Everything’s coming up oats: grow, eat, sell

Field to spoon | Adagio Acres grows organic naked oats and sells the product in Winnipeg and area grocery stores

LUNDAR, Man. — His children are only two and five years old, but Donald Nikkel already knows how his kids will remember their childhood.

Oats, oats, oats and more oats.

Donald, his wife Amy and their two kids, Alexis, 5, and Eli, 2, eat more servings of oats than the average Canadian family.

Regardless of the meal or time of day, it’s a safe bet the Nikkels, who farm near Lundar, Man., are consuming oats in some form.

“If you came here for breakfast, it would be oats. If you came here for lunch, it would be oats,” Donald said with a laugh as he stabbed a forkful of oat and apple crumble for dessert on a cool evening in early June.

As Eli sat in a high chair and asked for more dessert, his parents ex-plained how they wound up growing organic oats in Manitoba’s Interlake region.

Donald grew up on his parents’ farm, which is located right across the road from his new home, with his four siblings. His parents, Norman and Solange, have operated a prenant mare’s urine ranch for years. Donald en-joyed his childhood on the farm, but he didn’t know at an early age that he wanted to become a farmer.

“If you asked me when I was 18, ‘what do you want to do with your life,’ I wouldn’t have said move back to Lundar,” he said.

“But things evolve. As you grow and gain experiences, your perspective on the world changes.”

Donald met Amy, who grew up near Kenora, Ont., at a summer camp during high school. The two moved to Winnipeg after graduation and studied education at the University of Winnipeg. Then they moved to Montreal, where Donald earned a master’s degree in education and Amy worked as a teacher.

During their time there, they be-gan to think about local food and farming.

“Just seeing how distanced people are from their food production and just wanting to be part of the local food system,” Amy said.

“(We) saw examples of that (local food movement) happening in Montreal. We were fascinated by how that changed the consumer experience.”

Amy and Donald, who also studied and taught in Istanbul and Athens, enjoyed city life, but knew it wasn’t right for them in the long term.

“Having lived in all these urban centres and experienced so many different ways of life, we kind of said… we want to come back to something a little more stable, more grounded,” Amy said.

As a student, Donald spent a substantial amount of time in Montreal thinking about the purpose of life and how to live. He realized farm and city life can both be hectic, but it’s not quite the same.

“There’s a difference between farm busy and other busy. In other professions you might be… gone from home 10 hours a day,” he said.

“One of the nice things about farming, even if you’re working 18 hours a day, at least you’re doing it together.”

Amy agreed, adding Montreal was great but there was a clear distinction between career and family life.

“It was very distant from each other. Me making decisions about my teaching… and Donald making decisions about his thesis.”

Wanting to work together on a family endeavour, the Nikkels decided to move back to Manitoba and start a small farm.

Since returning to Lundar about five years ago, the Nikkels have been busy. Amy has given birth to two children, Donald teaches industrial arts at the high school in Lundar and they spent a year building a timber-framed home out of Douglas Fir logs from British Columbia.

“She (Alexis) was two weeks old when we started,” Amy said.

“Her stroller was right beside the pile of logs as Donald was chain-sawing all the trees away from the house site.”

They also found time to grow four crops of oats and build and operate a mill to process, roll and bag them on their farm. They now sell organic rolled oats to specialty grocery stores in Winnipeg. Their oats, sold in two lb. bags, are distinct from conventional oatmeal because the Nikkels grow and sell naked oats.

“A naked oat is a different type of oat. It threshes free of the hull in the field,” Amy said. “It has a different nutritional profile…. One of the advantages is that it doesn’t need to be steam processed.”

Naked oats can be cold-rolled without a heat treatment, resulting in a raw, more natural product.

“If you’re milling a product, you have to get rid of that hull anyway,” Amy said. “So it’s convenient that the hull threshes off in the combine and falls back on the field.”

Scott Sigvaldason, a farmer and entrepreneur from Arborg, Man., has spent years promoting naked oats as a healthy, Canadian grown alternative to rice.

Donald said their naked oats are consumed just like regular oats and are used for oatmeal and baking.

“We’re just doing rolled oats. We’re looking at the oatmeal crowd,” he said.

Since the Nikkels took their first bag of naked oats to a store about a year ago, retailers have latched onto the product. They now sell naked oats in about 15 to 20 grocery stores in Winnipeg and bedroom communities around the city.

Despite their success, Donald said their farm isn’t anything to brag about.

“As far as a farm goes, we’re not much of a farm,” he said, noting they own 80 acres and also rent land.

“We’re kind of taking over the cropping aspect of my dad’s operation… (but) we have no intention of becoming the next Quaker Oats. We realize what we do is a niche market and we’re happy with that.”

The Nikkels’ farm, Adagio Acres, is named after a musical term for a slow, relaxed tempo, although Amy said they haven’t quite achieved a slow pace for their lives. Growing and marketing oats, operating a mill, raising two children and teaching full-time occupies their time.

Over the last four years, Amy has discovered 101 ways to prepare oatmeal.

“How about banana and chocolate chip in your oatmeal? How about carrots and crystallized ginger in your porridge?” she said. “It’s never quite the same here.”

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