Prairie Magic in a Bottle

Originally published in Canola Digest – November 1, 2018 


Six Manitoba canola growers are bottling and marketing cold-pressed canola oils with flavour characteristics unique to their own farms. Described as ‘Prairie magic in a bottle’, the oils are a locally-grown alternative to imported extra-virgin olive oils.

Bruce Dalgarno, who farms at Newdale, admits the past year and a half since the growers joined forces to form CanFarm Foods Ltd. has been anything but easy, but he and the other farmers are extremely proud of the work they have done.

“When you tell people the canola from your farm is in that bottle, you can see their surprise,” says Keenan Wiebe, another partner. “They don’t get to meet the farmer behind the product that often.”

Cold-pressed canola oil comes from mechanically pressing and grinding the seed at a slow speed with temperatures not exceeding 60°C. While the process means less oil is extracted, the end product is extremely unique.

The terroir — a combination of geography, geology and climate — gives each region’s oil distinct differences in colour, flavour and even nutritional profile. Described as earthy, grassy and nutty, these distinct vintages are perfect for adding flavour to bread dips, salad dressings and marinades or drizzling over a variety of foods as a finishing oil.

As a premium, specialty product, a 250ml bottle retails at $10 — about 20 times the price of conventional canola oil. CanFarm Foods produces three cold-pressed oils — Northern Lights, Heartland and Big Prairie Sky — from the Interlake, Pembina Valley and Parkland regions of Manitoba.

As developing new markets is one of MCGA’s goals, the organization launched a research project in 2014. The Manitoba Agri-Health Research Network (MAHRN) studied virgin, cold-pressed canola oil, meal and co-products from processing. Growing Forward II provided $396,000 funding and MCGA contributed $10,000. The concept of this value-added oil began with Ellen Pruden, education and promotions manager with the Manitoba Canola Growers Association (MCGA). She noticed slight taste differences in conventional canola oil, was aware of terroir in other foods and beverages and knew there was a growing consumer interest in cold-pressed oils.

The research confirmed terroir did exist in canola. The Food Development Centre in Portage la Prairie provided guidance in getting the product ready for retail and food service testing. Consumers, chefs and culinary professionals approved. The stage was set to fill a niche market.

MCGA put out a call for members interested in the commercialization of these new oils. Seventeen farmers initially expressed interest, but in the end it was Brian Chorney and son-in-law Kyle Norquay from Selkirk, Bruce Dalgarno from Newdale, David Reykdal and daughter Rebecca from Winnipeg Beach and Keenan Wiebe from Starbuck who incorporated CanFarm Foods in July 2017. Each stakeholder contributed $10,000 to get the company off the ground.

Dalgarno acknowledges getting the oil from farm gate to market has been slow and frustrating. The paperwork and legalities were easy. The challenges included sourcing reasonably priced packaging to improve margins, obtaining accurate nutritional analysis, development of new labels, marketing, shipping costs, working with facilities to crush and bottle the oil, and maintaining consistency in the amount of oil per bushel crushed.

Yet despite obstacles and set-backs, the partners are anxious to move ahead. Economic benefits will depend on how the company fares. But those involved speak more passionately about the opportunity to connect directly with consumers and share their farm story.

“I believe our long-term sustainability goals and the way we work our land means a lot to people who are concerned about where their food comes from,” Chorney says.

“I think as a farmer we need to be more involved,” Dalgarno adds. “The consumer is looking for info on how their food is produced. It is all about education, and it goes both ways. We can also try to understand what the consumer wants and is looking for.”

Sales to date have been mostly consumer-driven through retail outlets in Winnipeg and rural Manitoba. A few chefs are using the product, including Kyle Lew of Chew restaurant in Winnipeg.

“We’ve used it for a ton of different dishes in the past few years,” Lew says. “In a similar fashion to wine, the different types really reflect the terroir that they are grown in. I don’t really have a favourite (flavour). The oil itself is my favourite.”

Erin MacGregor, self-proclaimed food fanatic, registered dietitian and home economist from Toronto, is also a fan. “I’ve used them exclusively for drizzling over salads and cooked veggies for fresh grassy flavour.”

Online sales have seen the product shipped to Toronto, Vancouver and even New York.

Media coverage in the Toronto Star, Chatelaine, Canadian Living and Manitoba Co-operator has been beneficial. Last fall, Dalgarno took Big Prairie Sky oil to the Great Manitoba Food Fight, a competition featuring Manitoba entrepreneurs who have developed, but not fully commercialized, new and innovative food or alcoholic beverage products. While it didn’t win, he says the experience was phenomenal with valuable connections made in the food industry.

The local, authentic food movement is strong and growing – and with it, the potential for increased sales. As an example, CanFarm’s oils were purchased by a company this spring for a customer-giveaway. Made-in-Manitoba gift baskets and food box subscription services offer alternatives to direct retail sales.

Small-scale food processing may be challenging, but determination and resourcefulness is nothing new to farmers. CanFarm’s unique local oils give its partners a good opportunity to connect with their customers. “Usually, the seed would get hauled away as a bulk commodity and we would never get to be part of the equation,” said Reykdal. “I’m interested in making that connection — directly from the farm to the plate.”

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Easy Cheesy Baked Cauliflower

Currently cauliflower is abundant, affordable and fresh from the field thanks to our amazing local vegetable producers! A friend gave me this recipe years ago and it has since become a family favourite.  A perfect dish for potlucks as it can be put together a day ahead and kept in the fridge until ready to bake.  

Easy Cheesy Baked Cauliflower

Ingredients:

  • 1 whole cauliflower
  • 3/4 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/2 cup sour cream or plain yogurt
  • 1 tbsp chopped dill
  • 1/8 – 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 cup shredded cheese

Directions:

Preheat oven to 375 F.

Leave cauliflower whole or cut into large pieces. Set into large pot with an inch or two of water and steam for 20 minutes.  Drain & let cool slightly.

Place cauliflower in greased 9″ X 13″ baking dish.  Blend mayonnaise, sour cream or yogurt, shredded cheese, dill & cayenne pepper.  Spread evenly over cauliflower.  Bake 15—20  minutes until bubbly and brown.

 

Maple Quinoa Salad

With spring’s arrival the desire for quick and easy make-ahead meals increases. This whole-grain quinoa salad fits the bill, plus it incorporates one of my favourite flavours — maple! 

I use locally grown “Prairie Quinoa” along with Manitoba maple syrup produced in our area.  An excellent salad to add to your meal-prep repertoire!  

Maple Quinoa Salad

Main Ingredients:

  • 1 cup quinoa
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tbsp maple syrup
  • 1 red pepper, diced
  • 6 -8 green onions, chopped
  • 1 cup kernel corn (frozen or canned)
  • 1 cup canned black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1/2 cup pecans, walnuts or almonds, chopped

Vinaigrette:

  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 3 tbsp canola oil
  • 2 tbsp pure maple syrup

Directions:

Place water, quinoa and 1 tbsp maple syrup in medium saucepan and bring to a boil.  Stir, cover pot, reduce heat and simmer for 15—20 minutes until cooked through.  Remove the saucepan from heat, fluff quinoa with a fork and let sit 5 —10 minutes.  Cool completely and transfer to a serving bowl.

While quinoa is cooling prepare peppers, green onions, corn, black beans and nuts.  Whisk together apple cider vinegar, canola oil and maple syrup.

Add veggies, beans, nuts and vinaigrette to cooled quinoa. Toss well and refrigerate until ready to serve.

So much more than ‘just potatoes’…

                        Originally published in The Manitoba Co-operator November 16, 2017                              “Building their community one potato at a time”


How does it feel to give away 35,000 lbs of potatoes in just under 5 hours?

“It was awesome…a lot of fun,” recalls farmer Mark Peters with a wide smile. Peters and his wife Yanara, of Spruce Drive Farms, grow certified seed potatoes 12 miles northwest of Portage la Prairie.

On Saturday, October 14, 2017 they brought in two potato trucks and a conveyor to a vacant lot in Portage and set up for their second Community Potato Give-Away.

Gathering spuds along the 36-foot conveyor

Word about the event spread throughout the week and people were already lined up by 8:30 — a half hour before the give-away was slated to start. While many had driven, others walked, pushed strollers, rode bikes or scooters. As the potatoes were unloaded from the truck onto the 36-foot conveyor, folks gathered around filling bags, boxes, containers of all sizes and even backpacks.

Volunteers worked alongside the Peters, helping load and carry the spuds as well as encouraging those who were unsure of what to do to find a place along the conveyor and help themselves. The atmosphere was light and jovial. It didn’t matter who you were, or where you came from, everyone was welcome to as many potatoes as they wanted.

“What I loved about it, is that we’re not just targeting one sector of our community. We had people of all ages, all income brackets and walks of life stop by,” said Mark. Many people on fixed incomes and social assistance came up to him to express just how much this was helping them out, shake his hand and thank him. Others stopped by out of curiosity or because they knew the Peters. Some didn’t even need the potatoes but just thought it was a cool idea.

For Yanara, the feeling of community was incredibly gratifying.

“Discovering how people are there for each other, like those taking potatoes for perogy fundraisers to support other needs in our area. Or the grandmothers who cook extra meals for the children in their community,” she said. “We’re all the same and we all have a story.”

“You had people that come back two or three times,” Mark added. “But they’re not coming back for themselves. They’re coming back for their neighbours, their friends, their families.” And that is exactly what the event is all about. The inspiration to reach out and help others. Filling a need. Building and extending community.

Inadvertently it also bridges the farmer-consumer gap. The young ones in the crowd often opened up the best conversations. “Why are the potatoes dirty?” ”How come there are so many different shapes and sizes?” “Why are you giving them away?” Many discussions ensued on food waste, what happens to produce before you find it on your store shelves, and why it feels good to give back when you can.

The inaugural event in 2016 was a result of circumstance. Seed potato production standards are very precise. That year, some of the Peters’ crop did not meet seed specifications but was perfectly suitable for the consumer market. However, without a contract to sell consumer potatoes, there was place for those spuds to go. They could have left them in the field and avoided incurring any more costs, but that type of waste didn’t sit well with the Peters. They opted to dig the crop and the “Community Potato Give-Away” was born.

Being cognizant of local vegetable fundraisers in the community, they waited until those were over before proceeding. The event was a success, in more ways than the Peters could have imagined. The heartfelt gratitude and connections made were powerful and lasting.

“It was always on my heart,” said Mark. “I really I wanted to do that again.”

However, this past summer rains eluded his area. Only the smaller of his two potato fields had access to irrigation. The potatoes in the larger field suffered under the intense summer heat, not looking healthy at all. Peters worried, unsure if he would even have enough to fill his seed contracts.

Once harvest was underway, those worries slowly receded. Whether it was divine intervention or answered prayers, that field with little to no rain, produced amazingly well. On the last day of harvest, Peters had a good idea of what was left in the field and didn’t think it could all fit in his storage bin. The give-away would happen.

He set up a sizer to separate the larger potatoes (less desirable for seed) as they were unloaded. One and half truck loads were set aside for donation. Along with the Portage la Prairie event, six 2,000-pound totes were filled to be delivered to remote reserves across the province. The fact that the Peters don’t even mention the effort, cost and time that goes into this, speaks volumes.

Many asked if this will be an annual event. When it comes to farming, it all depends on the year and success of the crop. The Peters remember and appreciate how generous people were with them when they were young adults, so when they are in a position to give back, they definitely will.

“It’s only potatoes, but it just brought so much to the community,” Mark said. “It’s a great opportunity to interact with people and hear their stories. The most basic need is being met with most basic vegetable.”

Building Community – One Bag of Potatoes at a Time

Mark & Yanara Peters – Certified Seed Potato Growers

Is it possible to give away 35,000 lbs of potatoes in just under 5 hours? Why yes,      it is.  And growers, Mark and Yanara Peters were thrilled to make it a reality.  On October 14 they hauled in their potato trucks and a conveyor, from their farm 12 miles northwest of Portage la Prairie, and made it happen.

 

  Despite the cool Saturday morning, people were already lined up by 8:30 – a half hour before the Portage Community Potato Give-Away was slated to start. They came pushing strollers, riding bikes, walking and  on scooters, as well as by car and truck. Many heard about the event on local media or on-line, while others just happened by and wondered what all the fuss was about.

Well, the ‘fuss’ was about sharing a bountiful crop, building community, listening and sharing stories. It would be much simpler to take produce directly to a food bank or soup kitchen to distribute, but last fall at their first community give-away, the Peters discovered the magic in the one-on-one interaction. They don’t consider or mention the effort, time or cost that this intentional act of giving requires.  But they do remember and appreciate how generous people were with them as young adults and simply want to pay it forward.

Gathering spuds along the 36-foot conveyor

With the help of a few volunteers, people gathered around the conveyor – some approaching cautiously, unsure of what to do and/or in disbelief that could they take as many potatoes as they needed. As bags and boxes were filled, they opened up about their lives, and those of others whom they were helping. Grandmothers spoke of the after-school meals they make in their homes for children in their community. They are not only nourishing bodies, but souls and passing on their cooking skills to another generation.

 

Those who live alone took small bags for themselves, but many knew of families in need or shut-ins who would also appreciate the farm-fresh produce. Immigrants spoke of the gratitude they have for living in Canada and the joy in being reunited family members as they arrive. Some people were there to collect potatoes for perogy fundraisers or church dinners — supporting other needs in the community.

Food memories were shared — how family-favourite soups were made, preferred methods for cooking up spuds, whether it be fried, mashed or baked, which spices they like to use and if butter or gravy was the best. One young mom was taking the potatoes home to make Irish Potato Bread. She described how her grandmother, now living in a care home, had taught her to make it — her pride in carrying on tradition was evident.

Those who had excess garden produce — tomatoes, beets, carrots — brought it by to share with the crowd. Others dropped off bags and boxes to ensure those who didn’t have containers had something to cart their potatoes home in. One young family stopped by to get their spuds, then stayed to help others gather theirs.

Inadvertently, the event also offered an opportunity to agvocate (advocate for agriculture) and engage in farm to food discussions. The young ones in the crowd often opened up the best conversations. “Why are the potatoes dirty?” “How come there are so many different shapes and sizes” “Why are you giving them away?”        So discussions ensued on food waste, what happens to produce before you find it on your store shelves, and why it feels good to give back when you can.

Mark & Yanara Peters pausing for a photo as their Community Potato Give-Away drew to a close.

After last year’s giveaway, there was no doubt in the Peters’ minds that if given a successful crop, they would share again. This year, my husband and I were fortunate to be able to help and found out first-hand just why. Besides the stories, memories and agvocating, the gratitude expressed by those who came by was truly heart-warming. While some merely thanked you with a shy smile, others wanted to shake the farmer’s hand. Coffee and snacks were dropped off. One gentleman pressed a few coins into Peters hand, insisting he buy himself a coffee despite Peters repeating it was not necessary.

But the most touching moment for me was a grandmother, who put her hand on her heart,              looked Mark in the eye and expressed her deep appreciation, saying, “You don’t know what this means to us.” Then she reached across the conveyor and embraced Yanara in a hug.

If you’re going to build community, this is way to do it, face-to-face and heart-to-heart.