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Hearth, home and habits the organic way

By: Susan Jones

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Oct 03, 2012 06:00 am

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  • John Schneider stands in a grain field on his farm. Schneider comes from a farm family who used chemicals to control weeds and pests. Now his operation is strictly organic.
    John Schneider stands in a grain field on his farm. Schneider comes from a farm family who used chemicals to control weeds and pests. Now his operation is strictly organic.
    CHRIS COLBOURNE/St. Albert Gazette
  • NO CHEMICALS HERE – John Schneider holds some of his organically grown grain.
    NO CHEMICALS HERE – John Schneider holds some of his organically grown grain.
  • FLAPJACKS COMIN’ – Pancake mix from the Schneider farm.
    FLAPJACKS COMIN’ – Pancake mix from the Schneider farm.

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The grain in John Schneider’s hands seemed to glow with the warmth of the late fall sun last week. It had a fresh smell and the wheat berries were chewy with a comforting, almost nutty flavour and texture.

On this farm, where the hens run wild about the property and a rooster crows happily on the fencepost, there’s a strong sense that everything old is new again. Though the wheat Schneider held in his hand was freshly harvested, he used old traditional methods to swath and clean it. It will be ground into flour at the stone-mill located in a small building located right behind his house.

The grain itself is a traditional heirloom variety called Red Fyfe, and Schneider is proud of the wheat’s Canadian/Scottish roots.

“Red Fyfe was North America’s first wheat. It was brought from Scotland in the 1800s,” Schneider said, adding that he believes this wheat was the grain that made Canada famous as the breadbasket of the world.

The Red Fyfe is just one of the heirloom varieties that Schneider grows. In his other fields he harvested buckwheat, white wheat, oats, barley and flax. The fall rye was seeded two weeks ago and the green sprouts are already about eight inches tall.

“With organic farming we try to maintain fertility and weed control just as conventional farmers do. The difference is, we do that with crop rotation, tillage and by timing our seeding methods,” Schneider said.

Schneider, 45, is a fourth-generation farmer. He grew up near Bon Accord and learned about hard work and conventional farming methods as a child. But somewhere along the way he rejected those methods in favour of a more organic growing system.

“My dad died of cancer when I was eight months old. He was just 23 years old and he was a farmer and he worked in a fertilizer plant. I was always aware of chemicals,” he said.

Schneider helped on the family farm and learned various weed- and pest-control methods.

“When I grew up we were mixing tanks of herbicide and we didn’t wear protective gear,” he said, adding that the belief was that the products were not harmful. But he couldn’t help questioning the theory.

Schneider left farming for some years but returned to it when he was in his 30s with his wife Cindy, when they began farming on rented land near Spruce Grove. Bit by bit their farming methods became more and more organic in nature.

“I’ve been farming my whole life but I had to relearn and I’m still learning. I’ve made mistakes and sometimes nature throws me a curve ball, ” he said, adding that for any farmer, fuel costs and land costs take away from profits, but for a small farmer such as himself it’s even more difficult.

“I looked it up and in 1979, fuel was 20 cents a litre. Two years ago, when I bought this farm, it was around $1 per litre. But the price of grain hasn’t changed as much. Two years ago, oats sold for 20 cents per bushel more than it could have sold for in 1979,” he said.

Each year his farm, Gold Forest Grains, must be certified as organic, and that certification costs $1,400. As part of the certification requirements, he must set aside 10 per cent of his land for wildlife. For that purpose Schneider set aside a small area adjacent to a creek where he allows cranberry, saskatoons and wild roses to take root.

Every step of production from field to plate is kept on the farm.

“We decided to sell our product ourselves. It’s more work because to capture the profits from my farm I have to be the farmer, the trucker, the miller, the broker and the grocery store. But if we do all those things we also keep all the profits ourselves,” he said.

Schneider agreed that the cost to the consumer for organic produce is about 30 per cent more, but believes that in the balance the product is healthier.

“At the end of the day, we don’t punish people for healthy food and for supporting local farmers. We use no synthetic fertilizers and no chemical synthetics and no genetically modified products,” he stressed.

Like other farmers in the area, Schneider said this summer heavy rains damaged his crops.

“It was a horrible year for hail and wind damage. We had 15 inches of rain in one storm and the barley received a lot of hail damage. My fields were all flooded. But my yields in a good growing season are similar to other farmers. I get 80 to 100 bushels per acre of barley and a 120 bushels per acre of wheat,” he said.

Instead of using herbicides to control weeds, he plants fast-growing buckwheat, which chokes out the other slower-growing plants. He rotates crops that grow at different rates and disrupt the weed-growing cycles.

“Buckwheat has natural herbicide properties in the roots and it grows fast. The problem is to market buckwheat, which was a conventional grain, but is used less now. It’s great in pancakes,” he said, adding that he also believes that the traditional heritage wheat varieties are more easily digested by people who are sensitive to gluten.

“The traditional wheat varieties have less protein in them and it is the protein that causes people to be sensitive to gluten,” he said.

Two years ago the Schneiders built a straw-bale house because they wanted a home that could sustain them despite downturns in the economy and upswings in the price of fuel.

“We wanted to be self-sufficient without all the infrastructure of a huge home. I was concerned about sustainability because I’ve seen the changes in my own lifetime and I can see the day when oil is no longer feasible as a heating fuel,” he said.

Inside, the 1,300-square-foot house looks like many a brand-spanking new home except that it has many energy-saving devices and uses as much of the sun’s heat as possible for heating. There is a heat-recovery ventilator system and instead of gas, last winter the Schneiders used three cords of wood to heat their home. The Schneiders collect and filter rainwater, and though they still truck in water, their goal is to be self-sufficient in that department too. Though presently he purchases organic milk, his plan is to have a milk cow of his own.

“My goal has always been health. We cannot take food safety for granted. It’s a significant amount of more work. But I’m making a living. I’m supporting my family and I have a new house. What more do I want?” Schneider asked, as he picked up his hat and work gloves and politely put an end to all discussion.

The last of the barley still needed to be taken from the field and swaths of buckwheat were waiting to be ground into his signature pancake flour, which he sells at the St. Albert farmers’ market.

“I have to get back to farming,” he said.


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