At the end of July, Mack and I were honoured to be asked to be among the hosts of the third annual Grand Taste Tour. It was the second year of the event where attendees were bussed to the various farm locations, as opposed to a self-guided tour. This allows participants to meet and break bread with other folks interested in learning about local agriculture, all while taking advantage of more efficient group-based transportation.
Linda and Brittney headed up one bus, while Mack and I led another. The first stop was within city limits – a one acre lot cultivated in partnership with Northlands. The farm is a part of the Northlands Urban Farm, intended for educational purposes and to support innovative practices. 600 students from local schools have already toured the farm this year, and 26 children will be selected to take part in their junior beekeeping pilot this fall. Northlands also successfully applied for an urban chicken permit which will allow them to add eight hens to the property.
Northlands Urban Farm
We spent some time with Travis Kennedy of Lactuca, whose crops make up most of the one acre. His enthusiasm and pragmatism make him a wonderful urban agriculture ambassador. While Lactuca began its business in a backyard garden, it now has the chance to produce 200-300 pounds per week at Northlands. New challenges have come with that opportunity in the form of supply exceeding demand, so much of his focus this year has been on developing new markets for their products. Lactuca currently supplies to 15 restaurants in Edmonton and area, including Farrow and Three Boars.
Salad greens (primarily kale, lettuce and arugula) make up most of the crop. The reason these were chosen relates to their short 7 day production cycle to make the most of Edmonton’s 100 growing days, their lightweight nature (Travis used to transport his crop to farmers’ markets on a bicycle), and that all restaurants have a salad on their menu, increasing his market potential. That said, greens require an incredible amount of water to flourish – on hot days, Lactuca can use up to 7000L of water. Northlands was permitted to run below-ground water lines to help with this.
Although Lactuca does experiment with other crops (corn and French fillet beans, to name a few), they’ve embraced salad greens because they want to stay true to seasonality. They haven’t ruled out hydroponics in the future though, so stay tuned!
Lactuca relies on organic practices, using City of Edmonton compost, and Travis doesn’t mind the holes he finds among the leaves. He believes it speaks to their terroir and lack of pesticide use. That said, he recognizes that what may sell to consumers at a farmers’ market will not pass inspection with restaurants (pointing out the odd dichotomy between the success of “ugly produce” campaigns and the unchanged expectations of diners eating out).
Demonstrating the drill-powered harvester
I was particularly amazed by the method in which they now harvest their greens. When Travis started, they relied exclusively on hand-harvesting, which is laborious and time consuming. They’ve since moved to using a drill-powered aluminum harvester, which can harvest up to 150 pounds an hour.
The group then listened to Patti Milligan, who is the beekeeper for urban hives at Northlands and the Shaw Conference Centre.
The hives at Northlands are kept primarily for educational purposes. Patti explained that Alberta is the largest honey producer in the country, due to the abundance of sunlight and flowers. In our province, clover, alfalfa and canola dominate, but Patti did mention a movement towards manipulating where bees go through timing of blooms and placement of plants. She said we should watch out for locally-sourced borage, raspberry, fireweed, and dandelion honeys in the near future.
It’s great to have such a rich resource centrally located in Edmonton, available for children and adults alike to learn about agricultural practices, especially when it is helmed by passionate connectors like Travis and Patti. Northlands is offering free public tours on September 10 – pre-registration is required.
Our second stop took us just outside of city limits to Brix ‘N Berries in Leduc County. Operated by Greg Moline and Laurie Erickson, Brix is primarily a berry u-pick garden, though they also offer limited vegetables as well.
Greg and Laurie do have off-farm income – their main work is in the area of soil amendments, assisting farmers who are looking to transition from using fertilizers to relying on other practices. They highlighted the difference between great soil and poor soil on their own land – a portion of their farm has naturally enriched number one grade soil (where they joked that seeds germinate even before they hit the ground). The Saskatoon bushes here grew without restraint, full and unwieldy. Across the field, bushes planted in the same year in sub-par soil struggled to fruit, branches spotty and inconsistent.
Greg points out the number one grade soil
Brix began with 50 acres of Saskatoons, but soon added strawberries, raspberries, a greenhouse, then a market garden. Greg shared that it has been challenging for operations like theirs to stay in business without an agri-tourism component such as Prairie Gardens. Brix doesn’t charge an overhead for consumers to pick their produce because they just focus on growing food, and perhaps because of that, they can’t keep up with the demand. In the face of several other u-picks that closed this year (Roy’s Raspberries on a permanent basis and Happy Acres for 2016), Brix has had to close from Sundays to Tuesdays this season to allow the fields to regenerate. Even then, that previous Wednesday, they found that 250 people picked the field clean in a day.
Linda picks some raspberries
My sisters and I, city children through and through, benefited from the u-picks we visited with our parents growing up. I’m not sure I would have been able to identify field-grown produce as a kid without those experiences, and through the relationship we had with the farmers, learned to appreciate how difficult it was to grow food for the masses. With development pressures and the work involved in maintaining a public farm, I’m sure more of these operations may fall by the wayside, but I really do hope the tide turns – these u-picks are a valuable community asset for the next generation.
Our third stop was Triple M Dairy in Calmar. Genzinus Martins runs the farm along with his sons, comprised of 180 cows. Considered a medium-sized operation, they produce 1.3 million litres of milk per year sold through Alberta Milk.
Mack and I were fortunate to have toured Bles Wold a number of years ago, and had already seen an example of a mechanized milking machine. For many on our bus however, this was their first encounter with a machine that can milk up to 60 cows per hour. The technology also monitors the health of an individual cow through a transponder in their neck, tracking their production over a period of time. Most animals supply 40L of milk per day.
Genzinus explains how the milking machine works
Genzinus was proud of their operation, as they are constantly striving to improve the health of their cows and ensuring the animals continue to produce for 4-5 years. Their cows get a two month break from milking every 12-13 months to wander the fields. He emphasized that Alberta Milk provides incentives for better quality milk, so farmers aren’t just driven by quantity alone.
What are you looking at?
Our last stop was Tangle Ridge Ranch located in Thorsby. Vicky and Shane Horne are first generation farmers, and when they purchased 60 acres they knew they wanted to have a strong connection with consumers. Although they had experience with cattle farming, they wanted to start out with smaller animals, and thought they could find a niche with grass-fed lamb, a product not widely known in Alberta. 50% of lamb sold in the province is imported, something Vicky and Shane hopes will change in the years to come.
The best kind of tour!
Vicky and Shane carefully selected the breeds of sheep they would raise. Katahdins and Dorpers are “hair” sheep that naturally lose their coats and thus don’t require regular shearing, with their energy going into meat instead. Without wool, believed to produce lanolin oil, the meat from these sheep breeds are much milder in flavour. Currently, Tangle Ridge raises 70 sheep per season, but want to eventually grow to a flock size of 250. They sell direct to consumers every fall through their website, and are now taking orders for November 2016.
The foundation of their farm is pasture management, as they believe healthy soil is the key to healthy animals. They seeded their land with a mix of alfalfa and clover, and manage with temporary fences for rotational grazing. A portable water truck follows the flock so the animals always have access to water.
The story of Tangle Ridge Ranch wouldn’t be complete without mentioning their dogs. Virgo, Mojito and Bailey protect the sheep, circling them night and day to deter the coyotes in the area.
A sheep dog in his element
After the tour, all guests were ushered onto the second floor of the barn on the ranch. It’s been transformed into an event space that’s used for long table dinners and private functions. With the overhead lights and mismatched chairs, it was a rustic setting that befit the closing of the day.
The food is where the Grand Taste Tour sets itself apart from other farm-related events. Whereas other events focus on either tours or meals alone, Grand Taste successfully marries both for an unmatched value. Last year, they brought in Chef Daniel Costa of Corso 32 fame. This year, not to be outdone, Chef Frank Olson from the Red Ox Inn and Canteen prepared a six course meal utilizing ingredients from producers we had met along the tour. This was also the first year where alcohol was available for purchase at dinner.
Chef Frank Olson and crew cooking up a storm
To start, we sampled three Winding Road cheeses, accompanied by a compote made from Brix ‘N Berries cherries, and Coal Lake Honey. Winding Road is a small cheesiry that began selling its products at the French Quarter Market this year.
Winding Road cheeses
Pork ribs glazed with a Saskatoon berry barbecue sauce with an underlay of kohlrabi were up next, food meant to get your hands dirty.
Lactuca and Sundog Organic supplied the vegetables in the salad course, made up of radishes, greens, carrots, pumpkin seeds and a green goddess dressing.
Green goddess salad
My favourite dish was the gnocchi, served with basil and tarragon from Reclaim Urban Farm, pecorino from The Cheesiry, and peas from Erdmann’s. Selfishly, I was thankful this had been served family-style, as some of my dinner companions chose not to eat their full share.
Many had been awaiting the main course – Tangle Ridge lamb was served two ways: cumin-scented meatballs, and slow roasted for 8 hours with horseradish and nettle. Perhaps it was the knowledge from the tour, but the meat was noticeably mild in flavour, outside of the spices imparted by the kitchen.
Lamb served two ways
As if we weren’t full enough, the dessert course was too good to pass up, a glorious canola oil cake dolloped with whipped cream and Brix ‘N Berries raspberries.
Canola oil cake
Thanks again to Kirsta, Amy and the rest of the Grand Taste Tour organizers for a fantastic day full of learning and great food. I’m looking forward to next year already.