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An up-close look at what farming is really like

Annual Open Farm Day offers a glimpse of real-life farmers at work under the great blue dome of the sky

Pat and Larry Pollock look out over this year’s spelt crop, which promises to be either one of their best ever – or possibly a disaster. photo: Daniel Winters

Mother Nature can be cruel or kind — Pat and Larry Pollock hope it’s the latter over the next eight weeks.

Earlier this summer, their farm was hit hard by a freak windstorm that wreaked havoc in Shilo and even knocked buildings off their foundations in nearby Sioux Valley. An experimental buckwheat rotation crop was smashed to smithereens, and 100 acres of spelt — their bread-and-butter crop — was flattened.

But the spelt has sent out fresh shoots, and now a new set of fresh, green heads has appeared above the mature, ready-to-harvest grain underneath.

“Spelt’s a different critter,” Pat said with a laugh. “We’ve got two different stage crops over both fields.”

Sunday, Sept. 15, visitors will get a chance for an up-close look at the spelt and the rest of Pollock Farms, located just north of Brandon. It’s one of 60 farms participating in Open Farm Day, which gives visitors a chance to discover what farm life is really all about.

Hoping for the right weather is always part of that, especially for the Pollocks this year.

On the one hand, the double-layered crop could top their best yield of 125 still-in-the-hull bushels to the acre. On the other, if there isn’t a hard frost to shut down growth, too many green kernels in the harvested crop could lead to spoilage in the bins and diminish milling qualities.

That’s because spelt’s heavy, coarse hull is both a blessing and a curse. Removing it to expose the edible grain inside requires special equipment, but it also protects the seed.

“As long as it doesn’t shell out, we’re fine. But if the big rains come, it may sprout,” said Pat.

Larry plans to hedge against the worst-case scenario by swathing part of it next week to allow a sufficient dry-down period.

The Pollocks recently sold off half of their acres, but kept the original half-section that holds sentimental value.

Some would say that nobody can make a living off just 300 acres, but Larry begs to differ.

“My dad and mom came here in 1940 and they raised six of us on this farm, and they never worked at any other job in their entire life,” said Larry. “They made it all off of this half-section.”

The secret to small-farm success is twofold, they say.

First, going organic in 2000 and saving their own seed brought their input costs down to just “time and diesel,” and direct marketing of spelt allowed them to capture full value from their efforts.

Spending three-quarters of the farm’s annual returns on fertilizer and chemical are just a distant memory, and now the market niche for processed spelt grain, flour and flakes is growing by leaps and bounds every year.

In the early years of their transition to organic, alfalfa seed production from their alfalfa-spelt-fallow rotation helped pay the bills at a time when ancient grains and the 100-mile diet were just beginning to capture the public’s imagination.

They were first introduced to spelt at an organic meeting in Brandon, where a local bakery had set up a product display.

“We got talking to them and they asked us if we could grow spelt for them,” said Larry.

It took the Pollocks six months to find seed and a dehulling machine. Their first crop in 2004 was flattened by wind and finished off by an August frost. They chalked that up as part of the learning curve at a time when their market was just four 50-pound bags per month.

Their then 600-acre farm was still producing rye and hard red spring wheat, and spelt was just something to try out.

A trip to Saskatchewan helped them to secure an improved spring-seeded spelt variety called Nexon, and now they have a row of bins filled with spelt that they use for seed each year.

All the farm’s spelt is processed using small-scale equipment — much of it antique — that was hard to find and required considerable adaptation. The work of dehulling and milling the grain into flour using a beautifully crafted stone mill made from Austrian pine occupies much of their time in the winter months. All of their production is shipped in 50-pound bags.

“I do all of the processing that I want to do,” said Larry. “Somebody phoned up and said they wanted 40 to 50 bags a month, but I don’t know if we’ll take it on.”

One bakery in Winnipeg expects to triple its use of spelt within the next five years, said Pat, which reflects the growing interest in the ancient grain.

With a sweet, nutty flavour, it is highly water soluble, easy to digest, high in protein, and diabetic friendly due to its low glycemic index. Although it has low gluten, some people with severe celiac disorder can’t tolerate it.

“People like spelt, and that book Wheat Belly, has really created a lot of interest in the ancient grains, said Pat, adding she expects a “tidal wave” of soaring spelt consumption in North America.

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