Jeff Burke is carving out a niche market in Northwestern Ontario for his locally grown and ground flour. The owner of Brule Creek Farms near Kakabeka Falls recalls the steep learning curve he faced when he bought his 17-acre farm in 2008 and began construction of a stone mill. Having been raised on a dairy farm, grain was a new venture for him. However, Burke's degree in biology and environmental studies held him in good stead.
It was during Burke's work as a FedNor Youth Intern in 2007 with the Food Security Research Network at Lakehead University where the idea for his venture took root. The purpose of the project was to determine the viability of the business of acquiring local grains and milling them for market. When the project concluded, Burke decided to use the data collected, along with the marketing and feasibility studies to assemble a business plan for the establishment and operation of a local mill.
"The first year, I grew a little bit of wheat but encountered a few quality issues that required me to buy local wheat to mill," revealed Burke. "However, I figured out what to do by the following year. Since then, I have expanded by renting nearby land to farm a total of 225 acres and adding rye. In 2010, I introduced a line of baking mixes, and three years later, added canola to my crop rotation. With the purchase of a cold press, I'm now producing canola oil. It is through product diversification that I am expanding my sales and market."
According to Burke, the regional climate is ideal for growing canola, but storing the crop after harvest poses a problem because it needs time to mature. To avoid spoilage, aeration is the key. To assist with the process, Burke purchased several large fans to control the moisture content until the canola is pressed, usually within two weeks of harvest.
Burke marvels at the progress he has made over the past 12 years, some of which was made possible with assistance from the Northwestern Ontario Innovation Centre in Thunder Bay. He has twice accessed funding through the Centre's Next Level Program, which is supported by FedNor. This assistance enabled Burke to update his website and then develop fundraising packages for schools and groups.
"The program put me in touch with people who had marketing and graphic design expertise that helped me elevate and grow my business," explained Burke.
As the adage goes, timing is everything.
"When I started in 2008, the local food movement was just starting and now it has spread organically beyond the individual shopper to envelop large retailers, in part to meet consumer expectations," stated Burke. "Again, timing is great because I'm now at a stage now that I can expand to meet demand from larger grocery stories and bakeries. In fact, they're actually seeking me out."
This project is but one example of the types of initiatives funded by FedNor that support the federal Prosperity and Growth Strategy for Northern Ontario (PGSNO). Learn more about PGSNO.