At Spud, because we carry products from so many local producers, we become immersed in a world full of inspiring entrepreneurs. Food production is a competitive business, and in order to stay alive, you need passion. The ladies of GRAIN, Shira McDermott and Janna Bishop, are a perfect example of two people who saw an opportunity to do something differently, and the difference is evident in the quality of their Wheat berries, French lentils, Kabuli chickpeas, Laird lentils, Farro, and Golden Quinoa, all grown right here in Canada.
The heart of GRAIN revolves around showing Canadians that quality grain is available right here in our own country, and that supporting our Canadian farmers is more important now than ever. Read our interview with Shira to find out what’s driven their success.
What was your inspiration for starting up GRAIN?
As consumers, we were both very frustrated by the lack of transparency in the world of dry goods—where nameless, faceless bulk bins have just been accepted as the ‘norm’ when it comes to making these purchases. Since beans, grains, and flours make up so much of our daily staple foods, we figured it was time for a fresh approach. Janna’s stepdad is a wheat and lentil farmer in Saskatchewan, and we knew there was opportunity to present a new way; one that would honour Canadian farmers and the amazing products they produce, and to give consumers the opportunity to access the world’s best chickpeas, lentils, grains, and soon, freshly milled flours.
What has been the biggest surprise for you throughout this whole process?
When we first conceived of the business, we knew there would be many benefits of supporting exclusively Canadian grown farmers with their high-quality products. With the amount of grains and legumes that are grown here, many are surprised to learn that the majority of it is exported to other markets—while we end up with second or third-grade product for our own market here in Canada, or with re-imported product of no known origin.
We love the fact that we can reduce transport emissions while supporting family farms and the local economy, but perhaps the biggest surprise has been the response from chefs to the high quality of our products. Even without the offering of freshly milled flour (coming soon), our customers can actually taste the difference quality makes: from the creamy, sweet taste of our Kabuli chickpeas, to the nutty taste of our Golden quinoa; the response to this quality difference has been so exciting. Customers who use our products soon learn that lentils are not meant to be brown and mushy—instead, ours are bright green, firm, and meaty. It’s been really fun to see a whole new world open up when folks discover our products.
What are some of the obstacles involved for Canadian grain farmers?
First of all, the terroir of the Canadian prairie farmland is the best suited in the world for producing these crops. This is why we believe in highlighting this region, and celebrating the amazing history of family farming there. The soil was meant to produce wheat, chickpeas, lentils, and other pulse and grain crops—having said that, our farmers deal with two of the toughest obstacles possible: which are time and mother nature. These are obstacles that will always pose a problem for farmers, and there are new threats emerging too, starting with the fact that many of our farmers are aging, and in too many cases these days, there is no one to carry on their legacy.
We felt that it was time to create demand for these products in order to inspire the next generation of farmers, which thankfully is starting to happen, but there is so much more to be done. This is why it is so important for people to know about this, and to support these Canadian family farms.
A great example of a product grown here at home is our Quinoa, which has been growing in Saskatchewan for over two decades—it’s just that no one knew about this. Often times, it takes a fresh approach to shine a light on previously unknown stories like this—and a huge part of our mission is to ensure consumers in North America are aware that there are local options for growing and sourcing–not just for quinoa, but for all of the products we carry. Other than the quinoa we source from Saskatchewan, all quinoa on grocery store shelves is imported from Peru or Bolivia. Having a Canadian option is so important because there are many horror stories coming out of the quinoa market in South America, from slave labour reports to the threat of deforestation. As we already mentioned, other products we offer like chickpeas and lentils are often sourced from outside of Canada too, and are completely untraceable.
It’s really just about telling these stories and spreading the word, which is why we include the farmers’ faces and the farm location on every box of product we sell—transparency is the most important pillar of our brand promise.
What do you hope to be instilling in your customers through their purchase of GRAIN?
To be honest, at the surface, it really all comes down to taste and the experience of quality. A lot of the time we as consumers are faced with the challenge of making ethical or sustainable purchasing decisions, often with the trade-off that we will have to forego something in order to do this. At the end of the day, we love that people can feel really good about their purchasing decision when they buy our products—not only from the perspective of supporting the values they believe in, but they get to enjoy the marked improvement that freshly cooked Kabuli chickpeas make to a batch of hummus, or the tasty packed lunches that result from whipping up our Epic Wheat Berry and Chickpea salad. There are no sacrifices here.