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Brule Creek Farms' decade of transformation

Thunder Bay-area producer expands from flour mill to sole local canola oil purveyor

Thunder Bay's first local flour producer has been quietly expanding since the first bags were sold in 2008.

Jeff and Andrea Burke have turned Brule Creek Farms from small-scale venture — selling their stone-milled flour at the Thunder Bay Country Market — to growing their own crops, upgrading their equipment, expanding their line, and even taking on the challenge of growing and pressing their own canola oil.

The original intent, Jeff explained, was just to mill and sell flour, not grow his own.

He purchased a piece of land in Conmee Township, about 45 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, with the plan to just build a processing facility.

“There was room to start growing wheat, so I did, about 17 acres,” Burke said. “I also expanded into rye and buckwheat. Since then, I've been gradually adding products around the flour.”

By 2010, he was offering baking mixes for muffins and cookies, which he also sells as a fundraising product, and to customers.

Things really changed in 2013 when he added canola to his crops.

At first, he started growing it as a rotation crop. The following year, he installed a small-scale press and started to produce his own cold-pressed oil.

“The oil was an unplanned addition, but it was a good fit for the operation,” he said. “We already had the equipment for planting and harvesting, storing and cleaning.”

While the addition was easy, there was a learning curve to growing it.

Because he sells direct, Burke has to be conscious of his customers' preferences.

He grows a non-GMO, Clearfield variety, which is a specific strain that requires swathing and drying in the field before being taken off the field for processing.

Many other producers, he said, grow Roundup varieties that can be direct cut and processed faster.

Burke said it's a lot of work, but it's worth it knowing that's what his customers want.

He pointed out canola does do well in Northern climates, but it is a very different plant to tend and harvest as opposed to cereal crops.

Growing canola has other challenges. This fall has been a cold and wet one, hampering harvesting. He only finished on Oct. 23.

“I had to leave the canola in swaths for five weeks, which is a really long time for it to be out there. It was very stressful leaving it out there thinking, I may not have a canola harvest."

The other crops were excellent and taken off in time, resulting in one of his best wheat crops in years.

Another challenge is storage. The moisture content is lower compared to wheat, and it must be aerated to keep it dry enough to process. The temperature to store it, Burke said, has to be perfect.

The first two years they had heat damage, so they installed bigger fans.

This year, they are installing a heating system to keep it dry. So far, he said it's been cool enough to keep the canola dry naturally, but the installation is yet another addition to the farm's infrastructure.

The constant additions and increased production has meant Brule Creek Farms has also grown from its original 17 acres to 225 acres.

Burke has no immediate plans to purchase more land, but said there is plenty of fallow farmland near his that is available.

With the resurrection of local farming, this means previously abandoned farmland is going back into production.

With increased yields, more people are getting back into growing cash crops to sell locally. Richardson International, one of the country's largest agri-food processors, buys from local farmers.

“It's bringing back agriculture as an industry,” Burke said.