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The gluten advantage

With $1 million on the line, this Quebec farm is betting big money on small markets

Guillaume Dallaire checking on hemp grain at the bins.

It’s a two-hour drive straight north from Quebec City to get to Tournevent’s Farm, owned by Guillaume Dallaire and Audrey Bouchard at Hébertville in Lac Saint-Jean near Saguenay.

At this time of year, it can be a cold trip, but even in the summer when Country Guide first visited, it can feel a long way from the great metropolitan areas where the bulk of Canada’s consumers live.

Even so, it’s a trend in those cities — and all across the country — that Dallaire and Bouchard are betting their business future on, because they’ve set an objective of making a name for themselves in growing and processing gluten-free grains.

But how do you do that?

Canada’s gluten-free is a niche market, as these farmers are aware, but it is a niche that is showing a lot of strength, with underpinnings that seem sound.

Only one per cent of Canadians suffer Celiac disease, an inherited auto-immune condition in which eating gluten, a storage protein found in wheat and other grains, causes severe damage to the small intestine where nutrients are absorbed.

However, that still makes 350,000 potential customers.

Nor is that all. According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada studies, about one-third of Canadians or 10 million people are looking for gluten-free products, the majority believing that gluten-free food is better for their health.

For 2018, the worldwide gluten-free market was projected to be US$6.3 billion. There’s nothing small about that, but in order to get on board, a decision had to be made from the start at the Tournevent’s Farm. “To avoid potential cross contamination with gluten we decided not to grow wheat, but also to not grow other grains with gluten content such as rye, barley or triticale,” says Dallaire.

William Suess-Villeneuve is among a group of 10 producers who is working with Guillaume to develop an organic gluten-free pool of grains. Here he is harvesting hemp grain, Lac Saint-Jean new green gold nuggets. photo: Nicolas Mesly

Gluten-sensitive people are so intolerant to the protein that even seven grains of wheat per tonne of harvested grain, or six or seven wheat heads per hectare are too much.

This requires a very strict production specification for the producers, as well as a rigorous traceability system from the farm to the store shelf.

Dallaire, now 43 years old, is a former computer teacher at CÉGEP de Chicoutimi who quit his secure job to take over the family farm in 2014. At the time his father, Jacques, had sold his dairy quota to embrace organic hemp cultivation. He had flair.

Today, edible hemp seeds represent 50 per cent of the farm income, and it has paid off. In 2017, the price hit $4,000 per tonne due to a booming demand.

Dallaire also grows organic buckwheat, flaxseed, canola, camelina, peas, lentils and garlic.

A gluten-free production chain

“Our farm is part of a gluten-free production chain,” says Dallaire. As such, he works closely with 10 other producers in his area. The idea is to secure a pool of approximately 3,000 hectares of organic gluten-free grains by offering what is effectively a regional service centre.

In the first phase of their 2014 business plan, the couple invested $500,000 to build a grain screening and cleaning facility. The reason? “The buyers want clean grain,” says Dallaire.

Next, the grain screening centre was followed two years later in 2016 by another investment of $150,000 in an optical grain sorter, “because when we harvest organic crops, we also harvest weeds,” says Dallaire.

The machine’s magic eye classifies the size and the colour of the grains at an incredible speed.

Others are watching too. The farm’s new sorter was named the Regional Strategic Investment of 2017 by La table agroalimentaire du Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, a promotional business organization.

And it isn’t only farmers. Processors are lining up as well. Among the farm’s clients are Les Aliments Trigone and Moulin A. Coutu, two companies that have been pioneers in the development of gluten-free food products in the province.

Organic edible oil

“We want to process and add value to our regional crops by producing a unique organic edible oil,” says Bouchard, CEO of Tournevent’s Farm and a graduate in science and food technology at Laval University (2003).

The idea came after a few visits with Dallaire in France where the couple took a course in on-farm processing and value-adding taught by the University of Bordeaux.

Audrey Bouchard is working on edible oil from gluten-free grains. photo: Nicolas Mesly

Again, the scale of the business is surprising. In France today, there are as many edible oil processors as there are cheesemakers.

This is where the third part of their business plan comes in. The couple have recently invested in a $400,000 vegetable oil press. Among the star products in development is an organic canola oil.

The crop itself represents an agronomic challenge in the field as most of the canola which is grown in Western Canada is genetically modified (GM). “We found a producer in the Prairies who has kept non-GM original seeds,” says Dallaire who selects his fields to avoid any potential contamination with his neighbours who grow GM canola.

The other challenge is to extract the canola oil mechanically without using chemical solvents such as those used to produce commercial canola oil.

“We will produce mechanically a single-press canola oil with all its taste and flavour, a bit like olive oil,” says Bouchard.

So far so good. Bouchard has also worked on an edible hemp oil, which has “a very specific nutty flavour and which is ideally balanced for human consumption in omega-3, -9 and vitamin E.”

Meanwhile, Dallaire is expecting a decision from Health Canada to approve the use of hemp meal in animal production. A green light would mean a new market for their farm.

The couple also bet on camelina edible oil, which tastes a bit like sesame oil and which is highly tolerant to heat.

Dallaire and Bouchard intend to market their organic edible oil under the AgroBoréal trademark. AgroBoréal does the promotion of products only grown in Lac Saint-Jean and links its name to Canada’s northern woodlands.

“A big Quebec processor is buying some of its organic oil partly from China and Paraguay,” Dallaire explains, and it’s clear where he is focusing his energy. “For us, it is imperative they buy locally.”

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