Sunday, August 11, 2013 was the kind of Alberta summer day one dreams about.
We have big sky in Alberta. When our big sky is nothing but blue as far as the eye can see and there is not a breath of wind and I have a farm tour booked for my company Calgary Food Tours Inc. – well, that is a sure sign that all is right in the cosmos and my guests are going to have a day they remember their whole lives. I care for that.
I take it as a sign that Alberta and I are working together to help my guests savour their lives. The big Alberta blue sky serves as the perfect backdrop for some deep emotional bonding between city folk and farm folk over the common thread of caring about our food and where it comes from.
The mission for this farm tour was to take thirty people to five farms in one day.
This blog post will describe the day and I’ll throw in some fun recipes as we tour the farms together here. I hope this post will encourage you to take a country drive and visit these farms yourself sometime or at least take a drive as far as the Calgary Farmer’s Market where you can get their truly local produce year round.
The only way it was even remotely possible to visit five farms in one day is the fact that the farms in question are the neighbouring farms that make up the Innisfail Growers group.
The five farms are as follows:
Beck Farms – Shelley and Rod Bradshaw
Edgar Farms – Elna and Doug Edgar with daughter Keri (Edgar) and Randy Graham
Hillside Greenhouses – Carmen and Jose Fuentes
UpperGreen Farms – John and Corry Buyks with son Hanno and his wife Jamie
The Jungle Farm – Leona and Blaine Staples
The group was founded in 1986 with the newest member joining ten years ago in 2003. The members of this group know a thing or two about being organized and working together to make the magic of great food happen and that’s exactly what our guests got to experience on our visit.
Hitting the Road
We set out from the Calgary Farmer’s Market at the leisurely hour of 9:30 a.m. and City Palate magazine sponsored both a bus ride snack from Calgary’s Brûlée Bakery and our wine for our lunch later in the day. Fratello Analog Coffee Roasters sponsored direct trade single estate barista made coffees for our guests (try saying that three times fast!) and I had my faithful driver Don Rivers of Sahalla Coach Lines helping me gather and load our 28 guests for this excursion. Both Amanda Bonner and Leilani Olynik of The Calgary Farmer’s Market were on board with their spouses and Olynik’s beautiful not-quite two-year old daughter.
We landed at Carmen Fuentes’s Hillside Greenhouses tomato growing operation first. Fuentes grew up in the Innisfail area and admired the Innisfail Growers group. She knew that she wanted a career in agriculture after high school so she approached the group and asked if there was a product they would like to add to their offerings to consumers that she might be able to grow for them. When they told her tomatoes and cucumbers she chose greenhouse management as her major at Old’s College. Smart woman; great career planning.
Carmen starts up her greenhouse each year in late January and has tomatoes ready for market four to five months later. She is able to grow till late November and then the lack of light and abundance of cold air necessitate a shut-down period. Carmen cleans out all the old equipment and dirt each year and starts fresh to avoid diseases that might otherwise afflict her indoor crops. She does not use pesticides. Carmen’s husband Jose is a mechanic and works off farm but is able to help her with all the mechanical side of running the greenhouse.
Our group thought the tomato salsa Fuentes made for us tasted fantastic and they very happily scooped it up with the crispy tortilla chips she provided. We bought fresh tomatoes and mini cucumbers and climbed back on the bus with appetites wetted for further taste-testing exploits.
Carmen Fuentes Chilean Tomato Salsa
Fuentes husband hails from Chile and says that every restaurant they visit there has this sauce as a sort of constant condiment on the table. I guess our ketchup is their beautiful salsa.
To make it simply combine the following:
red wine vinegar
Play with the amounts until you come up with your own magical formula for how you like it. That’s all I’m going to tell you. Trust yourself. It’ll turn out just fine.
After the Asparagus – the next chapter at Edgar Farms
Next up on the tour was Edgar Farms and the chance to visit with local farming guru and dynamo Elna Edgar.
The Edgar farm is a century farm – in operation for over a hundred years – and they are famous for the 27 acres of Asparagus they grow each year in the two month season from May to late June. The good news for this famous farm is that Elna and Doug Edgar’s daughter Keri and their son-in-law Randy Graham are working the farm now and so it will be passed down to the next generation. This is a big deal in a province where the average age of a farmer is 58 years old.
On this visit we would only see the wispy fronds of the asparagus ferns waving to us from their fields as they rest up and gain strength to produce the tasty shoots we love to eat each spring. Today, we would get to learn about the serious amount of legumes – peas and beans – the Edgar’s also grow.
Elna Edgar is always organized. She loaded us all on a special wagon and hauled us out to her vibrant green fields of legumes. She was driving the tractor and telling us all about the history of the farm and the crops we were passing on a microphone with speakers she’d rigged up on the back of the tractor. She and husband Doug are known for their ingenuity and this is just a small example. As we got on the wagon we each got little bags of freshly picked pea pods and yellow and green beans to munch on the way there. Edgar told us to “eat all our vegetables” because if we did we could fill our baggies with all the peas we could pick from the fields. People had fun picking peas.
We returned to the Edgar’s farm gate store and had a tour of their new food processing kitchen where they make all sorts of pickles to sell at the farmer’s markets. I bought bread and butter asparagus pickles and am saving them to enjoy with my Thanksgiving dinner this year. There were frozen packages of the Edgar’s own Angus Beef (yet another project), stacks of preserves and loads of fresh vegetables and Keri (Edgar) Graham was there to sell it all to our group.
Lunch at the Little Red Deer Community Hall
Even after eating all our fresh vegetables, the group’s collective tummy was grumbly at this point so we headed to the Little Red Deer Community Hall for a catered lunch featuring all the produce of The Innisfail Growers. I made a punch featuring Elna Edgar’s famous rhubarb cordial and we enjoyed rose, white and red wines sponsored by City Palate magazine and chosen by my friend Richard Harvey of Metro Vino Wines. The lunch had a real old-time feel and the guests mingled and savoured all the locally grown goodness. With all the food coming from the farms we were visiting it did bear a resemblance to how the early settlers that built this community hall would have eaten.
Elna Edgar’s Rhubarb Cordial
6 c. rhubarb, chopped
6 c. water
3/4 c. cane sugar
Bring the rhubarb, water and cloves to a low boil and cook for about 15 minutes or until the rhubarb is soft.
Pour this mixture into a cheesecloth-lined sieve over a large bowl or measuring cup.
Compost the rhubarb remains.
Stir the sugar into the pretty pink liquid until it dissolves.
Transfer the liquid into an old glass milk bottle or pretty pitcher and store in the fridge or place in 1 c. containers in the freezer for later use.
Drink the cordial as a breakfast juice or combine it with lemonade for a refreshing summer treat.
Make a punch by combining 2 to 3 cups cordial, 1 bottle lemon or limeade, 4 litres of sparkling water and top with edible flowers or pitted cherries and limes. It’s so pretty in pink!
Beck Farms Beckons Us
After lunch our host Shelley Bradshaw to us to her home base Beck Farms. Bradshaw founded the Innisfail Growers group in 1986. Beck Farms is famous for their Sweet Nantes Gourmet Baby Carrots and Bradshaw plants this crop every few weeks in succession throughout the summer to ensure her loyal customers have baby carrots throughout the year. The Bradshaws employ eight temporary farm workers from Mexico each year and say that the word temporary is misleading as they have had the same workers from April to October every year for the last decade. Having such dependable workers has enabled Beck Farms to add cold crops – kohlrabi, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbages, brussel sprouts – and cold frame grown hot peppers to their offerings.
We got to sample those sweet carrots in Bradshaw’s moist raison-laden carrot cake. It had been at least an hour since lunch and we’d walked through several vegetable patches so we ready to have some cake and eat it too.
The Spud-tacular Stop
While the Edgar’s grow some meat for the group, The Buyks family of Uppergreen Farms specializes in potatoes for the meat and potatoes lovers amongst we Albertans. But, if you think they grow just any old spuds, think again.
We met Hanno and Megan Buyks in the field and Hanno explained how the potato tubers are grown, why hilling them is important and when to dig them. It was magical watching the youngest members of our tour group discovering that food comes from the ground we stand on and not just a grocery store shelf.
We got to sample six types of potatoes and when the Purple Viking ones hit the market stall I’ll be buying them as long as they last. They were dry and begging for just a little butter but incredibly flavourful on their own. Buyks told us that the little yellow banana fingerling breed were the best sellers and I love those ones too. I roast them.
Roasted Buyks Banana Fingerlings
Take a couple of pounds of these little yellow oblongs.
Put them in a plastic bag and coat them with extra virgin olive oil and a few smashed up cloves of garlic.
Place them on a parchment lined cookie sheet and sprinkle with chopped fresh rosemary and the grated zest of one lemon.
Bake at 400 F for about 25 minutes.
The final farm on our visit is another of Alberta’s Century Farms – The Jungle Farm owned by Leona and Blaine Staples. The Staples grow fresh greens, seasonal strawberries and ever-bearing strawberries. They also have an amazing pumpkin patch which I talked about here and here.
Even though we had started the day with Fratello coffees and Ginger Cream Cookies from Brûlée Bakery, had Carmen Fuentes fresh Chilean Salsa and chips at Hillside, a whole goody bag of fresh peas and beans at Edgar Farms, lunch featuring all the produce of the five farms and Edgar’s Angus Beef, Shelley Bradshaw’s Sweet Nantes Carrot Cake, AND six kinds of potatoes to sample at Buyks Uppergreen Farms…we still found ourselves very capable of eating Leona Staples totally refreshing and delicious Strawberry Shortcake. I’m sure you’ll agree from the photo below it would be impossible to resist on a hot summer’s day.
Leona Staples has a Master’s Degree in Home Economics and teaches canning and preserving in the farm’s on site processing facility. She teaches strawberry jam-making in the spring and summer and dill pickle-making in late summer. The farm is open for visitors and has a farm gate store to shop in or to buy a piece of that amazing shortcake. From early September till Halloween, the farm is open on weekends and that is the only time of year there is an entry fee because the Staples offer many activities to celebrate their pumpkin patch and the fall harvest season at the time.
They have a pumpkin cannon, carving contests, wagon rides, a sixty food slide down their “strawberry mountain” and of course the opportunity to go to the patch and pick your own pumpkin or take some adorable photos for a fun family keepsake. Close to Halloween they even have a power tool pumpkin carving contest.
The Staples have over 2000 Alberta school children visit their farm each year to learn about where their food comes from. Staples says she couldn’t be happier and says she loves to educate people about their food. Blaine Staples has a Master’s Degree in Agriculture and is a member of the North American Strawberry Growers Association. Every time I visit The Jungle Farm I learn something new about agriculture and am thrilled to see the undauntable pioneering spirit of Leona’s family carried on in the energy she and Blaine farm with today.
Our guests loved finishing the day at The Jungle Farm. A few of them were kind enough to blog about the day themselves. You can read BJ Tunamet’s, Tim Olynik’s, or The Calgary Farmer’s Market’s blog posts about our day together. It was great to have their enthusiasm on board.
Finally, the Finale
So, that was a really big day. We picked and paid for our baskets of field fresh strawberries and strolled back to our bus for a snoozy ride home. It was a day out of life to savour. It was a day to savour local farms and local food. It was a day that might help us savour eating local a little more each day we wake up to buy, cook and eat another day.