We are not agriculturalists. We are not down on the farm. In fact over 80 per cent of Albertans live in urban centres concentrated in the urban Edmonton / Red Deer / Calgary corridor. We do all sorts of occupations other than farm work. We have left our agricultural heritage in the dust as we look to the future, and for the most part that’s good.
But we still have to eat. A growing number of people (and it’s becoming a chorus, not a voice in the wilderness) think it’s better for our health, our environment, and our economy if we eat more things grown closer to home.
How close to home is the question. Land use is a hot-button issue. We think of land as something to be transformed. We think of it as waiting passively until it’s time to tear it up for roads and houses and shops.
We don’t think of land as having an inherent value in being just what it is — dirt. Good vegetable growing dirt due to its inherent structure and proximity to climate-tempering rivers. Not like all the other dirt, but dirt that can sustain us.
Some would say it’s inevitable — if you farm near a city, sooner or later you’ll have to move — but many citizens are saying: let’s take a closer look at what that means, to both farms and the people in cities who depend on them.
We need both, room for growth and room for farms. How we handle this will be our legacy.
Eric and Ruby’s story is a hard work story. Eric tended his family’s vegetable farm during high school. They met in university and decided to continue farming.
Their certified organic farm is tucked in among housing subdivisions between Edmonton and St. Albert.
There they grow radishes, salad greens, cucumbers, zucchini and other squash, green onions, Nantes and rainbow carrots, mini corn, and potatoes, which they sell on-farm and at several farmers’ markets.
“We started with nothing except student loans. Ruby and I bought a piece of land with the family. We kept 11 acres and sold the rest of the land six, seven years ago. That’s where our buildings are.
“The first 20 years were like climbing Mt. Everest. We didn’t have a building or equipment. Dennis Vriend is my mentor and friend — he got us started at the Strathcona market in 1990. Without Strathcona, I would have been out of farming. It gave us year-round income.”
Eric is pragmatic. “We’ve moved a couple times already in our farming career,” he says. “The vision is to find something ideal for farming, something sustainable. There will be development; our short-term goal is to farm it, but we’re not going to be here forever. We’re looking for more land. We need somewhere we can pass down to future generations. We want to buy another quarter section to be more diverse and have some animals.
“Our workers are mostly family and we have about a dozen part-time employees and retired or semi-retired friends from church that help out. Our kids Ayden and Jenelle help out with the washing and weeding, odd chores, and at the markets, but school is their first priority.
“My favourite vegetable is raw peas. We pick them in the morning and sell them the same day at the St. Albert Market. They are so seasonal, only for a few weeks every year.”
By Mary Bailey.
Photos by Johwanna Allyne, To Be In Pictures.