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Expertise helps Hamblin’s organics

Grower must work with and around Mother Nature.


November 15, 2007
By Lorne McClinton

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Is it possible to earn a good living grain farming in Saskatchewan today with
just 575 acres? Gordon Hamblin, a farmer near Qu'appelle, knows it is. He is
one of the early pioneers of organic farming in Saskatchewan who has been making
a living growing and processing organic crops from his small farm for the past
30 years. While the business does not provide enough cash flow to permit Hamblin
to buy the latest machinery, careful management has kept him solvent when competing
organic processors went bankrupt.

Today Hamblin sells his four-grain cereal, pancake mixes, whole organic milling
grain and flour to customers in Canada and abroad. His expertise is in high
demand with producers and farm groups across the prairies are hoping to learn
from his organic farming and on-farm food processing experiences. Whether people
are considering switching to organic farming or starting a farm-based business,
he advises them to start slowly, take the time to develop their markets and
not to over-extend themselves financially.

Growing organic crops is the heart of Hamblin's operation. Like many of the
early pioneers of organic farming, he became interested in organic farming after
exposure to farm chemicals affected his health.

"I stopped using chemicals after I got sick using a seed treatment,"
he said. "I was told that I either had to stop using chemicals or quit
farming. People were skeptical when we first started. They would look down on
you because you weren't using chemicals. I had one big company tell me that
I would be gone in a few years, but we've now been farming without the use of
chemicals or fertilizers for more than 30 years. Some years Mother Nature doesn't
treat you very well but other years are excellent. You have to take the good
with the bad."

Hamblin controls weeds several different ways. Crop rotations, summerfallow,
mowing, intercropping and use of clover all play a part to keep weeds under
control.

"My crop rotation has gone to pot the past few years due to Mother Nature,"
Hamblin says. "It has either been too dry or too wet. Still, I try to grow
clover on fields every three to four years, as much as possible, to get rid
of weeds. I used to plow it down as a green manure crop but Mother Nature would
play tricks on me. It would rain and the land would bake, so I went to a rotary
mower and started mowing it instead."

He also uses his rotary mower for summerfallow too. Weeds are allowed to grow
and are mowed down before they can set seed. Afterwards, fields are then summerfallowed
conventionally using a cultivator. "It's been pretty successful at controlling
weeds and it gives some green manure benefits," Hamblin says. "I've
found it's better to mow weeds rather than having a black summerfallow. The
more trash you can keep on your fields the less soil erosion you have."

The worst weed Hamblin has to contend with on his farm is Canada thistle. He
controls this with tillage, particularly late fall tillage to disrupt the root
system and reduce its ability to store nutrients.

"I have mustard too but I don't classify it as a bad weed," Hamblin
says. "Mustard residue in the soil controls wild millet, the two weeds
don't get along. Besides, conventional farmers have been spraying for mustard
ever since chemicals first came out. They can control it for one year but next
year it is always back.

"Intercropping is another thing I do for weed control. In one crop rotation
I intercrop spring wheat and fall rye. Rye is very competitive and controls
weeds very well. I seed my spring wheat first and when it is in the two leaf
stage, I use a western double disc drill to seed rye. I combine my wheat like
I normally do and the rye is left behind, already sown for the following spring.
This is also good for time management. I never seem to have time to seed rye
in the fall. With interseeding though, it is already established after harvest
and you leave a good stubble to catch snow."

Value-added processing
Hamblin has further increased farm revenues by setting up a company to process
and market the organic crops he grows on his farm. Milling grain for human consumption
was a natural step for Hamblin. His father milled grain for livestock feed and
would bring some to the house for porridge. Since he still had the old roller
mill, he decided to make his own cereal and eventually gave some samples to
friends.

"They asked 'Why don't you put this in the store?'," Hamblin explains.
"We decided that yes, we could do that, so I took samples around to stores
in the area. Many weren't supportive. One store owner asked me why I wanted
to get into such a cutthroat kind of business? I told him that I thought it
would help my farm operation. I left him a package of cereal and he gave it
to his father. His father told him to stock it since it was better than anything
else on his shelf. So, that was the beginning."

Hamblin developed his flagship four-grain cereal, a mixture of spring wheat,
rye, durum and flax, through trial and error. He started by hand mixing grains
he thought would go well together and then gave the mixture to his wife, Hilda.
"When my wife said it was good, I left it that way," he adds.

Hamblin quickly found he had to offer stores more than just porridge. They
wanted to buy other products as well. He now sells flour, pancake mixes as well
as whole milling grains for household flour mills.

"We ended up having a pretty fair line of products," Hamblin says,
"and we're still being asked what else we have. Now we've started doing
flaking too. We started with oats, but found out that oats will go rancid right
away if they aren't either heat-treated or refrigerated. Heat-treating oats
though, gives them a different taste and kills the oil enzyme, so we decided
to try flaking barley instead. I rolled some flakes and gave them to my wife.
She tried them and liked them, so I gave it to a neighbour. He gave it to another
neighbour and so on. It has a little different taste and people are going crazy
over it."

Finding equipment that has been designed for a small food processor has been
one of the biggest challenges that Hamblin has struggled with over the years.
New processing equipment, designed for large processors, are too elaborate and
too expensive to be cost effective in Hamblin's small facility. He has had to
rely on his own ingenuity to find solutions. For example, he modified a small
roller mill, that was once used to make cattle feed, to grind grain for his
four-grain cereal.

Packaging and labelling were also obstacles to overcome. Hamblin started researching
his packaging by asking people how they would like to see his products packaged.
They told him that since they wanted to see what the product looked like not
to package it in brown paper bags. He started by selling product in plastic
bags with the label stapled to the top. Later he went to heat-treated, tamper
proof, zip lock bags.

"Our labels are simple," Hamblin says, "that is what organic
is all about. The bag is clear and can be recycled. It has a plain, clear label.
It's not costly but it tells you what it needs to. We typed them by hand when
we first started but eventually moved to a computer. My four-grain cereal also
has a lot number and a date of processing. It's not requested by the Canadian
Food Inspection Agency or by the industry, but we wanted to have a lot number
for tracing, and we wanted a date so that the customers would know how long
it had been sitting on the shelf.

"There are always problems finding small amounts of packaging materials
since suppliers prefer to deal with those who buy large amounts. The cost of
getting a UPC code, the code cash registers use, is also a big problem. More
big stores would take my product if I had a UPC code but getting one is very
costly. It would be better if two or three people went together on covering
the cost."

Starting a value-added business
For others thinking about starting a value-added business, Hamblin has some
advice: "My first point would be to check around and make sure that you
are not duplicating something that is already around.

"Number two, you need to do a business plan to see if you have the money
to do marketing. Check into packaging and labelling. You need to make sure that
you have the building to do the processing, and remember things like making
sure those who are processing are wearing hair nets to make sure you don't have
hair in the product. We did our own financing as we went along but when you
do take out loans, be sure you have something to fall back on. Loans have to
be paid and if they're not then the loan will be called in."

Hamblin has combined two essential elements in his operation, learning how
to grow and market organic farm produce. His expertise has been learned the
hard way, from experience. -30-