Organic grain marketers flex global muscles

Alex and Janet Galarneau at PHS near Radville, Sask. Photo: Christalee Froese

By Christalee Froese
Glacier FarmMedia staff

They run their hands appreciatively along the fur of the buffalo hide given to them by one of their grain contractors.

While their organic grain marketing business is known worldwide, and is an economic success with 80 growers and 24 employees, it isn’t necessarily about any of that. Prairie Heritage Seeds is all about the success of its faithful organic growers who are able to thrive despite the economies of scale that are against them.

“When I see the people we support becoming successful, like the farmer who can eliminate his operating loan when he is 40 years old, that’s success for us,” says Alex Galarneau, who owns and operates PHS with his wife, Janet.

The business that today ships more than 500,000 bushels of organic grain annually to ports around the world started with humble beginnings. In 1981, Alex’s parents, Alfred and Reine Galarneau, founded the company. The high interest rates of the 1980s made farm expansion difficult, but the market for chemical-free grain was expanding as consumers were increasingly willing to pay a premium price for food products made from crops that hadn’t been sprayed.

The first shipment of organic red spring wheat, grown on the Galarneau farm, went to a flour mill in Quebec. With more food processors seeking out organic cereal grains, pulses and oilseeds, Alfred recruited other farmers from Saskatchewan to help him meet the rising market demand.

Alex says despite the growing awareness about organics in the 1980s, pitching organic grains to food processors was still a tough sell in PHS’s early years.

“We knocked on a lot of doors,” says Alex. “In those days we had some flour mills just laugh, but seven or eight years later, they came back to us.”

Gabby Pozner, junior quality assurance laboratory assistant at PHS, checks the quality of a grain sample. Photo: Christalee Froese

At the same time, Alfred realized that an independent third-party certification system was needed to ensure that grains grown without chemicals could be universally designated as organic. He was a founding member of the Organic Crop Improvement Association in Canada, and went on to help establish organic certification standards throughout North America.

Alex and his brother, Robert, followed in their dad’s footsteps, eventually taking over the organic grain operation, which by 1989 featured a fully integrated seed-cleaning plant and was attracting attention from an increasing number of food processors around the globe.

“We were at the right place at the right time,” says Alex, explaining that consumer demand began skyrocketing in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“It was consumer driven and we were just fulfilling a need.”

Alex and Janet were married in 1996. Their honeymoon to Europe was a celebration, but it also involved a few grain-marketing stops along the way. What followed were more trips to European food shows and the growth of a lucrative market overseas for what was now organic grain grown for PHS by Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta farmers.

It was explosive for us and it provided a huge market expansion for farmers. – Alex Galarneau

Wheat and flax were the most popular commodities until 1997 when PHS was approached by European customers to provide Kamut, a trademarked wheat variety guaranteed to be unmodified, unhybridized and non-GMO.

“It was explosive for us and it provided a huge market expansion for farmers,” says Alex, explaining that his contractors navigated a steep learning curve to figure out how to grow and harvest Kamut in Canada.

In 2001, the Galarneaus outgrew the workspace they were occupying in the basement of the original farmhouse, so they established an 11,000 sq. foot warehouse, office and cleaning facility alongside rows of storage bins.

Now on its 10th major renovation, PHS is a sprawling operation with on-site grain cleaning and storage, shipping-container loading docks, grain testing laboratory and two levels of office space.

PHS does business in about 18 countries, and has made Radville a household name among European food processors. But Alex and Janet are not in the organic marketing business for the recognition.

My measure of success is that we are able to give back to our community, and the organic community across Canada… – Janet Galarneau

“The biggest rewards for us come from our growers and our employees when they give us compliments about what it’s like to work here,” says Alex.

Janet says the biggest reward for her comes from being able to help her community.

“My measure of success is that we are able to give back to our community, and the organic community across Canada through scholarships and funding organic education in Saskatchewan,” says Janet, adding that PHS also supports food banks across Canada.

“Success for me is being in a position now where we can help out whenever we see that there is a need.”

Kyana St Amant, PHS’s senior quality assurance laboratory technician, tests for mycotoxins. Photo: Christalee Froese

The outbreak of COVID-19 has resulted in another surge in business for PHS as at-home bakers with more time on their hands have sent the sales of flour skyrocketing.

“We cannot keep up with demand as many companies are filling their warehouses with supplies and running up inventory to meet the demand,” says Alex.

While 90 percent of business still comes from Europe, PHS is seeing a growth in Asian and Latin American markets.

Currently, PHS grains can be found in more than 2,500 different products from flours to pastas to breakfast cereals.

“It’s neat to say that grain in some of these worldwide products came from Canadian growers,” says Alex.

“Seventy-five percent of the world’s Kamut comes from Saskatchewan and Alberta. We should be very proud of that.”

The buffalo hide given to Alex and Janet in appreciation from one of their contracted farmers will be hung with pride on the vaulted ceiling of the PHS office. It symbolizes why the Galarneaus have remained in the business — to support and grow Saskatchewan organic farming.

This article was originally published at The Western Producer.