This is a tough time of year to stick with a diet. Often by now, the new year’s resolutions are long forgotten, the short days make the couch that much more inviting, and the cold temperatures make us crave comforting snacks. In our house, these long winter evenings used to make for an easy excuse to dive into a greasy bag of potato chips, or on a good day, a bowl of buttery popcorn in front of the fireplace.
This year, we have brought a new option into our living room: roasted and seasoned, chickpea and lentil snacks from Three Farmers. They are both yummy and filling and pro- vide a much denser taste and nutrient profile compared to our old comfort food snack options. The extra-fun part is knowing that we are supporting a business and many farms that make a positive impact on the soil and the environment around which the ingredients are grown.
Three Farmers is a food company based in Saskatoon that purchases ingredients from farmers in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Their purchase agreements require the farms to grow certain crops in a special production system called ‘intercropping’. This is where a farm plants two or three crops together on the same field in the same season, harvests them all together and separates the grains afterwards using mechanical cleaners.
As you can imagine, selecting crops with different seed sizes is critical. For example, inter- cropping wheat with barley or canola with flax makes it nearly impossible to separate the two crops for marketing individually after harvest. And unless a buyer is using the crop purely for feed, they want to buy one crop at a time; whatever amount of another species is contained in the shipment is measured as waste and deducted from the farmer’s payment.
Three Farmers also requires intercrops to be separated before receiving deliveries into the plant where they are turned into snack foods, and this is a critical control point from a food safety perspective. Given the large-scale commercial nature of today’s grain farms, equipment, storage, and transportation systems, it is a challenge to keep out of grain shipments things-that-are-not-food, such as tools, stones, glass, and other hazards. It has also become a real challenge to keep pesticide residues out of commercial grain shipments, but that is perhaps a different topic for another day. Farmers who practice intercropping use less herbicide to control weeds because the denser plant population is naturally more competitive. They also find mixed-grain intercrops to be more resilient to disease, likely due to the complexity of plant phenotypes in the air, and as a result can grow cereal and pulse crops with little to no fungicide.
During a ‘normal’ growing season, it is common these days for wheat and chickpeas grown in a monocrop to require 3-8 passes of fungicide to keep plant diseases at bay. These are not cheap products, making for great amounts of savings for intercropping farmers who can use less of them.
On top of that, and the savings on herbicides, intercrops benefit soil biology, which improves the field’s overall and long-term health, which leads to steady reductions in future use of chemicals. That in turn supports cleaner air, water, and food, which has a big benefit to the public and to conscious food consumers like those of you reading this article.
To be sure, there are added challenges for intercropping farmers, and it does not always work out. It takes courage and hard work and new research to have success. Partly this is because monocrop farming has become so simple, and for many, honestly, kind of boring. For the farmers that we work with who grow bulk grain crops on broad acres, it is fun trying new approaches with a vision for reducing reliance on chemical agriculture.
At our past events and in our online networking sessions now, you can find us, the members of the Regenerative Food Community, geeking out about mycorrhizal fungi and debating what seeding rate, harvest timing and method of separation will work best. We feel strongly that intercropping is worth the extra effort, and the best part is that it is so interesting in its complexity.
An extra-special touch is doing this in close connection and partnership with the Three Farmers food company. Through Prairie Routes, we can all enjoy eco-conscious, home-grown comfort snack foods from regenerating farms, making us feel feel happy and healthy, even in the dead of a Prairie winter.
Supporting Three Farmers by buying their products is one way that every conscious food consumer can join the regenerative movement too. Three Farmers provides financial sup- port to our educational efforts, and they are creating a new market for innovative inter- cropping grain producers, all while offering a novel line of excellent, healthy snack alter- natives to customers who care.
When the chain of care and intention comes full circle like this, it is truly inspiring to see what modern food and agriculture players are capable of - innovation at its best.