A few weeks ago, members of the Manitoba Buckwheat Association faced an unusual dilemma as they gathered for their annual meeting.
What would they do with their first-ever royalty cheque? As co-owners of a buckwheat snack with the Manitoba Agri-Health Research Network (MAHRN), the association is entitled to half the royalties generated by the licensing agreement with the company now selling it.
Oak Bluff-based Stone Milled Specialty Grains is selling Buckshots -- a gluten-free roasted buckwheat snack that comes with a variety of seasonings --as part of its lineup of speciality flours and food products.
The royalty cheque was more symbolic than financially significant. It was a first for a unique set of partnerships between six Manitoba commodity grower associations and the research network.
These companies are combining farmer investment with public funds to develop functional food products from commodities such as buckwheat, beans and vegetables grown on Manitoba farms.
"We have been depending on foreign markets to buy our raw seed in the past, so this allows us to develop products better suited to the North American market," said Les McEwan, research chairman of the Manitoba Buckwheat Growers. "The model we have chosen is very unique to Canadian grower groups in that it allows for royalties to come back to the consortium for reinvestment in future projects."
Part of the goal is to build a brand identity around the Canadian Climate Advantage, a registered trademark for grains and oilseeds that have a role in healthy living.
"This is hopefully the beginning of a mechanism that will put buckwheat onto our store shelves and into the hands of the health-conscious North American consumer," McEwan said.
We've all heard of the so-called Mediterranean diet and its association with good health and longevity. Many of the crops grown on Canadian farms, including canola, barley, beans and berries, can make a similar contribution. One report said health-care costs in Canada could be reduced by $19 billion annually if consumers started including more of these foods in their diets.
It is no easy task. The science has shown eating foods such as pulse crops is a no-brainer for good health -- they reduce cholesterol, they are low-fat, high-fibre and jam-packed with useful nutrition. But North America isn't a bean culture.
"We can't just say 'eat more pulses' (peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas)," said Lee Anne Murphy, MAHRN executive director. "You have to provide them to the public in forms that they can enjoy."
That's the challenge the research network -- which is a creation of the Canadian Centre for Agricultural Research and Medicine, the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and the Manitoba government's Food Product Development Centre, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada -- took on about four years ago.
Through its not-for-profit corporation NuEats, it has since co-ordinated the development and commercialization of several functional food products containing homegrown ingredients. It's on the constant lookout for more, especially if it involves developing products that can be made from commodity components that currently go to waste, such as off-size carrots, sunflower hulls or pinto beans that are too dark.
University of Manitoba students can now buy pinto bean pizza crusts and pita bread, which are not only gluten-free, but nutritionally enhanced. They're downright tasty, too. "It's non-gluten and meeting nutritional needs, but people are enjoying it as a pizza crust," Murphy said.
"We're not educating people on a new way to eat, we're just saying, if you're going to eat snack food, choose a healthy snack."
There is also a Prairie Berry Parfait ice cream treat, featuring saskatoons, Manitoba-made ice cream and oatmeal-granola crumble, and probiotic cookies. Some of these products, as well as the ingredients that go into them, can be purchased at Generation Green at The Forks Market.
In another value-added spinoff, NuEats hires university-level food science students, giving them both experience and exposure in product development, consumer testing and marketing.
It can be a long trip from gate to plate in the food business. The real payback from initiatives such as this one isn't the royalty cheque, it's the connections it builds between farming and healthy eating.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org