Health issue forcing switch to niche crops reaps rewards

LACOMBE, Alta. — A diagnosis of severe gluten intolerance in 2003 forced central Alberta grain farmers to make some radical changes in their farming operation.

Kevin Lundie and his wife, June, and son, Kole, 21, no longer grow gluten based crops on their 500 acre farm.

“My family physician said I shouldn’t even be exposed to the (grain) dust,” said Kevin.

This spring, they planted canola, flax, peas and canaryseed.

“None of these crops had ever been planted on our farm. It’s been a horrendous learning curve,” said Kevin.

“Specialty crops require different treatments, different nutrients,” said Kole.

He said half of the seed is purchased in Saskatchewan because it’s not available in Alberta.

“People share what works and what doesn’t. Then we modify for our own needs and abilities,” said Kole, who spends hours researching online and talking to people by phone.

Kevin, June and Kole Lundie switched to growing specialty crops from conventional ones. | Maria Johnson photo

The Lundies employ minimum till strategies to reduce their carbon footprint and trade land with a nearby seed potato farmer who employs a four-year rotation.

“Potatoes put a lot of nutrients into the soil,” said Kole.

The family has not yet been affected by Alberta’s recent heat wave.

“We’re in good shape so far. Nothing is suffering yet,” said Kevin.

While their markets are more limited than with traditional cereal crops, the Lundies use a grain marketer and secure sales themselves.

“We are working in a niche market. We can stay small and be successful,” said Kevin, noting land is expensive and not readily available.

June, a city girl turned farm wife, compared her life to socialite Lisa Douglas’s from the 1960s TV sitcom Green Acres.

The men manage the fieldwork while June, unlike Douglas, is a master in the kitchen. Her culinary expertise elevated her to the top 40 nationwide on CBC’s Recipe To Riches in 2013.

June said cooking without gluten is challenging.

“It’s hidden in so many things. I can’t just walk up and down the aisle in the grocery store. I have to stop and read the list of ingredients,” she said.

Kole is the fourth generation of Lundies to farm the gently rolling parkland situated between the Rocky Mountain foothills to the west and flatter prairie to the east.

His great-grandfather, John Lundie, acquired the property through the Soldier’s Settlement Board, which assisted returned soldiers to set up farms.

Grandfather Richard and a great uncle took over the farm, which eventually passed to Kevin and June.

Kevin’s parents, Richard and Peggy, saw the farm as a lot of hard work and unpredictability with little return and discouraged Kevin and June from farming.

The land was rented out for a period of time but they reconsidered a couple of years after Kole’s birth in 1996.

June attributes this to Kole’s love of farming.

“He was born with it. It’s all he talks about 24-7,” she said.

All three work off farm. Kevin does road and rig construction in the Alberta oil patch, where he has seen a welcome increase in activity over the past year.

June recently purchased and manages a Lacombe art gallery and framing studio while Kole works in the aviation industry.

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