A few months ago, Patty Milligan introduced me to Janelle Herbert, who operates Riverbend Gardens alongside her husband Aaron and her parents Doug and Evelyn Visser. I had hoped to get out to the farm earlier this summer, but as we are now into harvest season (particularly with the frost bearing down on the city), it seemed like a fitting time for the tour.
The first thing we discovered is that Riverbend Gardens is nowhere near the neighbourhood of Riverbend. On the northeast edge of the Edmonton, the farm is actually located near Norbest Farms, which many people know from last year’s Great Potato Giveaway (it turns out Norbest’s Gordon Visser is actually Janelle’s uncle). The farm’s name actually comes from the shape of their land, which curves where the North Saskatchewan River curves. It is an absolutely beautiful property, and one where the wind’s slight rustle of leaves through the trees is the only disruption of peace. The silence was serene.
Panoramic of the river’s bend
Janelle and Aaron have two young children, who, in addition to the work on the farm, keep them busy and away from manning the six markets Riverbend Gardens is involved in themselves. The quarter section land is divided into two – about 65 acres is used to farm, while the other 90 acres is preserved as the original forest.
Done for the season
Janelle’s grandparents started the farm nearly sixty years ago, with her parents taking over in 1981. Janelle didn’t plan to continue the family business (“I didn’t want to marry a farmer,” she laughed), and worked as an Occupational Therapy Assistant for a few years, while her husband Aaron was a welder. In 2005, her parents expressed that they wanted to slow down, and Aaron jumped at the opportunity to take over the farm (“he’s always been the outdoors type”, said Janelle). They’ve been on a steep learning curve ever since.
Riverbend Gardens offers u-pick saskatoons (how cool is it that they use an honour system?)
It turned out the farm hands had just left, after a full day’s work of picking, sorting, cleaning and packing vegetables in preparation for the farmers’ markets. Janelle showed us their machinery, as well as the refrigerated sheds used to store all of their produce – they smelled of freshly picked onions. I was amazed that their entire fall/winter stock, which lasts them into spring at the year-round markets, could be contained in those two small buildings.
In the photo below, the boxes wrapped together below are full of cabbage. Riverbend Gardens does, at this point, sell their cabbage into the wholesale market (to be resold at grocery stores). Given the extremely slim profit, they are hoping to step away from that business soon, and focus on selling all of the produce at local farmers’ markets.
Sorting and packing area
The greenhouses right next door were empty at this time, but she told us that seeding typically begins in March, with transplanting to the fields taking place a few months after.
The five of us got on a mule for a drive through their various crops. While I’ve been to a few other farms before, this was definitely the largest I’ve seen so far.
Kale (I love the alternating rows of colours)
Pumpkin peeking out!
Corn (they have the best peaches and cream corn)
It was clear to see that maintaining a farm of this size is no easy feat. Janelle said she and Aaron are continually learning, reading and attending conferences between December to February when the crops are not active. Although it is hard work, and definitely not a career chosen for its financial benefits, Janelle says she is happy with the lifestyle choice and is “rich in many other ways.”
Janelle and her two adorable children in the squash patch
To end our visit, we rode the mule through the woods that have been left untouched, save for a cleared path that allows access to the river on the other side. Janelle said their goal is to eventually somehow share the beauty of this grove with the public.
It was a good five degrees cooler under the shade of the trees!
At the river’s edge
Thanks to Janelle for taking time out of her afternoon to show us around! With the recently passed Municipal Development Plan, I am hopeful that farms on the city’s edge such as Riverbend Gardens will be protected (and with luck, continue to flourish).
You can see Mack’s full photo set here.