Jirah Group: From seed to table, taking care of people and the land

By Arianne Pfoutz

When Andrew Eastwood switched his 200-acre Quebec family farm from conventional to organic back in 1986, the market for organic food was small. Driven by a vision of living in harmony with the land, he inspired other farmers to pioneer organic production along with him.

Today, on 400 acres in Ormstown, southeastern Quebec, he oversees the Jirah Group, a rapidly growing enterprise that grows, mills and sells organic and non-GMO grains to feed producers in America, Canada and worldwide. He remains true to this seminal principle: Take care of the land and it will take care of you.

Organic and Non-GMO create the brand

Jirah Group retains that strong commitment to organic. It holds its non-GMO, organic status as essential to meet the demands of its customers and stay aligned with its own vision.

The soybeans, corn, wheat, barley, peas, spelt and other grains, along with soy, flax and rapeseed oils, are certified organic to satisfy the preferences of the global markets. The European market remains strong in organics, and the Asian market is growing; its stringent certification requirements (i.e., JAS certification, Japanese Agricultural Standard for Organic Agricultural Processed Foods) keep Jirah�s products at the highest standards.

�Non-GMO is very key to our customers,� said John Gladu, vice president and chief operating officer. �Non-GMO comes into play in the transition from conventional to organic. When we can only get so many organic products, and non-GMO is one step closer.�

Jirah�s Quality Control Department tests all products going in and out for GMOs, so certification is proven when they reach a client�s doorsteps.

�Every load is tested before it enters our system�not many other suppliers do this in-house,� Gladu said. �We keep our employees trained on the systems for grading products. So for a small to medium-sized company, we are pleased to have industry experts on staff or at our disposal to guide us in meeting our client�s requirements as the industry changes.�

Avoiding contamination

How does Jirah Group avoid contamination of their products? By not seeding at the same time as conventional farmers to avoid cross pollination, Gladu said. �Keeping our organic and non-GMO status is obviously a high priority � as a small farm, you rely on that organic price,� he said.

The company farms about 400 acres, and three or four more local farmers grow as well. Soybeans are the biggest seller with America as the primary market and Canada and other parts of the world filling the rest. The clients are feed producers, mostly dairy and poultry.

The biggest challenge is staying on top of �the ever-growing and changing world of organic farming, making sure we meet the certification needs, nationally and internationally,� said Gladu. �We look now to the world market; if you can meet the requirements, you can ship products anywhere in the world.�

Construction will begin this year on a new organic grain transfer center undertaken in partnership with the Town of Huntingdon, Quebec.

Jirah recently launched a division in Chile, where 12 farmers are being trained in organic production. Organic soybean seeds were planted in November 2009, to be harvested in April. �Our goal is to grow Chile as a backup,� Gladu said. �Their season is opposite ours, and this makes our products available year-round.�

Growing and sustaining a company

As Eastwood�s acres increased their output, he began selling to clients from New York, Vermont and locally. By 1997, these local farmers were selling organic corn and soy to small feed mills. In 2000, the first products achieved organic certification�corn, soy, and wheat�with the company run by only 4 employees.

In 2001, bigger silos were created, as well as a facility to clean, roast, and grind the grains for feed. By 2003, the market demanded a higher quality product, and by 2005, demand, volumes, and workload had reached a level where the small farm model didn�t work any longer. It was time to expand to the next level, a professional grain supply company. By 2007 a working team was assembled, including marketing, operations, logistics, and administrative professionals. By 2008, an international market specialist was on board, and the direction was set. Jirah Group now employs 17 fulltime workers.

Gladu foresees the organic market remaining strong, in spite of the recent recession. �2009 saw a big push in the organic market, then the crash came in the American market. Once the economy resets, another market will re-emerge�I think by 2011 the prices should stabilize.�

Meanwhile, strong organic companies who maintain strict quality controls are poised to do well. �Problems like the contamination events from Chinese products have got people concerned about overseas exports�.our commitment to clean products and strong regulation may be a constant challenge, but it also distinguishes us in the marketplace.�

Coming full cycle � Restaurant Le Riverain

In 2008, Eastwood and his wife created a restaurant as a way to give back something to their community. Restaurant Le Riverain, located below the administrative offices of the company, offers a fine dining experience created from the local produce of 33 different farms. Offering a menu that varies with the seasons, Le Riverain is a testament to the delicious rewards of organic production, �from farm to fork.�

It�s just another instance of Jirah Group �putting back what we take.� The goal is to keep growing organic, continually improving the process, and guiding others in organic farming technologies at the same time. �It�s our future,� noted Gladu. �We do organic well, and other countries are approaching us to learn to do the same.�

(Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report, April 2010)

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