Alberta Fruit and Vegetable Field Day brings ideas to light
By Robert Spencer
By Robert Spencer
Whether you are an experienced producer or someone who is just exploring the potential opportunities offered by the direct market fruit and/or vegetable industry, visiting an existing farm operation can be very enlightening and beneficial.
As the host(s) unfolds the ins and outs of their operation, the whole group starts to share their own insights, experiences and ideas, resulting in a net benefit for everyone.
Over the past several years, many farms have opened their gates and their playbooks to help build the market garden industry in Alberta. In August 2012, a number of existing and prospective producers visited the area around Olds, Alta., for a full-day field day.
To start off, participants visited Olds College. Insect and disease pest identification labs were set up to display a selection of common pests of fruit and vegetables. Attendees examined fresh, dried, mounted and photographic specimens of plants and pests, using microscopes or the naked eye. Experts were on hand to answer questions and provide information.
Participants also went on a tour of the Prairie Fruit Demonstration Orchard, which features approximately 30 selections (species and cultivars) of prairie fruit crops and is managed for the education of students. During the tour, visitors had an opportunity to look at different fruit crops and learned about basic establishment and management of the different crops and the challenges that come with each.
After lunch, participants headed north to visit the Bowden Sun Maze (a.k.a. Eagle Creek Farms) at Bowden, Alta. Originally a traditional crop and livestock farm, the farm has transitioned to higher-value crops and taken on a different focus within the last decade, particularly after John Mills came back to farm with his father, Stan. The farm now features the only sunflower maze in Canada, as well as you-pick flowers and vegetables, a range of agri-tourism activities, some high tunnels, raised-trough strawberries and a large Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) business.
One of the main draws to the farm is agri-tourism, focused on the eight acre sunflower maze. The farm also has corn, sunflower/corn and bale mazes and is currently growing a willow tree maze. Visitors can spend 1.5 to two hours working to find and solve the puzzles located throughout the maze. Exits are located approximately every 15 to 20 minutes for those who need them. This type of maze is geared to families with children who are six to 15 years of age. John has noticed a big difference between the organic sunflower maze and the herbicide-treated corn maze, with better growth in the sunflowers.
Eagle Creek Farms is moving towards organic certification and is largely pesticide free, which is consistent with their philosophy. To reduce their environmental impact, John uses corn-based biodegradable plastic mulches in combination with mechanical tillage for weed control. Almost all plants are watered using drip irrigation systems to increase efficiency.
As is common among producers across the world, labour is a major issue and expense for the farm. John likes to use local labour to keep money in the local economy. It does lead to challenges when students go back to school, but John feels that it is worthwhile and reduces the farm’s hours of operation starting in the fall. There is one foreign worker on the farm, but maintaining a constant workload can be difficult.
The CSA program started up three years ago, with the farm now running a 300+ full family share operation. They have approximately 20 acres of vegetables in production to supply the boxes that are delivered over approximately 14 weeks to several locations in and around Calgary, including some farmers markets. They use sequential planting and high tunnels, and grow a wide variety of crops to supply a varied selection to their customers. Despite the drive, there is a strong demand for produce in that population base and limited competition from other producers.
Through the CSA, John is able to educate customers on how to grow their produce and how to use different products. He can help customers see that product that isn’t perfect and pristine can still taste great; he can also use product that would be graded out of the farmers’ market. People get a direct and closer relationship with the farm and the producer gets the money up front, with a sharing of the risk. Customers see the risks that producers carry and become more understanding of losses.
Over the course of the producer tour, participants saw some of the features of the farm and through the information that was shared and the questions that were asked, not only learned about different production practices and marketing options but also had their views and opinions challenged.
Robert Spencer is a commercial horticulture specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development. He can be reached at email@example.com.