acres and also run a small herd of grass fed cattle. They contract neighbours to grow organic grains and oilseeds, which are sold under the DeRuyck family brand.

Fran said the switch to organic was an economic decision because conventional farming was a financial struggle.

“I was having to work out,” said Fran, who was employed as a teaching assistant but now operates the farm’s oat roller and flour mill.

“(Now) I’m the milling queen,” she said with a chuckle.

Dan said organic wasn’t a difficult choice because he disliked pesticides.

“I just hated spraying, with a passion. I could find any (reason) to get out of it,” he said.

“I never felt well when I sprayed.”

The DeRuycks are now at the “what now” stage of business development.

Their four children have left the farm, so Dan and Fran have more time to dedicate to the enterprise.

“That’s the million dollar question. How big do we want to get?” Dan said.

Rather than increase their acres under organic production, they’ve decided to process more grain and oilseed. Fran said organic processing is a missing link in Manitoba’s supply chain.

“The farmers, they want to farm. They don’t want to be marketing, they don’t want to be processing and they don’t want to deal with the people,” she said. “That’s what we do.”

The DeRuycks are filling the gap by expanding the processing plant. Machines now clean, de-hull, sort and package grain, but Dan wants to triple capacity and develop a grain flow system to handle more product.

“The markets are coming to the point that we need something … more efficient to meet the (demand),” he said.

He sees opportunities in Manitoba and overseas.

“I think Europe is going to be coming on stronger in the next few years.”

Telford said the DeRuycks’ “do it yourself” model, in which they process and market their own line of products on the farm, may become a dominant trend in organic and conventional agriculture.

“They’re at the leading edge of the curve … taking advantage of this growing local food movement … doing the value-added at home, even for something like grains (that) we traditionally just export,” she said.

They may be innovators, but Dan and Fran are also cautious prairie folks. They intend to expand at a safe and steady pace.

“We like to walk slowly and play it year by year,” Fran said, adding they aren’t locked into a 10-year business plan.

“It’s PC around here: plans change.”

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