When you’re browsing at a farmers’ market, few things are as attention grabbing as a big booth loaded with a wide variety of perfectly fresh fruit and vegetables, all marked as locally grown. Vegetable farming is not nearly as common as grain farming here in Alberta, and since most farmers who do venture into fruits and veg need to focus their expertise on a few crops, that varied booth of local produce is a tricky thing to achieve. But five farms in the Innisfail area figured out that there is strength in numbers, and have banded together to make their mark at farmers’ markets from Calgary to Edmonton.
Formed in 1993, Innisfail Growers is a cooperative between Beck Farms, Edgar Farms, The Jungle Farm, Uppergreen Farms, and Hillside Greenhouses. The group formed after Shelley Bradshaw of Beck Farms began growing carrots and taking them to market. Realizing that her table would be more attractive if it showcased more than carrots, she talked to neighbours who agreed that hooking up to offer a variety of fruits and veg would be beneficial to all.
These days, an Innisfail Growers market booth (and there are plenty of them — the collective is represented at about 20 markets) is likely to feature peas or asparagus from Edgar Farms, strawberries or spinach from The Jungle Farm, tomatoes or cucumbers from Hillside Greenhouse, potatoes from Uppergreen Farms, and Beck Farms’ original carrots, as well as their cabbage, cauliflower, or Brussels sprouts (most of the producers grow a number of items in addition to their “signature” crops). The bounty on offer depends on what’s in season, and many of the farmers also produce preserves, pies, candy, or other items to fill in the gaps during their off seasons.
The Jungle Farm’s Leona Staples joined Innisfail Growers in 1998 when she and her husband returned to her family farm after he completed his education in agriculture. The collective asked if they’d be interested in providing strawberries and vegetables, and even though the Staples knew the challenges of diversifying from the grain and cattle already produced on the farm, they also knew that it would be easier to tackle new crops with the support of the group, who could offer knowledge, a place to sell their new products, and moral support. With five farmers specializing in different produce, it was clear that the collective was more than just the sum of its parts.
“The challenge that goes with vegetable farming is just the intensity of it,” Staples says. “It is a lot of labour and a lot of knowledge to be able to grow anywhere, but especially in Alberta where our season is so short. Because we each grow a lot of what we grow and we can specialize, I think we can do it better.”
In Alberta, few crops are harder to specialize in than asparagus, but Elna and Doug Edgar, at Edgar Farms in Innisfail, decided to start a larger version of the asparagus patch that Elna has been growing in her garden when Innisfail Growers was born. While the farm still produces grain and Angus beef, their asparagus (and their equally popular peas and beans) have become their signature. Of the 1,400 acres of land the Edgars farm, 75 acres are for vegetables, with a whopping 50 acres dedicated to asparagus.
Elna Edgar says that while asparagus isn’t a crop that most consumers, or even farmers, would associate with Alberta, our climate actually makes for a more delicious product. Because Alberta’s cold spring evenings slow the vegetable’s nighttime growth, Alberta asparagus is incredibly sweet and flavourful — an entirely different product than the bland woody stuff that you’ll find in most grocery stores during the off season. The harvest season is short, and requires the Edgars and their staff to work around the clock. Edgar echoes Staples’ sentiment that having a cooperative like Innisfail Growers is essential to her farm’s success because it lets her be the asparagus expert, while her neighbours get to be the carrot, strawberry, or potato experts.
“We’re not super-people,” she says. “We’re all great at some things. But we’re not great at everything. Everybody has their strong points and we work together as a team. We put our heads together and people come up with great ideas. And I can specialize in growing a few things, and I can do an amazing job of growing a few things.”
While the cooperative lets each farm specialize, the other important thing that Innisfail Growers allows its members to do is to actually diversify their farms (both The Jungle Farms and Edgar Farms still also have traditional grain crops) and their income streams by introducing vegetables and knowing that they’ll have the support to bring them to market. Edgar says that overall, adding vegetables to their grain farm, along with the camaraderie of the cooperative, has helped her family gain a new passion for growing and continuing to innovate their business; something that is drawing younger generations back to the family farm.
“We’ve been in business long enough and there is enough potential in the farms that those second generations are coming back now,” Edgar says. “Our daughter and son-in-law are back at our farm. And you don’t see that much anymore because farming is hard and it’s a lifestyle choice. But we’ve diversified enough that they see that potential and want to carry it on.”
Elizabeth Chorney-Booth is a Calgary-based freelance writer, and co-founder/co-editor of RollingSpoon.com. She enjoys exploring the connection between music and food through interviews with musicians and chefs.
Photos by Ingrid Kunzel