Some think boiling water for porridge takes too much time. The Nikkel household grows the oats and rolls them in their own mill first.
Amy and Donald Nikkel, Interlake school teachers, set out five years ago to start farming at a pace and scale that made sense for their own busy lives.
Today they are marketing Adagio Acres Rolled Naked Oats, produced from crops they’ve grown on their farm near Lundar, rolled into large flakes in a mill they built themselves and packaged in attractive 900-gram brown paper bags.
A fifth generation of Nikkels to farm in this part of Manitoba, Donald, 30, said he and his wife started mapping out the business idea while still living and teaching in Montreal. Farm life beckoned as they contemplated starting a family. But they knew they couldn’t do exactly as their predecessors had done if they came back.
“I’ve had lots of family involved in farming around here, and over the years they’ve all had to find different ways to make farming work for them,” he said.
Oats was a natural fit. The Nikkels have grown oats and raised horses out this way for generations. But as teachers and with a much smaller farm in mind, they needed a different vision.
“We started to think about what we could do with a crop I know something about and grows well in this area,” said Donald.
To map out a plan for Adagio Acres, they visited small mills across Canada learning how each was built and operated. They read up on naked oats, learning how the oat variety could be processed without heat and was better suited to a small-scale mill, as well as its excellent nutritional benefits. Naked oats are higher in protein and fibre and have a greater proportion of soluble beta-glucan fibre. They also taste especially good, with a slightly nutty flavour and fuller texture, making them highly appealing to those on a raw food diet.
“Naked oats really stood out,” he said. “It has a number of attributes, one being they mainly lose their hulls when combined, that makes milling a lot easier than the conventional hulled oat. And they also have lots of health benefits.”
Their plans to develop a small-scale mill and sell a made-in-Manitoba product were built around consumer trends, including a growing desire to eat healthy, wholesome, unprocessed food grown as close to home and connected to a farmer as possible.
This had nothing to do with establishing a product to go head to head with other big-name oat brands, says Amy.
“We were looking at what makes sense for local consumers and local agriculture,” she said.
The couple’s easygoing demeanour and intentionally slower-paced lifestyle belies their ambitious project, and the intense legwork put into getting their rolled naked oats onto store shelves.
They transitioned their 80 acres to organic and contracted with two other farmers in Manitoba for additional production for the oats, which are rolled into large flakes in the mill they built.
Housed inside a farm building on his parents’ farm, Donald describes it as “a bit of an eclectic mix.” Some parts are new, while others are museum pieces bought at auction, he said. It’s built in such a way that they can move oats right through from bin to the mill and into a packaged retail-ready product.
“It’s made from a variety of machines we cobbled together from a number of different sources and it has been an evolution,” he said. “There’s no rule book when it comes to small mills.
“In a larger mill you hire engineers and ask them to design it for you. At our scale it’s been a lot of trial and error,” then adds, with a laugh “a lot of error.”
Now fully operational as a permitted food-processing facility by MAFRD, the Nikkels are able to certify their oats wheat free because their hand-built mill was built to handle oats exclusively. The oats are also tested, using an approved enzyme test for gluten-free food manufacturers. It’s proved helpful with their marketing, says Amy.
They needed a niche as a smaller-scale cereal product, and the wheat-free claim has been beneficial alongside their made-in-Manitoba attribute.
“It certainly helped us to gain a lot of momentum quickly,” she said.
They were careful about their launch of Adagio Acres Rolled Naked Oats, putting it on a limited number of store shelves in March of 2013, and doing in-store demos to familiarize consumers with the nutritional value and flavour of naked oats. Just two other mills in Canada produce naked oat flakes.
Adagio Acres oats are now found in more than 20 stores around Manitoba and sales now exceed supply. They could get a lot busier, says the couple, but they’re committed to pacing Adagio Acres’ growth to its underlying philosophy — food and life at a slower tempo.
“We’ve seen a lot of situations where people overestimate demand and how easy it is to get that customer base,” said Donald. “We’re trying to go at this slowly.”
Amy was a guest speaker at the recent Western Canadian Functional Food Ingredients: Strategies to Manage Costs and Enhance Products conference held at the Richardson Centre for Functional Food in Winnipeg last month and spoke about the milling advantages and nutritional advantages of naked oats.
She hopes their minimally processed cereal can take the definition of functional food beyond merely nutrition and convenience, to be part of a food-centred gentler-paced lifestyle.
“Functional food should be something that fits into your routines and your lifestyle, but also enriches it,” said Amy.
They hope their cereal is a reminder and an excuse to slow down, she said. The ‘adagio tempo’ for eating, she adds, is taking five minutes in the morning and realizing you do, in fact, have the time for it.