Silver Sage: Behind the Beef

Why should I pay more? We’re asked that question. A lot. Especially when you can save some of your hard-earned income by shopping at a big box store.

When you’re paying more, you should know more about the products you are buying, whether it’s halibut or ham, broccoli or beef. To do just that, we recently spoke with Lorne and Sandi Zentner to better understand why their beef costs you more. There are obviously a lot of costs that go into raising cattle, more so if you aren’t a big producer and strive to provide top-quality humanely-raised, grass-fed cows.  And there are a great many factors to be considered, like weather fluctuations, an aging population of farmers, competition with alternative protein sources, even global demand, but what it really comes down to is simple supply and demand.  The input costs are up and the demand remains steady.  The price of purchasing bulls and heifers has increased, as well as the price of feed, and the demand for beef has not waned.

To make a plain analogy, it’s like fine wine.  A bottle of wine that costs $8 is likely to taste a lot like grape juice, yet a bottle of finely aged wine made from carefully selected grapes of expertly-crafted vines grown in unique soil will go for substantially more.  It’s simply better.  Silver Sage Beef is like a finely aged wine; an older cow = better beef.

So, what sets them apart from the rest?  Keep reading…. or stop by the shop here at the market and ask, they’ll be happy to share more information with you!

If you’ve been into the Silver Sage Full Service Beef Shop at the market, you’ve probably met Kent, the Zentner son who runs the city operations, or even Lorne and Sandi themselves when they’re able to get away from the ranch. Friendly and knowledgable, they guide you through the process of choosing just the right cut of beef for your tastes and occasion. But there’s a whole lot more behind Silver Sage Beef and we wanted to find out just how much.

No Gas

The Zentner family’s ranch, located just south of the Cypress Hills, is now 14,000 acres of sun-washed, gently rolling prairie land that has been in the family for more than a hundred years. The journey, while long at approximately five hours from Calgary to the intersection of the Alberta, Saskatchewan and Montana borders, is beautiful. A sea of green as far as the eye can see; hills swaying with vibrant grass like rolling waves, flecked with dark dots: happy cows lazing about and grazing on sweet grass. It is picturesque.

Cow Driving

I arrived at the ranch with my guide, Kent Zentner, with a warm welcome from his parents, Lorne and Sandi, his sister Kristine, and brother-in-law, Monty. I could tell right away that I was in for a treat as Piper (the indispensable and beloved farm dog) bounded over to me while Sandi tilled the to-be planted vegetable garden, and Lorne strolled over from the charming red barn.

Zentner Family

They invited me in for a homemade lunch of hamburger soup; I grew up eating this prairie essential, but my mom’s never tasted this good. Sitting with the Zentner family over a warm bowl of soup was as familiar as sitting with my own family; they have a beautiful way of making you feel at home. They shared with me their family history as far back as they could remember as we finished the last drop of lemonade.

Zentner Collage

And then we were off. To the old barn that was moved in the icy winter across the farm to where it stands now, still in use to milk the cows, as a manger for horse and cattle, and assist in calving season.

Zentner Barn 2

And to meet the bulls. Lorne and Kristine explained to me how they choose the perfect bull; selecting ‘quiet’ animals and conducting an ultrasound of the rib eye to ensure adequate size and pristine marbling. And that’s even before they bring the beast home. They’re beautiful creatures, calm yet mighty. I could see the pride on all of their faces, and knew they saw the awe on mine. Bulls Collage Lorne wanted to show me his favourite spot on the ranch, how could I resist? As we drove across the hills, following what I was told were the wagon-made trails made by his family long ago, we reached a ridge overlooking acres upon acres of green; bison far off in the distance (of Olson’s High Country Bison to be precise).

Lorne's Favorite Ridge

The five of us stood up there, a blanket of blue and soft, pillowy clouds above us, the breeze caressing our cheeks; I felt like I’d been invited into a secret club. I was in. I never wanted to leave. But we had more to see. So much more.

Cow Group

Lorne and Sandi have been refining and improving their herd for 35 years, carefully buying new stock to bring in desired genetics, continually selecting the best quality replacement heifers. The herd is predominantly purebred Angus and Gelbvieh cattle, the result: a very consistent, hardy cattle well-suited to Canadian prairie conditions, yielding beef with the excellent flavour and marbling characteristics preferred by knowledgeable beef lovers.

The cattle are humanely raised in a natural environment, roaming and grazing freely on the Zentner’s open pastures of nutritious prairie short grass for most of their lives. Just before winter sets in, the calves are weaned and put on a high roughage diet – primarily hay and green feed – for about five months. This is, I learned from Kristine, called “backgrounding” and is necessary to keep the calves well fed and healthy during the very cold, snowy winters. In the spring, yearlings are returned to graze on open pasture, allowing them to grow naturally on a grass diet in a healthy stress-free environment with clean air and water, and lots of sunshine and space to roam.

Remember Lorne’s favourite spot? Now imagine you’re a cow, it’s like heifer heaven out there.

Mama Cow

At maturity (which is 2-2.5 years), Silver Sage cattle are finished for about 100 days at the Scheibner family farm near Gem, Alberta on a diet of hay and silage, supplemented with barley and other grains. Grain finishing strongly enhances both the marbling and flavour of the beef. All Silver Sage cattle are free from hormones and therapeutic antibiotics. And there are no animal by-products in the feed. Ever. Silver Sage Beef is dry aged for superb flavour and tenderness. And all animals in the Silver Sage program are age-verified and fully traceable. So that means when you return to Kent at the market to give him your feedback, the family knows exactly what cow that delicious, succulent ribeye came from. Pretty neat eh?

It’s pretty amazing to think that a centurion ranch spread across 14,000 acres with 1,500 cattle is maintained and nourished by 3 people: Lorne, Sandi, and now Monty. Let’s just say, they’re hard workers. Their ‘small’ family beef shop managed by Zentner brother, Clark, launched just two years ago in April 2011 when the market opened in our new location.  Offering a complete range of cuts and a full-time butcher for custom orders, they’re a busy place. It hasn’t taken them long to gain a following of loyal customers, demanding more than 500 cattle from the ranch every year. AND, they serve up a range of delicious beef at Silver Sage Burgers in the market food court.

But my field trip wasn’t destined to end in the numbers of their business, no, there was more to see of course! Walking through cool streams, skipping rocks (well, attempting to at least), and even seeing Kent and Kristine’s old high school in Consul, I got the full tour.

Creek

The sun: a farmer’s timepiece, still high in the sky enticed us to stay out just a little longer. I had a long journey home upon uninhabited gravel roads and cattle crossing when they fancied, but my head was still with Lorne as he showed me where the Zentner Family School once stood. I could hardly decline Sandi’s invitation to stay for what I can only describe as Flintstone-sized ribeye and homemade peanut butter cookies.

Flintstone Ribeye

No, there is more behind Silver Sage Beef than just a butcher at the market and a burger in the food court. There is family. There is history. There is heart.

So the next time you’re visiting us at the market, look for Lorne and Sandi’s son: Silver Sage Beef’s Marketing Manager, Kent Zentner (that handsome guy above). Shake his hand, you’re connecting with generations of the people who made this country one we are proud to call home. He’ll fix you up right as rain with a steak that will convert you, if not just for the outstanding difference in taste, but the story behind the beef.

Leilani Signature

*Leilani Olynik is the Marketing and Events Coordinator at the Calgary Farmers’ Market

Innisfail Growers Cooperative

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?

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All of their greenhouses are herbicide and pesticide free, instead using biological controls: “good” bugs take care of the “bad” bugs.

Hillside Greenhouse Collage
Beans, Tomatoes, Cucumbers! Oh My!

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.

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This is Shelley and this is her mower. Doesn’t she look at home?
Beck Farms Collage 1
Shelley took the time to show us their impressive set-up; we can’t wait to see it up and running during harvest.

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.

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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.

Edgar Farms

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.

Edgar Lunch Collage 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.

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Believe it or not, this field is actually filled with asparagus. It just wasn’t quite ready to show it’s beautiful little spears.
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Amanda and Elna digging for asparagus.

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 Collage 1
Pierre was eager to get his hands dirty, but we’re pretty sure it’s a lot harder than it looks. For an idea of just how it works, check this video out.

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!

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The Women’s Institute has been managing this school for many, many years. The farmers in the community often supply food for community events held here.

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!

Upper Green Farms

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.

Upper Greens Collage 1
These ‘ugly’ sprouted potatoes are actually what John will load into the potato ferris wheel to be planted… like a seed.

The Jungle Farm

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).

Jungle Farms Collage 1 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.

Jungle Farms Collage 2
We consider this quality control too.

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.

Follow the Fragrant Silk Road

Five years ago, a writer and a nurse started experimenting, researching, sourcing, smelling, testing, and tasting.  Colin Leach and Kelci Hind decided it was time Calgary had a local specialty go-to spice shop that would serve as a place to inspire, excite, and invigorate the senses.  It only takes one step into the little shop in Inglewood to be transported, whisked away into the possibilities of plate and palate. Spice Collage 5 A list of 25 carefully selected blends sold online first, then a small location at the Calgary Farmers’ Market in the Currie Barracks, and now a shop at the new Calgary Farmers’ Market location and a bustling shop in trendy Inglewood; Colin and Kelci aren’t just specialists, they’re artisans.  The Silk Road Spice Merchant carries over 200 individual spices and 85 blends.  86 if you count the custom blend they made for the Calgary Farmers’ Market upcoming anniversary!

Spice Collage 1
Inspired by Scarborough Fair: parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme are the beginnings of the Calgary Farmers’ Market custom blend.
Spice Collage 3
All blends are handmade and bottled in the Inglewood shop. Even our own Amanda Bonner, Director of Marketing, got her spice on.

Finished Spice

The signature spice for the upcoming anniversary of the new Calgary Farmers’ Market location includes: parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, sea salt, freshly ground pepper, garlic, lemon peel, freshly ground coriander, marash chilis, and citric acid It’s perfect for pretty much anything you’ll find at the market! Everyone, from pros to amateurs, can find the rare, basic, or unique spices they need to create an outstanding dish.  And their handmade blends are always fresh, aromatic, and flying off the beautiful antique shelves.  Requested from Nunavut to Australia, The Silk Road Spice Merchant hasn’t just made a name for themselves in Calgary, they’re taking the world by billowing, aromatic clouds of freshly ground spice-storm.

Coriander
Freshly Ground Coriander

Want to get your hands on a jar of this limited edition custom anniversary blend?   To celebrate, we will be launching a contest for our customers to win a jar! All we ask is that you share an anniversary card, drawing, or letter describing what you love about the market. We will have 200 jars to giveaway to all the lucky customers over the anniversary weekend: April 20th and 21st. All submissions will be posted at Customer Service.  Of the 200 entries, we will select  our favorite and they will receive $100 in Calgary Farmers’ Market bucks. *Please submit off all cards and entry forms at Customer Service.

For more details, click here.