10 years ago Erna and her husband Franz moved to Canada from Austria in 2005 to farm.
“Growing up farming in Austria had become more of a hobby for our family, than a means of living. Though I absolutely loved it and being outdoors. I knew it was what I wanted to do full time”, Erna shared during our conversation.
Erna’s and Franz family’s farm had been in his family for over 280 years, and spanned approximately 10 acres, a sufficient size to sustain a way of living in her grandparent’s generation, yet not large enough to support the family in the new millennium. As a young adult Erna pursued a career as a teacher, later meeting her husband, Franz a police officer. It was their love for farming, the outdoors, and the draw of new opportunities that led Erna and Franz to move their young family to Canada in 2005. They settled in rural Inglis, Manitoba where they aspired to build their farm ‘Freefield Organics’, and raise their four children.
“We see lots of wildlife here on the farm, which is one of the things I love most. From beavers to ducks, eagles to weasels, wolfs to coyotes. Even deer, elk and bears. One time I woke to find 32 geese on our front lawn! Our farm house today is on a lake front so we see a lot of wildlife. I even put large stones in our garden to retain the heat and this attracts the snakes.”
It was an absolute pleasure to listen to Erna talk about moving her family from Austria to Inglis Manitoba. From the challenges posed by a new Canadian climate, to their success in becoming a certified organic farm and growing a variety of grains, lentils and produce, there truly is an incredible story behind Freefield Organics.
Here are a few highlights from our conversation with Erna:
What inspired you to farm in Canada?
I love to be outside in nature. In Austria our farm flooded every 10 years, and it became even more frequent as time went on. Our home was already situated on the highest elevation on our land, and moving to a new home in a town or city was a lifestyle Franz and I did not want. Both Franz and I had good jobs, but we both wanted to see and experience more, and it seemed a good time for a change. A friend of ours who had lived nearby had moved to Canada to farm. Franz decided to make the trip to visit him. During his time in Canada he also looked at a property he thought would work for us.
After a big flood in Austria in 2005 we made the decision to sell our small farm and move to Inglis Manitoba to start farming in Canada! What a crazy idea?!
What challenges did you face when you first began farming in Canada?
We started out with about 160 acres of land and a farmyard. The house on this yard was the former Freefield School House, which became our new home.
Back then we didn’t realize that we would have 6 months of winter with temperatures dropping below -40C!
When we started farming in 2006, we wanted to have our land certified organic. Since then it has been inspected and certified every year. We’ve also since purchased another historic school house slated for destruction which we use for packaging and storage. We developed packaging and labeling to sell our own farm products. The new renovated schoolhouse was inspected and approved as a food processing facility. Today our farm has grown to over 700 acres of land and 1/3 of it we have exclusively dedicated to wildlife and their habitat.
What types of crops do you grow at Freefield Organics?
We grow Camelina seed, hulless oats, and flax seed. I’ve also recently started an orchard of fruit trees and herbs for teas and skincare.
Camelina seed is an oil seed, and an ancient crop from Northern Europe. It is adaptable, and has a shorter growing season which makes it well suited for our climate in Manitoba. It has a healthy omega 3-6-9 ratio and is also rich in vitamin E. After harvest, the camelina seed is stored, cleaned, and put through our expellar cold press which we imported from Europe.
This new established oil-press-facility was inspected and approved as a food processing facility in January 2014. Since then we have been producing organic Camelina oil. The oil and pellets are separated, and the oil is stored in a stainless steel containers. Once it settles, we fill our bottles with our Certified Organic Camelina Oil.
We also grow Hulless oats, or Naked Oats, which contain twice the protein and iron compared to an equal amount of rice. In Austria we eat oats and other grains as we do rice. We call them oat-rice, spelt-rice, barley-rice etc. We’re finding challenging to market our naked oats because we’ve learned that Canadians do not often eat oats the same way they do rice. We’re working to help educate shopper that oats, can make just as tasty a side dish as rice or pasta at dinner time!
As a grain farmer, what makes Freefield Organics unique?
We realized after moving to Manitoba that a number of people seem to have trouble with eating and digesting wheat, so we made the decision not to farm any varieties of wheat to prevent any cross contamination. In addition to Camelina and naked oats we also grow flax seed and legumes like red clover which is ploughed back into the soil for its health but also makes for excellent steeped tea.
What’s next on the horizon for Freefield Organics?
We love to grow a wide variety of trees and berries like apples, cherries, plums, hazelnut, haskaps, raspberries, blueberries, gooseberries, Saskatoon berries, aronias, and seabuckthorn. I got my certificate as permaculture designer in 2013. Each year we discover more and more varieties of crops and plants that can be grown here.
We are both dedicated to sustainable and ethical farming, providing nutritious healthy food for people, creating jobs for people and sharing our profits. Four years ago we started planting an U-pick orchard so that people can visit our farm and pick fresh produce themselves. We would like to have a positive social and economical impact in our community.
Where can shoppers find your produce, grains and oils?
We sell our crops to stores in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. All of our product is Certified Organic by Ecocert Canada. Although we have faced challenges marketing organic in our immediate area, we know there is a lot of demand and appreciation for organic products in cities throughout the prairies. Our farm is located about 4.5 hours drive from Winnipeg and 3 hours from Brandon, Manitoba.
Our products will be available online in September 2015.
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