Farm family follows their own unique beat

Eli, Amy, Alexis, Mowat and Donald Nikkel on their organic farm near Lundar, Man. | Supplied photo

On the Farm The Nikkels concentrate on oats, selling rolled and steel-cut products in health and grocery stores

Amy and Donald Nikkel chose to call their 80-acre farm in Manitoba’s Interlake region Adagio Acres to highlight their goal of producing food at a slower tempo.

Amy said they achieve this by combining farming with a commitment to family life, their surrounding community and the larger community of Manitoba organic growers.

The Nikkels are concerned with more than making a profit from their crops. They want to help other small-scale organic farmers find a market for their grains and pulses and bring farmers and consumers closer together.

“It might mean re-evaluating normal, and creating a community of eaters and land stewards that are committed to putting the health of the land before everything else,” they say on their Adagio Acres website.

The couple farms with their children — Alexis, Eli and Mowat — on land close to home for Donald. He grew up on his family’s horse ranch across the road from Adagio Acres near Lundar.

“He grew up with agriculture all around him,” Amy said, adding this wasn’t the case for her.

She grew up in Kenora, Ont., a lakeside community close to the Manitoba-Ontario border.

“Agriculture was foreign to me.”

She and Donald met in Montreal where she was teaching and he was pursuing a masters degree in philosophy. After marrying, they decided to return to rural Manitoba because they wanted their children to enjoy the same kind of childhood as Donald and his family experienced.

Amy said that while living in Montreal she and Donald discovered how valuable a direct connection between primary food producers and consumers can be. They found that some bakers promoted products made from locally sourced grains.

“It was an eye-opener.”

They were impressed enough with the idea of being able to grow, process and sell a crop that they toured small mills in Eastern Canada. Amy said they saw naked (hulless) oats being processed on a small-scale and the concept appealed to them.

Donald’s involvement in his parents’ horse ranch made him aware that oat production is possible on the Interlake region’s stony soil. Another reason for naked oats’ appeal is that they can be milled without requiring heat for steaming, which cuts the cost while producing a healthy product.

“The grain itself is close to living, raw oats,” Amy said. They usually grow AC Gwen and Turcotte varieties.

They moved to the farm property in 2009 but spent the next three years building a house and mill and preparing some of their land for cultivation while working full-time as teachers.

Amy said their land was affected by flooding in 2010 and 2011, but they managed to mill their first oat crop in 2012.

The Nikkels are committed to maintaining biodiversity so some of their land is covered in marsh land and trees, providing natural habitat for coyotes, deer, elk, waterfowl and other creatures.

Amy has taken over primary responsibility for the milling operation because Donald is now a school division superintendent. She said that oats provide a safe and healthy option for people who have celiac disease or are gluten-intolerant.

Adagio Acres’ fields haven’t been used to grow wheat, rye, barley or any related grain species for at least 10 years, and by cleaning and milling oats on a small scale, she’s able to produce a product that is virtually gluten-free.

“We test our oats for gluten contamination after harvest and again after milling.”

The Health Canada guidelines for gluten-free oat products is under 20 parts per million and Adagio Acres’ milled oats are under 10 p.p.m.

Currently, half the oats the Nikkels mill annually are grown on their farm with the other half coming from organic farmers across Manitoba. Their rolled and steel-cut oats have been sold in Manitoba health food and grocery stores under the Naked Oats brand since 2013.

They also sell an oat-rice mix and another mix that contains blueberries.

The retail packages hold 900 grams but the Nikkels typically sell nine kilogram bags of oats to Winnipeg restaurants for use in granola and oatmeal.

Amy said, with restaurant closures due to pandemic restrictions, this market segment has been reduced. “We’ve seen an increase in retail sales but we lost our big customers.”

This month, the Nikkels are taking a new venture to market — bagged grains and pulses sold under the Manitoba Rotations label.

Amy said the first two products being launched are pinto beans grown by Brian Unrau on his organic farm near MacGregor, Man., and black “beluga” lentils grown by Grant Rigby of Rigby Orchard Farm in Manitoba’s Turtle Mountain area.

Eli Nikkel holds bags of the first two Manitoba Rotations pulses that the farm is introducing to Manitoba retailers this summer. | Supplied photo

These products will be followed by others as the year goes on, but all grains and pulses will be from Manitoba organic farms. A QR code on the back of each package will provide recipes and cooking instructions.

Amy said the idea for Manitoba Rotations arose from the winter grain community-shared agriculture (CSA) initiative that she and Donald ran for the past three years. Inspired to form a community of Manitoba organic farmers who needed a way to sell small quantities of grains and pulses, she began contacting farmers and offering to clean and help market their crops.

“We want to support small-scale farmers,” she said. “Farmers usually need a full semi-truck load (about 40,000 pounds) before a grain buyer will even bother looking at it, so if a farmer harvests a smaller quantity there’s often nowhere for it to go.”

She added that these small amounts of grains and pulses would normally be used for animal feed. To try to reduce on-farm food waste, the Nikkels began taking between 15 and 20 different types of crops for cleaning, then marketed them through the winter grain CSA. Customers brought their reusable pails and jars to pick up a small quantity of each product. The 2020 grain bundle included black beans and soybeans, desi chickpeas, french and black lentils, yellow peas, quinoa, oats, wild rice, clover seed, corn grits, flax, lamb’s-quarter, emmer and spelt flour, and sunflower and camelina oils.

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