Urban Grains Update, August 10

August 10th, 2009 by Admin

The following letter was recently sent to all subscribers to the Urban Grains mailing list.

Hello local eaters,

Although our blog posts have largely replaced the monthly e-mail updates sent to shareholders and mailing list subscribers, we thought that a number of recent developments with the CSA warranted another e-mail update. Before I begin with the newsletter, however, I’d like to make an announcement regarding the future administration of Urban Grains.

Back in May, Ayla and I wrote of our visit to Halifax on the Urban Grains blog. One of the reasons for our visit was to explore the possibility of relocating there. After many months of consideration, we are now in the process of doing just that. At the time we first conceived of Urban Grains, the prospect of moving to Halifax was already on our minds, so we’ve gone to great lengths from the outset of the program to ensure that it will continue on without us. Not only have we worked to lay as much of a foundation for Urban Grains as possible prior to our departure, our partnership with Farm Folk / City Folk means that the resources, experience and expertise of their organization (well beyond anything that we can bring to the table) guarantees a future for the CSA.

When Urban Grains was still in its infancy last year, we were presented with two choices, neither of which were very palatable: 1) work to address a need for local grain in Vancouver knowing that, if something came of our efforts, we may have to leave it all behind or 2) simply do nothing. Given our shared passion for food and a concern for its many attendant issues (of which access to locally grown foods is certainly one), the latter option seemed unacceptable. While we’re sad to distance ourselves from a project which is only now beginning to realize its potential, we can at least rest easy knowing that Urban Grains will be left in good hands.

Ayla and I will, of course, remain involved with the CSA, albeit from a distance. Chris Hergesheimer, one of the organizing members of Urban Grains and the grain expert for Farm Folk / City Folk, will be assuming the role of program coordinator. He’ll be responsible for most CSA correspondence and administration in the future, so you can expect to be receiving e-mail updates and notifications from him from now on. Chris will also be running the blog and has just posted a personal introduction which you can read here.

We’ve encountered many obstacles in starting this program, some of which seemed insurmountable at the time, but we’ve managed to make-do nonetheless. Thank you so much for your support. The Urban Grains CSA is, by its very nature, a community effort and we wouldn’t have made it this far if it wasn’t for your tremendous interest and enthusiasm for the project. Here’s to a future of local grain come September.

Sincerely,
Martin + Ayla

Now, Back to Business…

The past six months have been truly amazing. What was only an idea in its early stages of conception late last year — creating the first CSA to provide local grain to people throughout Vancouver — is fast becoming a reality. If you’ve been following the updates on the Urban Grains blog, you’ll know that the grain at Cedar Isle has been progressing extremely well. While we have encountered some minor problems with rust on the winter wheat, it appears as though the great growing conditions we’ve experienced this season will more than make up for it. Of course, much work remains to be done (another month or so of growing, then harvesting, cleaning, shipping, milling and distribution) and many potential pitfalls abound (a poorly timed rain during harvest could be disastrous), but we’re finally beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Grain Cleaner

Each share this year came with a $10 equipment fee. Using this money, we were able to get a fantastic deal on a newly refurbished Kipp Kelly Dockage Tester from Manitoba. This small grain cleaner, while not entirely practical for cleaning enormous quantities of grain, cleans to a very high standard and helps us to overcome one of the main obstacles for local grain production in B.C. — a severe lack of infrastructure. If the grain harvested at Cedar Isle this summer is relatively free of weeds and other non-grain material, the cleaner may not actually be necessary in our first year of operation, but we can now rest easy knowing that cleaning quality will be less of a concern in the future. For pictures and video of the cleaner in action, go here.

Farm Visit

On July 19th, Urban Grains shareholders were given the opportunity to visit Cedar Isle Farm to see first-hand how their grain was progressing and picnic with their fellow CSA members. The weather was beautiful, there were hay-rides (always popular with both the young and old), a grain cleaning demonstration, lots of ice cream, and delectable blueberry tarts courtesy of Mary Mackay from Terra Breads. With nearly a hundred people in attendance, I’d say the event was a big success. Some pictures from the visit are available on the blog. I’d like to thank Jim, Diane, Hannah and Simon for making the event possible and for being such gracious hosts.

Distribution Date and Location

A number of you have contacted us to inquire when the grain will be ready for pickup. I realize that schedules are busy for many of us during the summer and a lack of certainty surrounding the grain pickup can be a major inconvenience. While I still can’t give you an exact date, I can say with relative certainty that the pickup time will be sometime in September, most likely in the first or second week. I just spoke with Jim today and he said that he is in the process of harvesting the winter wheat now and expects the rest of the grain to be ready in mid to late August, depending on the weather and the status of the grain.

As for the location, we’ve been speaking with the UBC Farm (located on campus at the University of British Columbia) and are trying to work out an arrangement whereby CSA members can drop by on certain dates to pickup their shares. Everything still remains to be finalized, but I’ll let you know as soon as more information becomes available.

Introducing Chris Hergesheimer

As I mentioned earlier, Chris will be taking over the operational and administrative side of things as program coordinator for the CSA. If you have any questions, or would simply like to say hi, you can contact him at the new Urban Grains administrative address, urbangrains@gmail.com.

That’s it for now. Make sure to check out the blog (http://www.urbangrains.ca/) for more up-to-date developments.

Cheers,

Martin + Ayla
Urban Grains

We’ve been wandering…

May 25th, 2009 by Admin

map

…far away on the other side of the continent. Martin and I were visiting Nova Scotia last week, and have just returned. Thanks for your patience as we catch up with emails, cheques in the mail, and messages on our answering machine.

We did manage to check out some pretty cool spots while we were there, despite being pretty wet for half of the week. Most notable in terms of grain relevance was the LaHave Bakery, in – where else – LaHave, Nova Scotia. Apparently this place is an institution, and it’s easy to tell why. We had a fantastic lunch there (I had a veggie pizza on doughy goodness; Martin, a veggie sandwich on slices of fresh-baked cracked wheat) and grabbed some photos to share. The “local flours” they mention on the sign are from Speerville Mills, a Maritime company that’s doing great things with local grains, and has a mission that fits so well with the Urban Grains philosophy:

Why? Because less than 1% of this area’s available cereals and flour products are actually grown and processed in this region. It is critical to promote a regional food system, while encouraging organic farming, and a nutritious food supply. Speerville Flour Mill has always been a strong supporter of organic agriculture. From working with farmers with production issues, to marketing the results of their efforts, Speerville Flour Mill strives to produce top quality products, as well as, supporting the local economy by helping build strong rural communities.”

We encountered Speerville products a number of times during the trip, and were very excited to discover that local flour was being used all over the Maritimes. We even managed to steal a few bags from our friend Shelby, who graciously hosted us at her home, which I will whip up into loaves sometime soon.

The photos below are all from LaHave Bakery, where we hope to end up again someday.

case-signThe dessert case. Yum.

weavingTapestry above the stairs.

flour-bagsThe raw ingredients.

bakery-signGood motto.

blowfishEven better mascot.

We’ve officially launched! And other exciting news…

April 20th, 2009 by Admin

Martin and Ayla speaking at the Weaving Chains event

Martin and Ayla speaking at the Weaving Chains event

On Friday evening Martin and I found ourselves dining on pizza and beer and talking about grain. Farm Folk / City Folk hosted the grain-centred “Weaving Chains” event, which brought together a number of local business people and innovators who work on the local grain issue, and at which we were invited to speak. We were privileged to be there alongside the likes of John McKenzie, from Anita’s Mill in Chilliwack, Robert Giardino of the Vancouver-based Heritage Grains Foundation, and our friend Chris Hergesheimer, an SFU masters student who focused his research on south-western BC’s grain community. In addition to dinner and presentations, Robert had a wide range of heritage grains to show off, as well as small mills; there were bike-powered milling demonstrations; and those who attended could buy some of Chris’ flour – some of the only local flour they’re likely to see until our CSA shares are delivered in the fall.

Robert Giardino shows off a home-scale flour mill

Robert Giardino shows off a home-scale flour mill

Chris's fresh, artisan flour, milled from Vancouver Island-grown wheat

Chris's fresh, artisan flour, milled from Vancouver Island-grown wheat

Sadly the light wasn’t too great, so our pictures from the event are rather poor (you’ll just have to take our word that it was a blast!) For everyone who came, thank you so much — we hope that you enjoyed it as much as we did.

In addition to the event re-cap, I need to tell you about a few more very exciting things:

  • The official launch of the Urban Grains CSA: we took advantage of our public platform at Friday’s event to officially announce the launch of the CSA. After many months of planning we are pleased to say that we will be sending out share offers to those signed up on our mailing list beginning this week. We will work through the list in order of sign up, until all 200 shares are taken. If you are on the list and are interested in purchasing a share, watch your inbox. The final reveal of purchasing details including price and amounts of each grain included will be posted here after our first offer has gone out.
  • Collaboration with Anita’s Mill: We are pleased to announce that Anita’s will be milling Jim’s wheat into flour after harvest time. Before this week we had yet to confirm that they were able to take “transitional” grain at their certified organic mill. It turns out that organic mills are able to process any type of grain – conventional, organic, biodynamic, whatever – as long as their equipment has been sufficiently cleaned before and after each use. On Friday we had the pleasure of meeting John McKenzie, the owner of Anita’s. He and his wife bought the business from Anita herself in 2005, and have since been learning the many ins and outs of running a mill. We were pleased to hear John express his excitement about his company’s role in our CSA.
  • We’re purchasing a grain cleaner: Jim got a lead on a high-quality, compact grain cleaning machine in Manitoba and made an offer to the owner. We were still working out how cleaning would happen, so we’re very excited by this find. In order to purchase the machine every share purchased this year will carry a $10 equipment fee. In this way, the CSA members will collectively raise the money for this expensive piece of equipment. It will be owned by Urban Grains and housed at Jim’s farm. We hope that by bringing it to our region more farmers will be able to have access to the machinery needed to explore grain production, thereby strengthening the local food system.

Urban Grains CSA: February Update

February 19th, 2009 by Martin

christopercombine

Much has happened since the last newsletter for our local grain project went out in January (you can sign up here) – we’ve moved in leaps and bounds, in fact. As many of you know, we held a meeting in December with a small group of farmers who are growing grain in the Delta region, primarily either as a cover crop or wildlife set-aside. Although the meeting was quite encouraging from the point of grain availability (there is no question, these farmers have grain for sale), we were confronted with two key hurdles: 1) our original vision of a CSA model, similar to the one in Creston and Nelson, would not work in Delta. It became clear that if we were to base the program in Delta, we would be forced to adopt a more conventional distributor role requiring significant start-up capital and a less direct consumer/producer connection; 2) the region was lacking the necessary infrastructure. Before grain can be milled, it has to be cleaned, and we were unable to find any individual or business nearby with the capacity to clean for human consumption.

Unsure where next to turn, we were contacted by a part-time farmer living in Agassiz, who is keen to become involved in the project. Jim Grieshaber-Otto, together with Diane Exley and their two children, manage a community-minded family farm that has been growing small amounts of grain for several decades. About 100 acres in size, Cedar Isle Farm partners with a neighbouring dairy farm to produce silage and hay (for both cows and horses), and pastures Angus beef cattle, layer hens, and free-range broiler chickens.The farm grows a few acres of grain each year – mostly oats and wheat – which is either used as animal feed or sold to friends and neighbors. This year the farm has three acres of fall-sown winter wheat and one acre of triticale (a cross between wheat and rye), and will soon be planting two acres of hard red spring (bread) wheat, for harvest this autumn. Jim estimates that, given a decent growing season and harvest conditions, they will have enough grain both for the CSA and for their own on-farm and local use. Although not certified, the farm has long operated under organic principles and is in the process of seeking certification.

Despite there still being some questions about infrastructure, our partnership with Cedar Isle Farm places us in a relatively strong position. The farm has a well-maintained 1958 combine (pictured in the attachment) and a functional, heritage (circa 1901!) fanning mill for cleaning grain. While the current cleaner should work in a pinch, we’re trying to track down a better piece of equipment, possibly paying for its purchase through funds raised in the first year of the CSA. We have spoken with the people at Anita’s Organic Grain and Flour Mill in nearby Chilliwack, and they appear willing to custom mill the relatively small quantity of grain we would need. We have also identified a small-carbon-footprint transportation and distribution option; an Agassiz-based delivery truck operator has agreed to add wheat and flour to his regular delivery trips into the Vancouver area.

That’s all to report for now. While we do have some other exciting plans to announce, they are all rather tentative, so you’ll have to wait until the next newsletter. We hope to be visiting Cedar Isle Farm sometime in March to check on the progress of the grain, and then determine the logistical details (price, size per membership, delivery schedule, etc.) for the CSA program. At that point, if all goes well, we will start accepting memberships.

Urban Grains Update – New Years Edition

January 8th, 2009 by Martin

deltabarley

photo by David Bradbeer (there are more great local grain photos in his flickr set)

We’re excited to be back from a nice holiday break, and to continue working on our Urban Grains project, aimed at providing Vancouverites with access to local grain. This update (also sent out as a newsletter to those on the mailing list) brings two pieces of news: a recap of the exploratory meeting we held in December with farmers from Delta and an update on our vision for the project.

First, a bit about the producer meeting (I am not able to cover all of the details in this limited space, so I will try to convey the overall atmosphere and outcomes.) With the generous assistance of David Bradbeer from the Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust, and the Canadian Wildlife Service who provided meeting space, we met face to face with four Delta-based farmers who are currently or have recently been growing grain. If you’ve met many farmers, you’ll know they can be real characters, and these were no exception. They threw plenty of questions at us, as well as twice as many answers to ours. The meeting was highly illuminating, and we walked away with a much better understanding of the situation these farmers are typically in.

What we learned: if you’re a farmer growing grain in the lower mainland, you’re probably not receiving much for your grain – it likely gets sold at a very low price as animal feed, considered to be of inconsistent quality when measured by the rigid standards of the Canadian Wheat Board. Most of these farmers grow grain not for the money, but because its incorporation into crop rotations is beneficial on their farms. Others are paid small stipends by the Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust to plant “wildlife set-asides”, areas intentionally left untouched for a season or two to provide key habitat for migratory bird species.

It appears to be the case, as we were told when we started talking about the local grain idea, that despite the unavailability of local grains on the market, quite a lot of it is grown within a 45 minute drive of our home. What is lacking, however, is a clearly articulated marketing and distribution system (which is where we believe Urban Grains can play a role.)

Overall, the farmers were definitely interested in the idea, if a little weary. Some even offered to sell us grain on the spot. Some skepticism was to be expected, as we were presenting life-long farmers with a novel approach to marketing something they are used to treating as animal feed. The possibility of increased income from a previously under-valued piece of their operation was clearly an enticing idea, however, and it seems clear that any of them would be willing to participate in some capacity.

After that meeting which loaded our minds with new information, we are now in a much better position to plan where to go from here. Now that we’ve made contact with a few keen farmers and know that we have access to local grains, our next step is to decide on the best organizational approach for distribution. A lot of details come along with that, including where we will get the grain milled, how to transport it, and how, when the day finally comes, physical distribution will work. A business plan will be developed in the next month or so, and we will be seeking start-up financial assistance from governmental and non-profit sources that support local agriculture and local economies. We remain committed to the idea of farmer-consumer connection, and hope to organize a field trip or two out to Delta for interested customers so that you can see for yourself the farms where your grain is growing.

Thank you all for following this process and for spreading the word. We are still collecting names for our mailing list, and are interested in hearing from you, too. Please feel free to contact us at martin@rocksandwater.ca with questions and comments.

We’re looking forward to a great 2009, and dreaming of tasty, local grains in the Fall.