Alberta

Farm Fresh Dividends

Closing the gap from farm to plate


There's nothing better in summer than a fresh, vine-ripened tomato grown on your own
deck or a juicy peach at a fruit stand on your way through the Okanagan. We've all
enjoyed the flavourful fruits and vegetables that only farm fresh can provide. We've
supplemented our grocery store buys with trips to the farmers' market. We've tried to
eke out a crop of vegetables from our backyard. But what if we took it a step further and
actually knew the land where our produce is grown, met the enterprising farmers, and
shared in the yield of the crops? Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) has been
cropping up across Canada, and this year, Alberta has more choice than ever when it
comes to locally-produced fare. 


Community-Shared Agriculture is a simple concept and one so strikingly obvious, you’ll
soon be asking yourself why you haven’t been doing this all your life. Think of it as
buying futures in a crop. The farmer asks for a year’s investment up front, then plants
and tends a variety of crops, harvests and processes them, and finally delivers the
bounty once a week to a pre-determined location for pick up. Most farmers will ask that
you help weed and harvest a few times over the summer as part of the deal. It all goes
back to seeing where your food comes from and how it’s grown and getting your hands
dirty. Making a living off the land is hard work, and the farmers who run CSAs are
passionate about what they do.


“I see what we do here as reconnecting people to their food and to the land,” says
Yolande Stark, owner of Tipi Creek Farm, near Villeneuve, Alberta. “We are the
instrument that allows that connection.”


Tipi Creek Farm is a CSA pioneer in Alberta, having operated since 1993. Over the years,
Stark has coached other Alberta farmers in starting their own direct-to- consumer
ventures, passing on what she has learned. Some have floundered and some have
flourished. But the time seems ripe for CSAs to come into their own in Alberta.


“Things have really picked up the past couple of years. I have 2 or 3 emails a week asking
about the CSA—and I have to turn most of them away!” Stark says.


The increased attention is likely due to our renewed interest in where our food comes
from. Recent films such as Food, Inc. and books such as Michael Pollan’s In Defense of
Food highlight just how complex our food sources have become. Couple that with recent
food scares such as contaminated baby formula from China and the lysteriosis outbreak
brought on by tainted Maple Leaf Foods meat, and it’s no wonder we’re questioning
how our food’s been handled and how many miles it’s travelled before it reaches our
table.

“People are concerned about food security, and this farm provides that. They see for
themselves what goes into the land and what comes out. They don’t have to worry
about where their food comes from,” says Stark.


Aside from providing healthy food, Stark is adamant about maintaining a sense of
community at Tipi Creek. Entire families are encouraged to help weed and harvest, and
there’s even a small patch where children can dig and play. She also keeps the number
of CSA members under 45. Any more, she says, and it becomes unwieldy. On harvest
day in October, all members are invited to harvest whatever is left in the field and
afterwards join in an open-air potluck. Friendships are formed naturally and many CSA
members visit outside of farm time.


It pays to do some research as each CSA is run a little differently, and you want to
ensure a good fit. Sparrow’s Nest Organics another Edmonton-area CSA, farmed by
Graham Sparrow on a piece of land near Opal, Alberta. Sparrow spent many years at
market gardens and CSAs in BC (where these have a lot more traction) and moved back
home to Alberta to set up. Sparrow’s Nest Organics is certified organic and this year
served 83 shares. Sparrow has also seen a spike in interest and has a long waiting list,
but an expansion may be in the works.

Once you’ve decided to sign up, talk to the farmer and ask questions about what to
expect. A working share can runs from $600–$700 for 12 weeks of fresh produce, grown
with sustainable, low-impact methods. Starting in spring, the farmer will send out a list
of that year’s plantings, which will consist of standbys like carrots, broccoli, cabbage,
and onions, but may also include lesser known veggies like kale, kohlrabi, or garlic
scapes. At the beginning of the season, be prepared for smaller batches containing lots
of lettuce with radishes, and by the end of the season be prepared for a bounty of
assorted root vegetables. Farmers also like to experiment every year with new things, so
you may be getting purple carrots or orange cauliflower the year you sign up. If a crop
just doesn’t work, it won’t be repeated the following year. “We never compromise
quality for the look,” says Sparrow.


Often, the complaint is too much produce rather than too little. Each share feeds a
family of four or a pair of vegetarians, so if you’re not used to eating a lot of vegetables,
prepared for a crash course in roughage. Consider whether you have time to prepare
more fresh food each week and whether your family is open to experimenting with new
tastes. Tipi Creek Farm has a host of recipes on their website to help members make the
best of a vegetable-rich diet. Members are encouraged to send it their own recipes as
well. Either way, prepare for a cooking adventure.


Most often, adjusting to extra veggies is an easy change. With a fridge full of seasonal
produce, you stop asking, “What should we have for dinner tonight?” and instead open
the fridge and think, “What can I make with these ingredients?” Part of the guesswork is taken out of dinner. Some members also plan to give away their excess to friends and
family, or the food bank. Families can also sign up together and plan to divide a share.


And just what kind of person signs up for a CSA? “That’s a good question,” says
Sparrow. “It’s so diverse—it’s amazing. This year we have a couple that are surgeons
and then we have people who are struggling artists. It just depends where people are at
in terms of what they’ve heard about local food initiatives. Once they figure it out, it
seems to really be a match. You know, the farmer’s market is nice, but this gives that
connection, a farm for people to come out to.”


If you’re ready to take the plunge, pick up the phone and talk to a farmer. It’s a
relationship that’s bound to grow through the seasons.

Side Bar
Eating Seasonally
Eating seasonally means eating food at its freshest. Most of the food we eat has
travelled from various parts of the world for over a week to reach our grocery shelves.
By that time, its sugars are turning into starches, and the food is losing taste and vitality.
Eating what is produced close to home and in season is simply better for you.
Whether participating in a CSA or seeking out local produce, become familiar with
what’s in season:
In the spring, the leaves and stalks are ready first. This may include lettuce, green
onions, spinach, and, of course, the quick-growing radish.
In summer, fruit parts dominate and may include beans, beets, bok choy, broccoli,
cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, eggplant, garlic, kohlrabi, mushrooms,
peas, peppers, potatoes, radish, scallions, squash, sweet corn, tomatoes, and zucchini.
In fall, look for roots in items such as beets, carrots, cabbage, leeks, potatoes, kale,
onions, potatoes, pumpkin, rutabaga, squash, and turnips.


If some of these vegetables sound unfamiliar, have no fear. Here are a few things to
keep in mind when preparing seasonal food:
Cooking Greens. Bok Choy, Spinach, Chard, Collards, Beet Greens, Kale. These hardy
greens can be bitter or spicy when eaten raw. Cooking reduces bitterness, and whether
they’re blanched, braised, or sautéed, they’ll add depth to your dishes. Pair with garlic,
lemon, hot chilies, olive oil and smoked meat (think spinach salad with bacon dressing).
Root Vegetables. Potatoes, Sweet potatoes, Carrots, Turnips, Rutabagas, Celery root,
Beets. Roots are the energy storehouses of a plant, rich in sugars, starches, and
vitamins. Roasting root vegetables will bring out their sweet flavour, but these versatile
veggies can also be grilled, made into chips, hashbrowns, or gratin. Combine unfamiliar
root veggies with your potato dishes for a more complex flavour.
Cabbages. Summer cabbage, Red cabbage, Green cabbage, Savoy cabbage. If you don’t
have Eastern European roots, you may be at a loss as to how to use this vitamin-rich
vegetable. Cabbage can be baked, braised, sauteed or stirfried, just until tender.

Complimentary herbs and spices for cabbage include celery seed, mustard seed, garlic,
caraway seed, dill weed, black pepper, and thyme. It pairs well with corned beef, bacon,
and sausage (think Reuben sandwiches).

Seed Basics: A Q&A with Lois and Jim Hole

Is it better to grow my annuals from seeds, or should I just buy bedding plants?

Lois—Let your interests be your guide! Growing annuals from seed is a great pastime, especially if you’re eager to start gardening while there’s still snow on the ground. However, some varieties are easier to start from seed than others. We had a heck of a time growing bells of Ireland from seed until we discovered, quite by accident, that they require a cold treatment before they will germinate. If they hadn’t been set down on a cold concrete floor, we never would have discovered what were doing wrong!

Jim—Mom’s right. There’s nothing more frustrating than planting a tray full of seeds only to be faced with a barren pack even after weeks of care. To avoid disappointment, choose easy-to-germinate seed like marigolds and nasturtiums, and buy bedding plants if you want to grow the more demanding annuals like begonias and alyssum. Of course, if you like the challenge of growing the picky species from seed, by all means, give them a try. Just take the time to learn a little about their needs.

 

When should I start my seeds?

Lois—It depends on when you’re going to transplant your seedlings outdoors. For example, here in St. Albert the average last spring-frost date is May 6. We transplant our pansies outside 3 weeks before that in mid-April. Pansy seedlings take about 14 weeks to grow from seed, so we start the seeds in mid-February. It takes a bit of planning, but it’s worth it. By May last year, I had pots filled with pansies on my deck, and they received rave reviews.

Jim—People spend a lot of time worrying about frost. They don’t realize that many annuals need to be outside and growing in the early part of the growing season. More plants are finished off by heat and drought in the summer than by frost in May! In our experience is actually better to put annuals like pansies outside and cover them than to leave them indoors and have them stretch out from being too hot. There’s really no substitute for planning. Read your seed packets carefully, check on the average last spring-frost date for your area, and do the math for yourself.

 

What are the easiest annuals to start from seed?

Lois—By and large, the bigger the seed is, the easier it is to grow. If you start off with larger seeds such as sweet peas, nasturtiums, and marigolds, you’re almost guaranteed success. Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, you can move on to smaller seeds, which tend to be more challenging to grow.

Jim—The sweet pea is the easiest annual to grow from seed. Not only is a sweet pea seed big, it’s nearly indestructible! It doesn’t mind if you give it too much water or too little. It’s disease resistant and easy to handle because it’s so big.  On the other hand, tuberous and fibrous begonias are among the trickiest annuals to seed.  The seeds are almost as small as dust particles. You can barely see them, let alone pick them up with your fingers. These seeds require consistently warm soil, and just the right amount of fertilizer; otherwise they starve. Raising begonias from seed is definitely a challenge compared to the easygoing sweet pea!

 

What do I need to grow my own plants from seed?

Lois—First you need the very best-quality seeds. My mother-in-law, Grandma Hole, always said, “Only the rich can afford to buy cheap things!” If you start off with inferior seed, you might as well not even bother. Also, you’ll want to give those seeds a good home, so be sure to buy a professional seedling mixture.

Jim—You can start with as little as seeds, potting soil, flats, and a sunny window. If you’re ready to get a bit more serious, though, it’s worth investing in the right equipment

Basic equipment checklist
• the best available seed
• the best-quality soilless mix (Seedling Starter Mix)
• a mister bottle
• clean plastic flats
• grow lights
• covers (plastic or fabric)
• fine-textured vermiculite to cover your seedlings
• a thermometer with a probe (an oven meat-thermometer works well)
• heating cables/mats
• fungicides (optional)
• Earth Alive Soil Activator
• tags to label the different varieties

 

Do I need a special kind of soil for my seedlings?

Lois—Yes! Even though you can get reasonably good results from regular potting soil, you’ll have better luck if you use a special mix for your seedlings. I always use Seedling Starter Mix. It has just the right components for healthy seedlings.

Jim—I agree wholeheartedly. For the best seedlings, you should always start off with the best soil. Spend the few extra dollars and invest in a professional seedling soil. Regular potting soil is too coarse and variable to risk using on your seedlings.

 

What are hybrid seeds?

Lois—There are many different kinds of hybrid seeds. One hybrid seed tends to be very similar to the next, unlike non-hybrid seeds, which sometimes surprise you when they bloom! Hybrid seeds are more expensive than their non-hybrid cousins, but the extra pennies are worth
it! Plants that grow from hybrid seeds tend to have all kinds of bonuses, like bigger and more colourful blooms, greater disease resistance, and better growth habit.

Jim—Development of hybrid plants is a complex procedure that ultimately, if everything goes right, results in very uniform varieties.

 

Can I plant the seeds collected from hybrid plants?

Lois—You can, but only if you’re prepared for unpredictable (and often downright unsuccessful) results. Hybrid plants don’t make good parents!

Jim—Seeds taken from hybrid plants don’t grow “true to type.” You can collect and sow hybrid seeds, but only half of the resulting plants will look like the variety that you collected the seed from. The other half will be divided evenly—the two quarters resembling the two parents that gave rise to the hybrid.

 

What other factors are important for good germination?

Lois—Even though I always emphasize the importance of watering, oxygen is just as important for your seeds. If you keep your flats saturated with water, your seeds will drown. You also need to check your seed packets to see if your seeds require special conditions to germinate.

Jim—Oxygen and moisture must penetrate a seed’s coat in order for it to germinate.  Apart from that, different seeds have their own requirements. For example, the smallest seeds (like alyssum, begonia, coleus, and petunia) generally require light in order to germinate. Other seeds, such as larkspur, phlox, and verbena, prefer to germinate in the dark.

Some seeds actually need a little abuse to get started! In one process, scarification, the seed coats are cut or abraded in order to allow water and oxygen to penetrate. In another process, stratification, the seeds are stored in a cold, moist environment for several weeks or months, to simulate the passing of winter.

 

What things can contaminate my seedlings?

Lois—Take the time to practice good sanitation. You must be careful to work in a clean space with clean tools. And wash your hands, too!

Jim—Disease can enter the picture at several points.

• Containers or other tools. Rinse your tools, plus any previously used flats or trays, in a 10%-bleach solution.

• Improper sanitation. Listen to Mom! Always wash your hands before working with your seedlings. Tobacco carries the mosaic virus, while certain foods like lettuce carry damping-off diseases.

• Unpasteurized soil.

• The seeds themselves. Some diseases live in the seed or on the seed coat itself. Buy only the best-quality seeds.

• Dirty water or dirty watering cans (tap water is fine, provided it’s not high in salts—sodium in particular).

 

Do I need to use pesticides to grow seedlings?

Lois—No. Pesticides are not the answer. Ted and I used to grow our seedlings without using pesticides, and to this day, we still do. The key is sanitation, sanitation, sanitation! If you keep everything perfectly clean, you won’t have to rely on chemicals.

Jim—I agree. You don’t need pesticides to grow your seedlings, especially if you use a professional seedling mixture. This is the key—garden soil introduces many unwanted potential problems for seedlings. Fungicides, on the other hand, can be an important investment. Even with the best sanitation, fungal diseases can occasionally find their way to your seedlings.