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

“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).

Blind Luck

Sometimes, when I think about where I am today, I feel like I’m a million miles away from my childhood. Our lives can take so many crazy, unpredictable twists and turns that it almost seems as if we’re ruled by chance.

Luck has certainly played a role in my life’s journey. Yet in many ways, we make our own luck, by recognizing the right paths when we come to them. Looking at it that way, my real luck began with my parents. The outlook and ideals they instilled in me have helped me to make good choices throughout my life. For instance, when chance sent a young fellow named Ted Hole my way, I was able to sense that he was the man for me.

Growing up in the tiny town of Buchanan, Saskatchewan, I often imagined the kind of man I would marry. Like any young girl, I continually changed my image of the perfect man, depending on how old I was or what movies I had seen that week. However, I knew exactly what I didn’t want in a husband. I always told my mother, “No matter what, I’ll never marry a farmer.”

To me, farms seemed like the lonliest places on earth. I much preferred the feeling of being surrounded by people and activity, even though Buchanan wasn’t exactly a bustling metropolis. Once, when a friend’s mother convinced me to come for a holiday at their farm, I ended up crying myself to sleep for four nights straight. I wasn’t invited back.

No, the husband of my dreams was definitely not wearing bib overalls. But then I met Ted.
In 1950, Ted was in the middle of his Bachelor of Agriculture program at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. I was involved with a person that my mother called “a good prospect,” a dashing, responsible young man who had a managerial position with Trans Canada Airlines. As far as my mother was concerned, I had it made. I was pretty happy with my young man, too. My future seemed set.

But fate intervened. My friend Sheila, a nurse, happened to be friends with Ted and had promised to be his date for a Faculty of Agriculture dance later that week. But she got called in to work at the last minute and couldn’t attend.

She didn’t want to leave Ted without a date, so she offered to set him up with one of her friends. Before Sheila could open her mouth to make a suggestion, Ted said, “Sure. How about that blonde one…Lois?” Ted had seen me a couple times in passing, although I have to admit that I hadn’t noticed him at all.

Sheila had been about to name another friend but she couldn’t see any graceful way to refuse Ted’s suggestion. “All right,” she replied, “I’ll ask her.” And so I received a phone call shortly afterward.

“Well, sure I’ll go,” I said agreeably.

Those simple words sealed my fate. Ted turned out to be a pretty handsome guy—I thought he looked like Charlton Heston. I could tell right away how sincere and honest he was.

After a few more dates, he told me that he wanted a farm as soon as he graduated, that even though he had a trade as a plumber, he felt a deep connection to the earth, that he couldn’t imagine a better life than on a farm. He spoke with such passion that I found myself being caught up in the romantic notion of marrying a handsome farmer—despite my childhood vow.
Ted brought me out to the property he had in mind, a small patch of land on the banks of the Sturgeon River.  Because the farm was so close to Edmonton, my childhood fears of isolation were crowded out by other, much happier memories.

As a girl, I spent countless helping my mother in the garden. Though I didn’t always realize it, they were some of the happiest times in my childhood. For my mother, gardening was more of a pleasure than a chore, and she instilled the same feeling in me. If I helped her weed the carrots or water the tomatoes, it wasn’t because she made me do it. I did it because I wanted to. As I looked at Ted, it suddenly seemed to make sense for me to build my future life around growing things.

My mother also gave me a love of music. She was an organist in our local church and played the piano at home almost every day. On days when I was less than enthusiastic about helping in the garden, she’d say to me, “Why don’t you go inside and practice the piano?” As a teenager, I became the church’s substitute organist, and eventually I earned a diploma from the Toronto Conservatory. Ted wasn’t a classical musician, but he loved to play the saxophone—and sometimes even got paid for it! If I ended up with him, I knew there would always be plenty of music in my life.

I also thought of my father. He was a strongly principled man, with deeply held convictions. He raised me to look at life with clear eyes: to judge for myself what was right and what was wrong and to act accordingly. He also showed me, through his example, the value of good, hard work. Standing next to Ted, I sensed the same kind of strength in him.

A few days later, I faced the awkward task of breaking up with my Trans Canada Boyfriend. Mom was not amused.

“Lois, Ted seems like a nice boy, but really, didn’t you always tell me you would never marry a farmer?”

“Well, yes, Mom, but…”

“You always said that farms were the loneliest places you knew.”

“I know, but…”

It went on that way for a while. Ted was hard to resist, though, and he won Mom over soon enough. Dad was even easier to convince: he’d always backed me in whatever (or whomever) I chose to pursue. “Marry the one you love, Lois, whoever that happens to be.”

Ted’s father, on the other hand, presented more of a challenge. Mr. Hole was an impressive figure, and I trembled a little the day he invited Ted and me home for a “chat” about our future plans.

“How are you going to handle farm life, Lois? You know it’s not easy. How are you going to help make ends meet? Are you prepared for a lot of backbreaking work?” The questions came thick and fast. Mr. Hole paused only occasionally to take a puff from his pipe.

To this day, I wonder whether he simply didn’t think a city girl was up to the challenge or whether he was trying, in his own gruff way, to warn me about the hardships that might lie ahead. Was he remarkably insightful about the important role that women play on the farm or simply chauvinistic? Still, I found it ironic that I was getting grilled, even though Ted was the one who wanted to pursue this whole notion of farming.

It was quite an ordeal, but I kept my composure and answered honestly, determined to prove that I was “right for the job.” At the end of the interview, Ted’s father seemed reasonably satisfied. Ted and I breathed a sigh of relief. With parental barriers hurdled, all that remained was the wedding.

When the big event arrived, it was the happiest day of my life. Everything went exactly according to plan—until after the service.

Rather than a car, Ted and I were to drive off in a horse-drawn carriage. We were sitting at the back of the cart on a couple of bales of hay when something startled the horses, causing them to leap forward suddenly. I lost my balance and felt myself tipping over backwards, my feet flying into the air. Several people gasped, sure I was going to crack my head open on the pavement.

But like a knight in shining armour, Ted came to my rescue. He scooped me up in one arm and kissed me, as everyone applauded and cheered.

After the wedding, Ted’s mother came up to me and said, “Lois, you’re very lucky to have married my son.” I could only smile and nod. “You’re right…Mother.”

Thanks to luck and good judgement, not only did I marry a farmer, I became one.

And together, Ted and I have been growing great things ever since. 

-Lois Hole I'll Never Marry A Farmer


Trial And Error

When my husband Ted and I first arrived on our farm just north of St. Albert, Alberta, we hadn’t the first idea what we were going to do with it. Ted had just completed his degree in agriculture, but that didn’t exactly make us farmers. As a child, I had spent only brief periods on my grandparents’ farm, and Ted couldn’t claim even that much experience.

Still, the day we stood together for the first time on that gently sloping hillside, gazing down toward the Sturgeon River, we knew we had found the right place. We were young and we had a gorgeous piece of land: our potential seemed limitless.

Ted reached down and grabbed a handful of topsoil, squeezed it in his fist, and smelled it. I was surprised that someone who hadn’t been brought up on a farm would ever think to do that. There’s a beautiful smell to good soil, particularly when it’s a little damp. Ted, from his courses at university knew that. He inhaled deeply, then turned to me and said, “This is number one soil.” It was so black, so deep, so rich, and so wonderful. He knew we could grow practically anything we wanted on this land.

Of course, no matter how perfect your little corner of earth, finding the right use for it takes a certain amount of trial and error. And in those first years, we certainly had our share of trials and errors. We tried again, but at 200 acres, our farm wasn’t nearly big enough for that. We tried chickens and found we didn’t have the right facilities. We tried pigs, we tried turkeys, we tried cattle—nothing seemed to work out.

During those lean times, we developed a few tricks to get by. I’d say to Ted, “Let’s go to my mom’s for supper tonight.” And then we’d go to his Mother’s for supper the next night. I have to admit it was a conscious strategy  on our part. Of course, the benefits reached far beyond the money we saved on groceries. Parents always love to see their kids, and those frequent visits brought us that much closer together. But parents can offer only so much shelter. In the end, we still had to fend for ourselves. Sometimes, our lack of experience was positively comical—although I must admit it didn’t always seem so at the time.

One winter, we were really struggling to make ends meet. Ted was working in Edmonton to pay off the debts from our previous year’s mishaps (this was a recurring pattern in those days). I stayed at home and tended the cattle.

One of my jobs was to keep their trough filled with water. Well, it was one of the coldest winters you could imagine, just desperately cold, and our pump kept freezing up. Every evening we’d be out in the barn, thawing out the darned pump. One time we even had a friend come out with a blowtorch. No matter what we tried, by morning Ted was off to work and I was left at home with a frozen pump. I finally resorted to melting snow, working all day just trying to keep the cattle in water.

Much later, long after the weather had warmed up, Ted told our tale of woe to a farmer friend. He came over to our place, took one look at the pump, and said, “You know, the problem is that your pump doesn’t have a drain hole.” All we needed was one tiny hole to allow the water to drain back down and that pump would never have frozen. It was that simple.

The funniest part was we never got discouraged. I still wonder about that. I guess I always had the feeling that since it couldn’t get any worse, it would have to get better. We had found our place in the world, and by God we were going to make it work.

Eventually, of course, I was proven right. It took us quite a few years, but we finally figured out how to make the most of our location. Even through the hardest years, while we struggled with our wheat, chickens, and cattle, our vegetable garden kept thriving. When people started stopping by the side of the road, offering money for our extra produce, the light bulb finally came on.

To this day, our vegetable garden sits right next to our old house, on the very patch of land where Ted first smelled the soil. Trees protect it on three sides, and its gentle southward slope seems custom-made to catch the spring sunshine. Every year we’re able to get onto the land weeks ahead of most of our neighbours, and we enjoy some of the earliest and most bountiful crops you could imagine.

Like the plants in a garden, people will flourish if they find the right location. After more than 40 years on our farm—years of frustration and triumph, of sorrow and joy, of hard, dirty work and good, clean fun—I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

-Lois Hole I'll Never Marry A farmer


Listen To The Radio

If our life were made into a movie, the soundtrack would be CBC radio. From our earliest days on the farm, the radio has provided us with company, entertainment, information, and a link to the rest of the world.

I think of the long days we spent in the bottom of the barn, cutting seed potatoes. Without the radio, the job would have been painfully monotonous. Instead, it’s one of my warmest memories. Thanks to the CBC, the air was filled with voices and stories from across the country. We would cut and chop, chatting about whatever show happened to be on, and before we knew it, the job was done.

In the early days, before the children were born, I often found myself alone on the farm. Ted, a plumber by trade, would spend his days in Edmonton throughout the winter, while I stayed home and did chores. I never felt isolated, though. With the radio playing all day, I knew what was going on in the world.

As the boys grew up, I liked the idea that they were so well informed. They were always eager to discuss current events, and they formed strong political opinions long before they were old enough to vote. Of course, if they were working alone, they’d usually switch over to a rock n’ roll station if the program didn’t interest them. But over time, they’ve come to appreciate the CBC as much as we do.

We relied on the CBC for vital information, like weather forecasts and farm reports, but its presence was far more pervasive than that. At the breakfast table, we’d hear the national anthem right before the day’s first newscast at 5:30am. On most Saturday afternoons, you could find the boys laughing uproariously at some comedy show. In bed, before drifting off to sleep, we could listen to classical music.

When an important news story broke, we always heard it first on the CBC. Even though we lived on a farm, we felt connected to events around the globe. I’ll never forget the day we were working in the barn and the announcer cut in to say that President Kennedy had been shot. For the rest of the day, we followed that awful story, glued to the radio.

The CBC remains a huge part of our lives. If I give a gardening talk out of town, I do my best to be finished and back in my car by 9:00pm. That way, I can drive home listening to Ideas with Lister Sinclair. In the kitchen, as I prepare the noon meal, This Morning keeps me company (although I must admit I miss Peter Gzowski). I believe in learning something new every day, and the CBC makes that not only possible but inevitable.

You can imagine the excitement I felt the first time I appeared on a CBC show! Without the CBC, my life would have been much poorer in so many ways. It’s truly worth celebrating. 

-Lois Hole I'll Never Marry A Farmer

Let Kids Be Kids


Child labour is a hot topic these days, as well it should be. All over the world, young people are robbed of their childhoods by unfair and exploitative labour practices. Of course, when Ted and I farmed, we relied an awful lot on kids. If they hadn’t helped us so much, we would never have been as successful.

Work can and should be an integral part of growing up. Children gain a strong sense of satisfaction when they’re given the chance to contribute, and they build habits and attitudes that will stick with them long after they’ve grown up. You just have to find ways to keep the work fun and ensure that it doesn’t interfere with other equally important parts of their lives.

When they were young, Bill and Jim were always bringing friends home from school. Their buddies from town loved the chance to be out on a farm. It felt like a different world to them, even though their homes were only a mile or two away.

As the spring evenings lengthened, they’d be up in the field transplanting seedlings. They’d hoe the rows throughout the summer, and they’d help out as the vegetables became ready to harvest.

Sure it was hard work, but the kids wouldn’t have kept coming back if they weren’t having a good time. It wasn’t even the fact that we paid them—although they never complained when I handed out the cheques. When I’d take drinks or popsicles up to them, I felt like I was walking into the middle of a rather sweaty social occasion. The radio would be blasting away, competing with a steady stream of jokes and conversation.

I have to admit I pushed them a little from time to time. As their energy started to flag, I’d go out there and say, “Come on, kids, just five more minutes!” Ten minutes later, I’d go back out and say, “Just two more minutes!” Somehow though, when the break finally arrived, they always seemed to find the strength to pick up a football and start an impromptu game.

Their parents, naturally, were thrilled at the idea of their children coming out to our place. The kids were happy and healthy, they were earning a few bucks of their own, and if they were tired out at the end of the day, that was a bonus.

I’ll never forget one afternoon, though, when a man drove out to the farm, his poor teenage son slumped in the back seat of the car. Something about this man’s manner put us off, even before he opened his mouth. He told us, “I want you to put my boy to work. He’s a lazy kid, and I want you to show him what real work is like. Straighten him up.” The boy had gotten drunk one night, and his father wanted to teach him a lesson. I guess he thought we were running some sort of boot camp.

Ted and I were appalled that this man would think of farm life as punishment. Clearly, he was the one who needed straightening up, not his boy. I don’t imagine he ever thought of sitting down to talk with his son, although it was obvious he was very mad at him. I wonder, if we had taken the boy, could we have helped him? But when you’re not the parent, when you’re only there for a short period of time, there’s not much you can do.

If you talk to the kids who worked for us over the years, I don’t think you’ll hear many complaints. Sure, they’ll joke about how we made them slave all day under the hot sun, but they’ll also talk about all the good times they had together. Many of them still come out to visit us from time to time, and we’re always thrilled to see them.

As a matter of fact, a few of them still work for us. And, if I’m not mistaken, they’re still finding a way to have fun on the job.

-Lois Hole I'll Never Marry a Farmer