Building connections and finding balance
Leona Staples is passionate about sharing the story of agriculture.
By Stefanie Croley
Leona Staples, president of The Jungle Farm in Red Deer, Alta., is passionate about sharing the story of agriculture with everyone she meets. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Staples, along with her husband and three sons, would host more than 5,000 students through educational experiences, offering them unforgettable knowledge about how food is produced. Stefanie Croley, editorial director, agriculture, chatted with Staples in this interview about the importance of creating connections between producers and consumers and the struggle to balance motherhood and career, while still fulfilling your dreams.
Tell us about your background and current role in agriculture.
I grew up on The Jungle Farm. I’m the fourth generation and our boys are the fifth generation, living on our farm and in the same house. I was always passionate about agriculture and really believed in the production of food and the people who do that.
When I was young, I had the wonderful opportunity of meeting an incredible young district home economist who worked for Alberta Agriculture’s extension and was very involved in our 4-H program. I knew, at 13 years old, that’s what I wanted to do.
I got my Bachelor of Science with a major in home economics and became a district home economist, working in multiple communities around Alberta. Eventually, my parents were looking to retire, so we came back to my family farm.
How has The Jungle Farm evolved?
My parents had a mixed-grain cattle operation. When we came back, we were asked to join in a small growers’ group of five farms, each growing different things that would be co-operatively marketed throughout central Alberta. We were asked to grow strawberries. During our first year, people showed up on our doorstep looking to pick strawberries. We did all the wrong things to start a U-pick operation and it made us change what we were doing.
We now have a farm store and direct marketing of fruits and vegetables where people can come and pick their own. We have a commercial kitchen where we can do value-added products. We have families come to visit us from April to October. And what gets me up every morning is the opportunity to educate and to share our farm. People want to connect and understand agriculture.
What has been a challenge for you throughout your career?
My kids recently said, “We often wondered how you balanced work and being a mom. Wasn’t that challenging?” I really do think this is a women’s issue – we want to contribute to the family, whether that’s working [at or outside the home] or being a stay-at-home mom.
We want to raise our children to be good working citizens in our society. But we also have career aspirations and education that we want to utilize.
How do we balance that? When our children were young, I had them in the strawberry patch with me. Because as we were starting out, we physically did a ton of the work ourselves. I’m so blessed to have had my mom, who’s one of my strongest role models, be on the farm with us at that time.
Can you share a defining moment?
A defining moment, truly, that set me on the trajectory of where I am today was being that 13-year-old with wide eyes watching the district home economist. I knew what I wanted to do and then moved forward. I worked with the most amazing women. They were strong, independent, showed incredible leadership and were passionate about agriculture.
How do you see the industry changing in the future?
I think that the world of wanting to connect to food has grown. Canada is one of the world’s food baskets. Aren’t we fortunate? My hope is that we continue to expand our value-added products. We’re incredible growers of grains and meats, but the more we can add value to it, the more dollars that are going to stay in our country for our people to be employed. I don’t expect to see any decrease in the demand for locally grown fruits and vegetables. And I would love to see a focus in curriculum on showing students more about agriculture.