We hear the question often: “why isn’t the market open every day?” The answer is simple really. There is a lot that goes into bringing the fresh produce you see at our market; they’re here even when we’re not open, they’re in the fields growing food for our tables, and even farmers need a day of rest. Recently, we visited the five farms that make up the Innisfail Growers Co-Operative: Beck Farms, Edgar Farms, Uppergreen Farms, The Jungle Farm, and Hillside Greenhouses. The farms are scattered around the Innisfail area, filled with hardworking farmers, warm hearts, and incredible produce. We made the short journey with local food blogger Dan Clapson and illustrator, food writer, and Food On Your Shirt creator Pierre Lamielle. We were expecting to learn a few things, but we came away with more knowledge and warm hospitality than anticipated. There is a passion that lies within the hearts of these farmers and their families and it shows in their many offerings which can be found at the Innisfail Growers Co-Op booth at our market. So what did we learn? Where did we visit? Get ready for the whirlwind, here goes everything we can try to wrap up in one post.
Close your eyes and imagine what a thriving greenhouses smells like. If you said “green”, you’d be spot on. But green is a color, it doesn’t have a smell you say. Well, that’s where you’d be wrong. Carmen and Jose Fuentes of Hillside Greenhouses are the newest members of the Innisfail Growers Co-operative joining in 2003. They occupy 18,000 square feet of greenhouse filled with tomatoes, mini cucumbers, and green beans. We were pleasantly surprised to see that they had just started harvesting the beans and cucumbers to be sold at the market, with the tomatoes requiring a little more love and time. If you’re wondering what it was like to have your nose awash in the smell of green, pick up some of Carmen’s beautiful tomatoes at the Market and stick your nose right in the bag… get right in there and give it a good, deep sniff. Smells good doesn’t it?
All of their greenhouses are herbicide and pesticide free, instead using biological controls: “good” bugs take care of the “bad” bugs.
All the tomatoes you find at the Innisfail Growers table have been ripened on the plant and picked 1-2 days in advance. This is what gives them such great home grown flavour!
Shelley Bradshaw, with her husband Rod and two sons have been crafting the art of growing carrots for over 20 years. Over the years, they have perfected planting in Alberta’s rich, dark soil to bring us their famous Nantes carrots, but also beets, parsnips, dill, hot peppers, and more! Nantes carrots are by nature a sweeter variety, but Shelly’s carrots are particularly crisp and sweet due to the unique terroir; the cool nights we experience in Alberta are key to producing sweet tasting, crisp vegetables because it prevents the naturally produced sugars from turning to bitter starch.
Once dug from the ground the carrots are brought to the farm yard where they are washed, sorted, inspected and bagged. Ready for you to eat. We may have snagged a carrot or two… it was quality testing, really.
We went up at the beginning of May so the fields were bare, but this gives you a good idea of the before picture. Don’t worry, we’ll be back up to Beck Farms for harvest time. Shelley has promised to put us to work.
We hadn’t exactly done a whole lot to work up an appetite, but it was lunch time nonetheless. Elna and Doug of Edgar Farms had prepared a fantastic meal for our gang; it isn’t everyday you can sit down to a table filled almost entirely of local products: Beck Farms shredded carrots and Honey Mustard Dressing, Hillside Greenhouses tomatoes and cucumbers, Uppergreen Farms’ thick-cut roasted french fries, Edgar Farms Angus Beef burgers and homemade asparagus relish, pickled beets, mustard pickles, and what Elna promised to be the best sauerkraut in the world; she wasn’t exaggerating. And to finish the meal, a home-baked, fresh-out-of-the-oven rhubarb pie. We could get used to this sort of hospitality! But isn’t that part of a farmers’ charm? Down-home heart and a table full of friends.
We’d had our fill and were all ready for a nap, when Elna and her lovely family rolled us out the door to show off their farm, a Country Store open seasonally, and a shiny new kitchen to bring you all of their delicious offerings. They have an impressive set-up to say the least.
Doug & Elna Edgar and family started off growing asparagus on a hidden-away acre “so their neighbors wouldn’t think they’d gone crazy” in 1986, but soon expanded to 21 acres. The largest asparagus field in Alberta, the Edgar’s farm produces some of the sweetest, most tender asparagus, with the addition of beans, preservatives, pies, and natural beef on their sixth generation family farm. When picking, they snap the asparagus off at ground level so you won’t have to cut off the tough bottom before you prepare it. It arrived at the market a little early this year and we just couldn’t keep our hands off of it!
For a simple and delicious asparagus recipe, check out our Asparagus Goat Cheese Tart featuring Edgar Farms scrumptious spears.
Edgar Farms is only 5 minutes west of the QE2, so it’s not much more than a hop, skip, and a jump to pay them a visit for their Annual Asparagus Festival on June 1st and 2nd. And if you can’t make it for the festival, you can meet the farmers, experience picking for yourself, learn what is involved in growing, plus taste the freshness straight from the fields at their Innisfail Growers Customer Appreciation Day on Sunday, July 28th!
3 down and 2 to go, we hopped back in the car and sped down the dusty gravel roads trying to keep up with Shelley (our guide for the day). If you’ve ever tried to follow a farmer zipping around in their neck of the woods, you’ll know it was no surprise we nearly lost the undercarriage of our little city vehicle once or twice. But we had potatoes to see!
The Buyks family has been growing potatoes for Innisfail Growers since 1993. Originally from Holland, John and Corry bring years of vegetable growing experience to their family farm. Although their four children have now all graduated from university, their son Hanno and his wife, Megan, are involved with the farm and help to bring you the fresh potatoes you know and love. When we arrived at their farm, John was about to head into the fields to start planting but he took a few minutes to explain the planting process to us. In our city slicker minds, we equated this contraption to a potato Ferris Wheel. Every summer, they spend hours and hours walking through the potato fields to ensure the plants are healthy. The baby potatoes are all hand picked, selected, and sorted to bring gourmet quality and freshness to your plate. There is no potayto-potawto debate here, they’re just in a league of their own.
And last, but by no means the least, we were off to meet 4th generation farmers Blaine and Leona Staples just north of Innisfail. The Staples are best known for their strawberries, but also grow greenhouse crops, specializing in flowers and a number of field crops such as lettuce and pumpkins. Everyone in the family helps out on the farm in the summer time; Leona’s eldest son is even experimenting with his own crop of garlic this year. After the summer of berries and freshly picked vegetables, you can also get your halloween pumpkin from your local Innisfail Growers Booth or straight from The Jungle Farm (where they just happen to have a pretty cool pumpkin cannon, yeah you read that right. Cannon).
There are an endless number of activities to do on The Jungle Farm from picking your own strawberries, choosing the perfect pumpkin right out of the pumpkin patch, planting your very own flower planters and baskets, riding the wagon to the corn maze, enjoying a leisurely stroll along the gnome walk, or zipping down the slide. It’s fun, trust us.
Our first farm tour was an outstanding experience, a beautiful beginning to what we hope will help connect our farmers to our guests. We’d like to extend a huge thank you to Shelley, Carmen, Elna and Doug, John and Corry, and Leona (and their lovely families) for letting us invade their farms and homes. We are humbled by your hard work and appreciate you and your produce beyond words.
Stay tuned for future farm tours of our other fabulous vendors here at the Calgary Farmers’ Market and our return to Innisfail to help with the harvest. That should be interesting!
AND, if you can’t make it up to Edgar Farms for the Asparagus Festival or to visit all of the farms for their Customer Appreciation day… Karen Anderson of Calgary Food Tours is offering an exclusive Alberta Farm Tour on Sunday, August 11th!
In the comfort of a bathroom equipped and air-conditioned Sahalla Coachlines executive bus, with a coffee and pastry to go from two of Calgary Farmer’s Markets’ yummiest vendors, you will sit back and enjoy the 75 minute drive North along Alberta’s most fertile growing belt to Innisfail Growers. You will be greeted with a refreshing snack and then tour Edgar Farms and Hillside Greenhouses before enjoying a farm fresh lunch in the Little Red Deer Community Hall. After lunch you’ll pull a few of Beck Farms’ famous carrots, spot spuds in the mud at Buyks farms and then enjoy Leona Staples’ great cooking with dessert at The Jungle Farm! For more information and to purchase tickets, check out Calgary Food Tours Inc.