Vegetable Nation

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.

Jenny Berkenbosch and James Vriend, Sundog Organic Farm

Jenny Berkenbosch of Sundog Organic Farm.
Jenny Berkenbosch of Sundog Organic Farm.

James and Jenny Berkenbosh are new to farming, part of a growing movement of well-educated young people choosing farming as a lifestyle and a career (such as Shayne and Vicky Horn, profiled in the Meat issue, S/O 2012). James was a cabinet-maker and Jenny an art and English teacher. James’s parents, however, are Ruth and Dennis Vriend who operated an organic farm south of the city. The couple were able to rely on Dennis and Ruth’s 30 years of experience and knowledge.

“We had a growing interest in growing our own food,“ says Jenny. “That first year we formed a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) with friends with vegetables grown on James’ parents’ land.

“A friend who farmed nearby brought us down to the end of the road to where the Sturgeon River is. We were seduced.

“We dug up the top soil, had it tested; it has beautiful topsoil, good structure for vegetables, a sandy loam. We paid a lot of money for a piece of land with no house and no amenities, but our highest priority was that it could grow good food. We farm organically, but the land itself is in transition, it takes three years to become certified,” says Jenny, gesturing at the margin of grasses and caragana hedge separating their farm from the conventional grain farm next door.

“It’s county land — we did kind of move into the belly of the beast. We’re surrounded by industry, but we’re on a dead-end road, kind of a little forgotten piece of land, so we don’t think it’ll be threatened.

“This was a potato farm!” says Jenny. “We need to bring back soil fertility — about half the property is in green manure, a mix of peas, oats, barley, rye grass with some other sections in buckwheat. All will be plowed under to enrich the soil. This year we’re growing beans, peas, beets, carrots, celery, sweet corn, garlic, onions, leeks, parsnips, celeriac, lettuces, spinach, arugula, chard, kale, fresh herbs, raspberries.

“Right now, we’re harvesting pretty much everything, especially with the warm falls we’ve been having. And many vegetables sweeten after a frost — Brussels sprouts, kale, carrots, swiss chard — and we plant for that. For instance, bulls blood beet tops withstand much colder temperatures than other varieties.

“Every year in August we question our sanity, but by the next spring we’re excited to start growing again — we have all kinds of ideas for new ways to do things, and renewed energy to do them with.”

Janelle and Aaron Herbert, Riverbend Gardens

Aaron Herbert of Riverbend Gardens.
Aaron Herbert of Riverbend Gardens.

“My grandmother remembers the first streetlight in Edmonton,” says Janelle Herbert. She’s talking about the deep roots her family has in supplying Edmontonians with fresh vegetables. Janelle and her husband Aaron continue the family tradition of market gardening, from Clarence and Jennie Visser who bought the land in 1958, through her parents Doug and Evylyn Visser. They hope their three children will have the opportunity to continue their farming legacy.

“We’ve been farming for eight years; we bought the land from my parents in a friendly arrangement,” says Janelle. “It’s different when you take over an agricultural business. We have the equipment; we don’t have the learning curve my dad did.”

The Herberts farm 140 acres, 50 of that in mixed vegetables and saskatoon orchards. They grow eight different kinds of potatoes, onions, carrots, beets, cabbage, radishes, rhubarb, spinach, peas, leeks, four different kinds of cauliflower (orange, purple, white, and Romanesco), broccoli, several varieties of beans, cukes, squash, pumpkins, zucchini, kale, chard, and fennel.

“Our season starts in March when we fire up the greenhouses for seedlings and bedding plants. We sell at seven farmers’ markets and started a CSA this year,” says Janelle.

Their land is within city limits, zoned agricultural, on the north side of 195 Street, a paved track that, right now, dead ends at the North Saskatchewan River. It plays a part in a future regional transportation strategy. “If the ASP is approved, about half of our farm would be needed for the highway,” says Janelle referring to a controversial land use document.

“We have a lot of good employees who love to work here, neighbours, people from Twitter who want to learn how to garden. I love working with people and watching them grow and learn. I like working with young people; I like seeing the customers be really happy. I love where I live.

“What I never thought I would have to do is become an advocate for farming. I didn’t see that coming. I just thought I’d grow some food and sell it at the farmers’ market.”

Ron and Wendy Erdmann, Erdmanns Gardens

Ron Erdmann at dusk, the fields behind him stretch south to the Redwater River.
Ron Erdmann at dusk, the fields behind him stretch south to the Redwater River.

Ron and Wendy Erdmann farm 160 acres north of Bon Accord near the Redwater River, far from the land use pressures of the city.

Their pressures remain agricultural only, for the time being.

“We’re a little bit secluded here, which is good because if we had sections of canola surrounding us, we’d have a harder time growing cabbage crops because of the insect pressure, cabbage fly worms, flea beetles,” says Ron.

“This land has been in the family since the 1960s. I decided to start growing vegetables here because it had river irrigation, good alluvial sandy loam, good drainage and with the slope facing south, we heat up earlier in the spring.

“You have to keep your soil healthy,” he says. “We summer fallow, and grow sweet clover to plow in for green manure. Sandy land needs nutrients to grow a good tasting crop.

“This is our 30th crop. We’ve raised our kids here. This is where we live.” (Shane, 20, and Cody, 18, plan on doing something ag related).

The Erdmanns grow bedding plants, potatoes, peas, green and yellow beans, cabbage (red, savoy, flatheads for cabbage rolls), broccoli, cauliflower, beets, celery onions, leeks, carrots, Swiss chard, kale, Brussels, and one greenhouse of tomatoes.

They sell their vegetables at several markets in Edmonton, Fort Saskatchewan, Sherwood Park and St. Albert and at the farm three days a week. “We used to grow pretty basic stuff, but we find that the customers, at the City Market especially, want more leafy things, more unusual potatoes. We grow eight now including two types of fingerlings. We grow five different kinds of onions.”

How people shop has changed too. “Callingwood is the only market where we actually sell 50 pound sacks of potatoes. I guess families are smaller now. Also there are more year-round markets, people don’t have to stock up at the end of the season as much.

“We do more winter sales now too, potatoes and carrots to Northlands and the Shaw Centre.”

There’s no question vegetable farming is hard work. Weeding is done by hand. “Nothing beats a good crew and a hoe,” says Ron.

Like many western farmers Ron brings workers from Mexico. “Our core group comes from Veracruz. They grow coffee there.

“The best thing is I get to work with my family all the time. We just love growing a crop, cut some nice heads of cauliflower, then go to the market and people say ‘we didn’t know you could grow that.’”

Eric and Ruby Chen, Peas on Earth, certified organic vegetables

Ruby Chen at the Peas on Earth market stand, Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market.
Ruby Chen at the Peas on Earth market stand, Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market.

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.