Creston flour mills overwhelmed by COVID-19 demand

Claudia and Ben Herrera on their organic farm in the Creston Valley. Photo submitted.
Ben Herrera and his son Max on one of Treasure Life Flour Mills’ grain fields in the Creston Valley. Photo submitted.
Drew Gailius and his solar powered tractor on Full Circle Farm in the Creston Valley. Photo submitted
Drew and Joanne Gailius with their son Grant. Photo submitted

Second in an occasional series about food security in the West Kootenay

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing many of us to rethink our diet. How dependent do we in the West Kootenay want to be on complex supply chains and on farmers’ fields in distant countries?

When we think of local food security we tend to think of fruits and vegetables, perhaps followed by eggs, dairy, and meat.

Then from out of left field came the recent bread baking craze, with store shelves suddenly empty of flour and yeast and store managers scrambling to meet the demand.

“Nobody had any flour. Our orders went up tenfold overnight,” says Ben Herrera, who runs Treasure Life Flour Mills in Creston with his wife Claudia.

They grow their own wheat and mill many different types of organic grain flours that they ship all over B.C. The company has 14 employees, 10 flour mills, a bank of heirloom seeds and a commitment to organic growing.

So with the sudden demand the Herreras ramped up production, firing up several extra flour mills that had until then been idle.

“We went from eight hours a day to 18 hours seven days a week.”

That meant a production jump from four tonnes of flour per week to 40.

Herrera says they can maintain this in the short term because they have the wheat and the mills, but long term it will involve changes in equipment and procedures.

Treasure Life is the largest of three commercial flour mills in the West Kootenay, all in the Creston Valley, but they are the only one that ships flour out of the area.

Could the West Kootenay ever be self-sufficient in grain and flour, if it came to that?

Herrera says it‘s not only a question of agricultural and milling capacity, but of climate change.

“I thought we would not be fighting the weather as much as they do on the Prairies,” he says, “but we fight it with drought. We have had a really tough past couple of years because the snow melts and it doesn’t rain again.”

Changes in climate affect not only plant growth but also the milling quality and nutritional quality of the grain, he says.

Another pandemic surprise was a sudden shortage of packaging for Treasure Life’s flour.

“Normally we would order 5,000 bags and I ordered 110,000 a week ago from a paper mill that was designated to make toilet paper and other things.”

Herrera’s scramble to keep his customers satisfied is a harbinger of a new pandemic interplay between supply, demand, climate, public health, supply chains and land capacity.

“Honestly, I am not sure what to make of it,” he says. “We have to make it up as we go along, like a chameleon, and adapt.”

The numbers

Currently, grains and seeds account for only 17 per cent of all crops grown in the Regional District of Central Kootenay (RDCK), according to its 2016 agricultural land use inventory.

The report states that 76 per cent of all crops in the region are hay and pasture.

Consultant Abra Brynne calls this “startling.” She wrote the RDCK’s agriculture plan, which contains many recommendations on how to improve the quantity and quality of agricultural production in the region.

Brynne also heads the Central Kootenay Food Policy Council. She says the pandemic is adding urgency to questions about our diet and how accessible it is, and this includes grain.

“I would like to see increased interest in grains and oil seeds — oil seeds are a critical part of our diet too.”

In any event, the RDCK is not replete with agricultural land. Less than three per cent of all land in the region is in the Agricultural Land Reserve, and a significant percentage of that is not being farmed.

How much land it would take to make the West Kootenay even close to self-sufficient in grain and oil seeds is a question with no clear answer, but Brynne says people are starting to ask it. She cites one unpublished analysis that estimates the region would need just under 13,000 acres planted in grain, more than twice the current crop.

Creston Valley grain

Flour mills are a relatively new phenomenon in the Creston Valley, but grain has been grown in the area for more than a century.

There were once three grain elevators on the Creston skyline, now down to two, and both are unused, says Tammy Bradford, who runs the Creston Museum.

In first half of the 20th century, she says, there was a significant amount of farming of wheat, barley and oats.

Then in the 1960s forage crops like clover and alfalfa were introduced, followed by dairy farming and potatoes, all made possible by the 1972 construction of the Libby Dam, which mitigated serious seasonal flooding and made more farm land habitable.

By the late 1970s the grain elevators were shut down due to a mix of market forces, other crops being grown, and complicated shipping and inspection requirements that didn’t work well in such a remote area.

Nevertheless, there are still a few active farmers in Creston who ship unmilled barley and wheat to national markets.

‘Hard work, but beautiful’

Joanne Gailius mills flour at Full Circle Farm near Creston, but on a much smaller scale than Treasure Life. She and her husband Drew sell flour to a local bakery and directly to local home bakers.

“We’re small and we intend to stay that way,” she says.

Their certified organic farming practice is committed to such regenerative practices as crop rotation, green manure and no-till farming for carbon sequestration.

They have spent the past 10 years getting the farm off fossil fuels. Drew has built a solar electric tractor run by three panels on its roof.

They are serious about local food security.

“That is a big part of why we do what we do,” Gailius says. “When the Kootenay Pass was shut down a few years ago for a few days, there was hardly anything in the produce section. So it is massive.”

Like the Herreras, they are grappling with climate change.

“Because of the climate crisis we have had to change how we plant our grain because we can no longer count on consistent June rains.”

Their flour orders skyrocketed when the pandemic hit.

“We probably sold at least five times the amount of flour to home bakers as we normally do, maybe up to 10 times,” Gailius says. “I would normally mill every second week and it is two or three times a week now.”

She’s happy to try to meet the demand because helping people discover natural food is her passion.

“When you get the taste of fresh milled flour, when you get a tomato off the vine – we grow edamame soy beans, if you try those – you will never go back. It is so easy. No, actually it is hard work. But it is beautiful.”

Related:

COLUMN: Y2K was just a dry run – reflections on COVID-19 and food

Nelson flour mill co-op looking for new members



bill.metcalfe@nelsonstar.com

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