Recap: Urban Beekeeping Tour at MacEwan University

Did you know that Downtown Edmonton is abuzz with urban beekeeping? While I was aware of the hives at the Shaw Conference Centre and Hotel Macdonald, I didn’t know that MacEwan University started a similar program in 2016. At the end of August, I attended a free tour of their hives to learn more.

Kerstyn Lane of MacEwan’s Office of Sustainability led the tour. We started outside, and learned about solitary pollinators, a vital but less often discussed group of pollinators. While most people are familiar with social bees that live in colonies, of the 300 species of bees that reside in Alberta, most are actually solitary bees. To help these bees, many organizations in Edmonton, including MacEwan University, are erecting bee hotels, which provide tunnels for the insects to lay their eggs in. The Edmonton & Area Land Trust has been promoting this as a way to help urban pollinators thrive, and has tips on how to build your own bee hotel, and a map of more than two dozen existing hotels in the city.

MacEwan Urban Beekeeping Tour

MacEwan’s bee hotel

From there, the group moved onto the third floor of MacEwan’s Building 5. From the windows of a classroom, we were able to observe the resident beekeeper Troy Donovan and his assistant Liam as they tended to the rooftop hives. It was certainly a sight to see, with the hives in the shadow of Rogers Place and the new Ice District skyscrapers.

MacEwan Urban Beekeeping Tour

MacEwan’s rooftop hives

The first of MacEwan’s four hives were installed in May 2016, and they have since grown to six hives. Troy (whose full time gig is actually in the University’s eLearning office) is able to monitor the temperature and the humidity of the hives through a bluetooth sensor. This is helpful particularly at this time of year as they are readying the hives for winter.

MacEwan Urban Beekeeping Tour

Resident beekeeper Troy Donovan

He also showed us the plastic flow frames they use, which allow them to collect honey directly from individual frames as opposed to the more traditional method involving a centrifuge. They’re able to fill a 2L jar in just 20 minutes!

MacEwan continues to harvest more and more honey each year – from 80 pounds that first year to 300 pounds in 2017. This year, they’re expecting to bring in 600 pounds. The honey is currently used by Food Services, and we were invited to purchase honey at the end of the tour. MacEwan Honey isn’t yet consistently available at the on-campus store, but will be at some point in the future. The next opportunity to pick up this local treat will be at the upcoming Harvest Fair on November 6, 2018.

MacEwan Urban Beekeeping Tour

MacEwan Honey

Because of the cooler temperatures, Kerstyn wasn’t certain that any more free beekeeping tours would be scheduled for this year. However, for those keen to check out all three Downtown hives before the snow flies, MacEwan is organizing an urban beekeeping tour by bike on September 26, 2018 (tickets are $20 for the general public).

Thanks again to MacEwan for offering this opportunity!

Open House: Sundog Organic Farm

Those who frequent the outdoor City Market on 104 Street are likely familiar with Sundog Organic Farm. Operated by Jenny Berkenbosch and James Vriend, their booth is arguably the most visually appealing at the market. Their variety of fresh produce is always artfully arranged in wooden crates, beautifully displaying what the season has to offer. Mack and I have been buying from Sundog Organic for years (one of my favourite photos from our wedding day was taken in front of their booth), and have always wanted to be able to check out the farm itself. At the end of July, an open house provided the perfect opportunity to do so.

Sundog Organic Farm

Sundog Organic Farm

Although Jenny and James originally started farming on his father’s land about ten years ago, they’ve been on their current property for eight years. Located just outside of Edmonton in Sturgeon County, near Gibbons, it was a lot closer to the city than I expected – it was about a 45 minute drive from 104 Street.

Sundog Organic Farm

Jenny Berkenbosch

We arrived a little late, but joined a group of about two dozen people who were already being led around the farm by Jenny and James. Their farm spans 14 acres, with about 6 of it being farmed at the moment. We learned that Sundog uses green manure practices to amend the areas they are rotating between seasons, meaning they plant crops like clover or oats to help renew and manage the health of the soil. Their property also happens to be near the Sturgeon River, which they are able to tap into for irrigation purposes.

Sundog Organic Farm

Gorgeous lettuce plants

We also saw evidence of how the farm has grown over time – they used to store vegetables using a combination of a very small shed in addition to borrowing the storage capacity at James’ parents farm, but now, have been able to construct a building that is finally big enough for their current needs.

Sundog Organic Farm

New storage and sorting building

It was great to be able to see their crops first hand. For me, it was especially neat to see where they grow their heirloom tomatoes, which I anxiously await the arrival of every summer.

Sundog Organic Farm

Tomatoes!

I’m also a sucker for berry patches of any kind, and strawberries are a particular treat! There’s really nothing like being able to eat sun-warmed  fruit straight off the vine.

Sundog Organic Farm

Strawberry field

Of course, it was also nice to bring Emily along for her first farm visit! It will be one thing for her to see our very small community garden plot, but another to appreciate all of the work that goes into a farming operation. We look forward to bringing her along to more farms when she’s older, too.

Sundog Organic Farm

Farm selfie

Thanks to Jenny and James for opening up your gates!

If you’re interested in visiting a local farm, make sure to check out Alberta Open Farm Days, which runs August 18-19, 2018 this year.

Recap: 2017 Grand Taste Tour with Rock Ridge Dairy, Blindman Brewing, Old Prairie Sentinel Distillery, and Doef’s Greenhouses

Back in August, Mack and I had the privilege of co-hosting another Grand Taste Tour with Linda. Organized by Wild Heart Collective and Taste Alberta, the Grand Taste Tour was in its forth year, again showcasing some of the great local producers we are so fortunate to have in our province (you can read about past tours in 2016 and 2015).

This year, we would be visiting farms and businesses in and around the Lacombe area. Our first stop was Rock Ridge Dairy, where we were met by second generation farmer Patrick Bos and his wife Cherylynn.

Rock Ridge Dairy

Goats at Rock Ridge Dairy

Patrick’s father started Rock Ridge back in 1998, converting an ostrich farm to house the goats they would go on to raise for milk. The farm now spans 640 acres total.

Rock Ridge Dairy

We had fun with the goats

The goats mostly consume alfalfa and barley grown right on the farm, and, during the milking process, are provided with additional nutrients at the milking station based on its RFID tag. The machines are very efficient, and can milk their herd of 650 goats in about an hour.

Rock Ridge Dairy

Patrick shows us the milking machines

Rock Ridge processes about 45,000L of goat milk per week and is a primary supplier in Western Canada from Vancouver to Winnipeg. When they began, they originally shipped the milk off-site to process, but in the years since, they have acquired and created the equipment needed to not only process milk, but to also make cheese (find it under the Happy Days label). Patrick even had to repurpose a sausage stuffer in order to fill bags of chevre.

Rock Ridge Dairy

Cherylynn explains the packaging process

In 2012, Rock Ridge expanded their farm to be able to process organic cow’s milk as well. They work with local producers and process about 20-25,000L of cow’s milk a week. One of the unique types of milk they offer is from Jersey cows (labelled separately, as only one farm supplies it). The protein in Jersey milk is the same protein found in human milk, and may be easier to digest than milk from Holsteins.

Rock Ridge Dairy

Linda loved the goats, too

Rock Ridge products an be found at Blush Lane and through SPUD and the Organic Box.

Our second stop was at the Lacombe Crop Development Centre, which breeds different types of barley and wheat.

Alberta Open Farm Days

At the Lacombe Crop Development Centre

Different stations about honey, pulses, and farming equipment were set up and the group was encouraged to explore and ask questions of the knowledgeable representatives present. Mack and I learned about “winter wheat”, a variety that is planted in the fall. Although it has a lower yield, it is used to help with field rotation.

Alberta Open Farm Days

Andrea among the wheat

Next, we headed to the happy hour stop on the tour. Back in the spring, Mack and I planned a weekend trip out to Lacombe, and checked out Blindman Brewing and Old Prairie Sentinel Distillery then, but were happy for the opportunity to revisit these two vendors.

At Blindman, we were led on a tour by one of the brewery’s founders, Hans Doef. If his name sounds familiar, that’s because his father owns and operates Doef’s Greenhouses, where he worked for many years (we immediately recognized him from our weekly visits to the Doef’s tent at the City Market).

Blindman Brewing

Hans Doef of Blindman Brewing

Blindman has been on a meteoric rise since it opened in 2015. They had to relocate to their current facility to accommodate more tanks and increase their bottling capacity, as their product is now available in up to 400 locations. Their Blindman River Session Ale and Longshadows India Pale Ale are their most popular brews.

Blindman Brewing

Production tanks

Hans estimated that their beer takes two weeks from grain to glass – Blindman leaves their beer in tanks longer than other breweries because they don’t filter their beer.

In late 2016, Blindman undertook a crowdfunding campaign to help them purchase two 3,000L foeders from France that once held cognac. Their first brew, a Brett Saison that has aged in the barrels for the last four months, will be released later this year.

Blindman Brewing

Foeders

Next door at Old Prairie Sentinel, we were amazed at the transformation of the space since our last visit. In May, we learned from co-owner Rob Gugin that they had plans to build a tasting room that would allow them to serve samples of their product. The end result is stunning, incorporating wood accents into the high ceiling and a long bar.

Prairie Sentinel Distillery

Old Prairie Sentinel Distillery

In addition to high balls and cocktails made with their vodkas and gins, Old Prairie Sentinel also offers warm spent-grain pretzels to accompany those drinks.

We picked up a bottle of their Prairie Berry Dry Gin (made with 100% malted barley, as are the rest of their products) to take home.

Our final stop on the tour was the one I was most looking forward to. We’ve been regular customers of Doef’s Greenhouses for years, but there’s something special about seeing where and how the products we buy every week are grown.

Eric Doef, a second generation farmer, provided us with an overview of their year-round operations. The greenhouse spans 11 acres where they grow tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and lettuce hydroponically. They plant one tomato and pepper crop annually, and harvest the products throughout the year, while cucumbers require three crops a year.

Doef's Greenhouses

Eric Doef

Water is the foundation of their crops, which they draw entirely from surface ponds and collected from snow melt and rain water. When their dugouts on their property are full, they have enough water for two years. It’s mind boggling how much water they go through, however – Eric shared that on a hot day, they might use up to 400 million litres of water.

Doef's Greenhouses

Peppers as far as the eye can see

Fertilizer is added directly into the water, while carbon dioxide is brought in through tubes. Computers monitor exactly what nutrients each crop needs, and they can adjust the levels accordingly. Regarding pests, they prefer to be as preventive as possible by ordering the appropriate “beneficials” every week (e.g., wasps to eat white flies). We also saw bees which are used to pollinate the flowers.

Doef's Greenhouses

Tomatoes

The overhead lights are typically turned on in September, and though they employ LED lights for their lettuce crops, most of their other crops need the heat given off by the HPS lights. Their lamps run for up to 15,000 hours before needing to be replaced.

Doef's Greenhouses

Lettuce crops

It was a fascinating tour that preceded a long table dinner set in one of the greenhouses, one of the most distinctive settings for a meal I’ve experienced.

Grand Taste Tour 2017

Greenhouse dinner

The 7-course family style meal was prepared by Chef Liana Robberecht of WinSport Canada. She prepared a beautiful array of dishes, including a smoked Alberta lentil hummus with fennel crackers that I couldn’t stop eating, and a maple bourbon potato salad that nearly outshone its accompanying proteins.

Grand Taste Tour 2017

Roasted Chinook honey carrot tacos with yogurt, bee pollen, and cilantro

Given the surroundings, a salad comprised of lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers sourced from Doef’s, dressed in a sea buckthorn vinaigrette was entirely appropriate, and delicious.

Grand Taste Tour 2017

Salad

Alberta pulled lamb shank, served in a Sylvan Star gouda parkhouse roll was another favourite around the table.

Grand Taste Tour 2017

Pulled lamb shank in Sylvan Star gouda parkhouse rolls

Chef Robberecht ended the meal as brightly as it began, with her twist on spiced dark chocolate mousse, combined with a roasted sweet pepper curd, and a fabulous carrot cake with whipped Chinook Honey cream cheese.

Grand Taste Tour 2017

Dessert

As I mentioned, it was particularly meaningful for Mack and I to tour the greenhouse because of our weekly purchases at the market. It was also great to see that the family farm will continue with Eric – and perhaps even with a third generation in the years to come!

Thanks again to Wild Heart Collective for organizing another wonderful Grand Taste Tour!

2017 Alberta Open Farm Days at Erdmann’s Gardens and Sprout Farms Apple Orchards

Alberta Open Farm Days takes place every August, and is a great opportunity to visit with and learn about some of our food-producing neighbours. However, it is more difficult for those without a vehicle to participate in this annual event. This is where Northlands has played a key role over the past few years by offering one of the best deals of Open Farm Days: $5 organized bus tours of local farms. The morning and afternoon tours depart from their easily accessible Northlands Urban Farm, located just a short walk from Stadium LRT station.

Mack and I had a great time on the tour last year, so made sure to pick up tickets to this year’s iteration as well. We joined the morning tour, which would allow us to visit two farms in Sturgeon County: Erdmann’s Gardens and Greenhouses, and Sprout Farms Apple Orchards.

At Erdmann’s, we were greeted by Wendy Erdmann, matriarch of the farm. She shared that her husband Rony stared the farm in 1983, transitioning the fields from alfalfa to vegetables. They now farm 75 acres in crops and greenhouses, with cabbage, carrots, and potatoes making up their primary crops.

Erdmanns Gardens

Wendy Erdmann of Erdmann’s Gardens

Although they are not organic (Erdmann’s uses fertilizer and pesticides), they only spray when needed, and do employ some natural methods such as using organic sprays for their broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage. They use the Redwater River for irrigation.

Erdmanns Gardens

Cucumber field

In the summer, they are busy with direct sales at three Edmonton area farmers’ markets, including the City Market, St. Albert, and Callingwood, but also offer some on-farm sales in July and August. Co-op stores have started recently carrying some of their produce, and Erdmann’s does work with several restaurants in the city as well, such as the Shaw Conference Centre, Zinc, and Tzin.

Erdmanns Gardens

On the tour

It was promising to hear from Wendy that her two sons, Shane and Cody, will be taking over the farm in the near future.

Erdmanns Gardens

Erdmann’s Farm

Before we departed, Wendy provided each attendee with a bag of veggies to take home – it was more than generous, and an appreciated token from the visit.

The group hopped back on the bus for our second stop, Sprout Farms Apple Orchards, located next to Prairie Adventure Gardens. In many ways, Sprout Farms feels like one of the region’s best kept secrets – I was astonished to learn that the orchard grows 150 varieties of apples.

Farmer Amanda Chedzoy explained that they moved to the property in 1980, and the farm began as a tree nursery. In 2000, they transitioned to a u-pick apple farm, planting any extra stock they had on hand. Since then, they’ve decided to move away from the u-pick business because it has been difficult for them to manage, and have adopted a Community Supported Agriculture model this year, in addition to selling pre-picked fruit. Sprout Farms is not certified organic, but they use organic practices, and haven’t sprayed in three years.

Sprout Farms Apple Orchards

Amanda Chedzoy of Sprout Farms

Although they do grow many varieties, they primarily offer 14 types of apples spread over 700 trees. Amanda shared that the fruit was very small this year due to continued drought conditions. Although they had 7 varieties available that day, she encouraged us to return next month, as September is their prime picking period.

Sprout Farms Apple Orchards

Apples!

Like Erdmann’s, Amanda mentioned that her sons will be taking over the farm in the future – given the prevailing narrative about the lack of interest subsequent generations have in continuing the farm business, it was very encouraging to hear from two families that this is not the case for them.

Sprout Farms Apple Orchards

On the farm with my parents

Before we left Sprout Farms, we had the chance to try some fresh-pressed cider, and buy some of their pre-picked apples from the on-farm store.

Thanks again to Northlands for organizing a great morning of farm tours!

Orchard Tour at the Green & Gold Community Garden

The Green & Gold Community Garden has been in operation at the University of Alberta’s South Campus since 2009. Volunteer-run, the proceeds raised from the two acre farm go towards a not-for-profit organization that supports women in Rwanda. They grow about 50 different types of produce, with the availability posted on their website every week. Though I’d been to the garden early on and a few times over the years, I wasn’t aware that the farm was adjacent to a small orchard. At the end of July, Mack and I attended a free tour of the orchard to learn more about some of the fruits that can be grown in our climate.

Green & Gold Community Garden Orchard Tour

Green & Gold Community Garden

The tour was led by Gabe Botar, who worked for the U of A as a horticulturalist for 30 years and initiated the orchard. Although he has since retired, he is now a mentor to the Green & Gold volunteers who have taken over the responsibility of caring for the orchard he developed over 25 years ago.

Green & Gold Community Garden Orchard Tour

Gabe Botar

The hour long tour showcased the variety contained in the orchard. Some of the fruits we encountered are more commonly found around the city – apples, Evans cherries, saskatoons, goji berries – but some were unexpected, such as pears, grapes, apricots and butternut. The Green & Gold Garden sells the apricots collected from the trees, so it’s worth a visit if you’re wondering what they taste like!

Green & Gold Community Garden Orchard Tour

In the orchard

It was clear Gabe was passionate about this subject, and could have easily extended the tour into the evening hours. And though he is officially retired, he’s still experimenting – his latest breeding project is miniature pears.

Green & Gold Community Garden Orchard Tour

Grapes

I will admit that as a non-gardener, much of the technical information about grafting and root stocks sailed above my head, but it was still a neat experience to see different types of fruit that can thrive in Edmonton.

Green & Gold Community Garden Orchard Tour

Evans cherries

The Green & Gold Garden will be hosting three more tours in August, on August 15 (7-8pm), and August 19 & 26 (1-2pm). If you intend to go – plan to arrive early and pick up some produce before the tour begins.

Recap: Tour of Sunworks Farm

Over the years, Mack and I have been fortunate to visit many of the farms from which we source our food, including Riverbend Gardens, Bles Wold, and Irvings Farm Fresh. In June, we were able to add another to that list – Sunworks Farm.

Although our primary chicken and egg supplier is Sunshine Organic, because they’ve become a part-time vendor in the winter incarnation of the City Market, we often find ourselves at the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market between October and May. Sunworks Farm has been a staple at that market since for more than 15 years; owners Ron and Sheila Hamilton are a fixture for regulars – Ron tempting passing shoppers with sausage samples and Sheila tending to customers behind the busy counter. Since 2012, their meat and egg products have also been available seven days a week at Blush Lane down the street (in addition to 3 other Edmonton markets and 1 Calgary market). So just how have they managed to grow their business? A few weeks ago, we were invited to learn more about Sunworks from Ron, Sheila, and Issac Fregoso and tour the farm along with a group of other food bloggers.

Sunworks Farm Tour

Sheila, Issac and Ron

Located about an hour southwest of Edmonton, Sunworks occupies about 400 acres, raising chickens, turkeys, pigs, and beef year-round. When they started back in 1992, Ron shared that he and Sheila raised animals primarily to feed their own family; they had learned about unconventional farming practices and the possibilities of holistic management. This snowballed as friends also wanted their products, and eventually, this led to vending at a farmers’ market in 1998. And while they have grown in that time – from 80 chicks to 130,000 chickens this year – their values have never waivered. Sunworks Farm has been certified organic since 1997, and certified humane since 2005.

I was actually most interested in seeing their chicken coops. Back in May, I had the chance to visit a conventional egg farm – just how different would Sunworks be?

Sunworks receives their chicks about 3 hours after hatching. In the summer, they’re raised in a barn until they have enough feathers to handle colder nights outside (of course, birds are raised wholly indoors in the winter).

Sunworks Farm Tour

Indoor chicks

When they’re ready, laying hens and meat birds are relocated into moveable shelters, shifted daily so the chickens can access fresh grass. Nesting boxes line the walls of the shelter, and fresh water is always available. Even with 350 chickens per shelter, the space is roughly double what conventional birds have access to.

Sunworks Farm Tour

Moveable shelters

Sunworks has quota for 5,000 laying hens, and harvest about 300 dozen eggs a day. Their hens start laying after about 20 weeks, and are able to produce for one year before being processed as soup hens.

Sunworks Farm Tour

Laying hens

Through experience, they’ve found that the plywood walls are cooler than plastic siding, and a roof is necessary on the back end of the shelter to keep out predators like coyotes and owls. When I asked why the shelters were built so high (unlike other mobile shelters that are lower to the ground), Sheila remarked that besides helping with heat management, they’re also more human friendly – all of their eggs are hand picked.

Sunworks Farm Tour

Meat birds

We did notice a couple of chickens who had “flown the coop”, and were just outside of the shelters. These birds had been pecked and will fully recover after a few weeks apart.

Sunworks Farm Tour

Looking in

While we couldn’t visit their pigs as they are raised on a separate piece of land, we were able to see the cattle from a distance (they retreated, of course, as our group advanced). Ron said they source their cattle from four different family producers; the breed is less important to them than being able to support other farm families. At present, they have about 65 cattle. They are grass fed their whole lives, supplemented with alfalfa pellets in the winter. Ron believes this produces a leaner product – I can attest to that; we’re big fans of their beef.

Sunworks Farm Tour

Ron with his cattle in the distance

Like the chickens, the cattle are moved daily so they have access to fresh grass. The other benefit of relocating them frequently is to ensure their manure is spread around as well – Ron remarked that it can take between 50-100 years to create a layer of top soil. Though the land wasn’t in great shape when they moved here 25 years ago, he indicated that much has changed even in that time. It’s important to them that the land is returned in better condition for the next generation.

Sunworks Farm Tour

Cattle

In 2015, Sunworks was able to open their own meat processing facility on site. They can process up to 3,500 birds a day at 1,000 birds an hour. Ron and Sheila are hands on every step of the way – Ron hangs each bird, while Sheila does the “dispatching” – she stuns each bird to ensure they don’t go into the scalding tank live.

Sunworks Farm Tour

Processing facility

They are supported by a team of people who help with the cutting, packaging, and processing of the value-added products. They don’t use liquid smoke or heavy cures for their sausages and deli meats, and Ron shared that his current favourite product is their turkey ham.

Sunworks Farm Tour

Sunworks products

To end our visit, we were treated to a five-course dinner featuring various Sunworks meats, prepared by Chef Kevin Zellweger of the Quarter Section Food Company. They run a catering operation and is in the process of opening a bakery in Leduc.

We nibbled on a delicious assortment of Sunworks charcuterie, Sylvan Star cheese and freshly baked bread before moving on to a salad spiked with some of the tastiest crumbled bacon I’ve had in some time (from Sunworks, of course).

Sunworks Farm Tour

Charcuterie and cheese

Chef Zellweger also prepared chicken leg confit atop asparagus and mushroom risotto, but the resounding favourite was the beef wellington – medium rare and gluten-free to boot.

Sunworks Farm Tour

Beef wellington

We had also spied the triple chocolate mousse when in the cooler earlier on in the tour, but it was even more appealing plated, served with flecks of edible silver.

Sunworks Farm Tour

Triple chocolate mousse

If Ron and Sheila’s generosity wasn’t enough already, it extended into a parting gift containing several packs of sausage to take home (including Mack’s favourite – chicken garlic and rosemary sausages).

Thanks again to Ron, Sheila, and Issac for hosting us, and to Jacquie for organizing this opportunity! Sunworks will likely open their doors for a family-friendly public tour in September, so keep your eyes on their Facebook page for details.

Taste Alberta Visit: Morinville Colony Egg Farm

When Mack and I started going to the farmers’ market regularly ten years ago, we became particularly conscious about where were sourcing our meat proteins. For us, the relationship we have with the vendors we buy from is as important as the conditions in which the animals are raised; as a result, we’ve even visited some of the farms we purchase from first hand.

That said, it’s not lost on me that much of the agriculture in this province is based on conventional farming methods. And while we have chosen to invest our food dollars based on what we value, I’m open to learning more about other farming practices. Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending a tour of a local conventional egg producer organized by Taste Alberta.

We started off with breakfast at the Glasshouse Bistro at St. Albert’s Enjoy Centre. It was a bright and sunny day, with the clear enclosure around the restaurant amplifying the beautiful conditions outside. The family-style meal featured eggs with a house-made hollandaise, bacon, sausage, and addictive spiced potatoes.

Taste Alberta Morinville Colony Tour

Breakfast at Glasshouse Bistro

Our group of half a dozen then rode a bus about 30 minutes north west of St. Albert to the Morinville Hutterite Colony. The colony is made up of 120 people and occupies 6,000 acres. They are a mixed farm, with grain, livestock, and dairy rounding out operations.

The Colony’s egg farming division is extensive, holding a hen quota of 20,160. In 2013, they were named the Alberta Egg Producer of the Year by the Egg Farmers of Alberta (who represent more than 160 registered egg farmers in the province). On average, the colony produces 1400 dozen eggs per day, and sells them to eighty restaurants in the area including the Hotel Macdonald and Cora’s, and commercially in Edmonton at the Italian Centre and through Four Whistle Farms. I was surprised to learn that Hutterites produce between 80-85% of all eggs in Alberta.

Taste Alberta Morinville Colony Tour

At the Morinville Colony

Paul Wurz, Morinville Colony’s Egg Manager, led the tour of the barn and the sorting facility. Though I have visited many farms in the past (albeit small operations by comparison), it was the first time I’ve been required to suit up for biosecurity reasons. With 10,000 hens housed in the single barn though, it’s easy to understand how an errant virus could quickly contaminate the entire flock, which would result in serious financial consequences for the farm.

Taste Alberta Morinville Colony Tour

With Sharman in our suits

While we weren’t permitted to take photos inside the barn (we were told an accidental flash might disturb the hens), the following photo from the Egg Farmers of Alberta captures a conventional hen house, and is very similar to what we encountered that day.

As mentioned, the barn we toured housed 10,000 hens. The cages were stacked three high, with seven hens in each cage. Each hen is provided with 72 square inches of space. We were told that this type of hen housing is being phased out in favour of furnished or enriched housing, which features more space, nesting boxes, perches, scratch pads and dust baths. The Egg Farmers of Alberta states that by 2020, 32% of hen housing in the province will be furnished or free-run/free range.

One of the advantages to this system is undoubtedly the built-in automation. The hens are allocated feed (105g per bird, per day, a mix of grain and soy for protein), and eggs laid roll down onto a belt that cycles them into the sorting facility next door. Manure is collected on a different belt underneath the metal grate of the cages, and carried outside for composting every four days. This was one of the factors Paul was most proud of – his eggs never touch manure; “In my books, the healthiest eggs are from barns like this,” he said.

Eggs cycled from the barn

In this barn, all of the birds were 24 weeks old. The colony raises all its own pullets (chicks), and they are placed in the barn at 19 weeks when they start to lay eggs (90% lay an egg a day). They lay for one year, after which they are butchered, then replaced by a new flock.

Before I set foot in the barn, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had heard stories of cramped living quarters, dirty conditions, and mottled birds, so what I saw was better than what I had anticipated. The birds were full-feathered, and apart from their obvious curiosity related to the visitors, they were relatively calm and quiet. In my opinion, the cages may be defined as humane, but it was hard to see so many birds in what appeared to be such a small space. In some ways, it was best summed up by a label that can be found at Save-On Foods, where they classify the different types of eggs available: “behaviours restricted”.

In the facility next door, the eggs travel on a conveyor belt to be cleaned, inspected, then sorted. The eggs are rinsed, removing any bacteria that may have been on the shell, as well as the protective barrier provided by the hen, necessitating their immediate refrigeration.

Taste Alberta Morinville Colony Tour

Rinsing the eggs

Next, the eggs are inspected for any blood spots, unusually large air pockets, or cracks using a light placed underneath the conveyor belt, one of the jobs still done by a person. Only 1% of eggs don’t pass this inspection for sale.

Taste Alberta Morinville Colony Tour

Inspecting the eggs

Lastly, the eggs are automatically sorted by weight from small through to jumbo sizes. The eggs are packed and boxed by another person. All told, the facility can be run by just three people due to the automation involved.

Sorting the eggs

Paul provided us each with a carton of eggs to take home, and was obviously proud of their quality. Among the feedback he receives from the restaurants he supplies – “My eggs don’t run – you don’t have to chase them,” he says, referring to the firmness of the egg white. Interestingly, he ensures the feed mixture doesn’t colour the yolks beyond pale yellow (the inclusion of alfalfa or corn can darken the colour), even though many consumers now consider darker yolks to have more nutrients. Paul shared that when the yolks have been darker in colour, he has received complaints from some of his customers.

Taste Alberta Morinville Colony Tour

Paul Wurz

I appreciated how open Paul was to having visitors at the Colony. His transparency and willingness to answer our questions was a welcome change from what I thought we might encounter. Thanks to the Morinville Colony and Egg Farmers of Alberta for hosting us that morning, and to Taste Alberta for organizing a very informative tour.

Recap: 2016 Alberta Open Farm Days with Northlands

Last year, Mack and I were invited to enjoy a long table dinner in the evening at Northlands Urban Farm during Alberta Open Farm Days. This year, we decided to spend most of the day with them.

For just $5 per person, Northlands had organized bus tours that would visit Edmonton-area farms. Mack and I signed up for the morning tour, which featured Gold Forest Grains and Horse Hill Berry Farm.

We boarded the coach across the street from Northlands Urban Farm, joining about two dozen other people already on the bus. Quite a few of them had been on the tours led by Northlands the year prior. Although both farms we visited were open to the public that day, it was a much more efficient means of transportation to go with a group – if they decide to organize a third year of tours I can only hope even more people take advantage of this deal.

Gold Forest Grains

Gold Forest Grains

Gold Forest Grains has been a fixture at the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market for many years. John Schneider and his family grow heritage and ancient varieties of certified organic grain on 300 acres near Morinville. Unlike other grain farmers, who typically have to farm between 2000-3500 acres, they can make it work on a smaller scale by selling directly to consumers.

Gold Forest Grains

John Schneider

Gold Forest Grains mills their own flour (they had a small hand mill on display, but most is done in large quantities now), but they offer value-added products as well. For many, their introduction to Gold Forest Grains is through their excellent pancake mix or Sturgeon River Cereal. John also mentioned that they continue to experiment with other varieties, including corn he obtained from local farmer Deb Krause that matures on the stalk, which may mean an unprecedented source for non-gmo, local cornmeal in the future.

Gold Forest Grains

Corn

While we didn’t venture too far onto the farm, John toured us around the perimeter of their straw-bale home, featuring a small fruit garden (including heritage apples and haskaps), poultry coop, and a cob oven.

Park wheat is one of the grain varieties they grow, and John shared that he has some gluten intolerant customers that can eat this type of wheat. This is the type of flour used to make the whole wheat crust at Love Pizza. As a treat, he had put together some park wheat-based dough, which he used to fire up some focaccia in the 800 degree cob oven.

Gold Forest Grains

Park wheat focaccia

I would have appreciated it if John had also spoken about some of the other products they grow, including lentils and farro, but I recognize that we didn’t have much time.

Next up, we headed to Horse Hill Berry Farm in northeast Edmonton. Operated by Dave & Jackie Wilson, the 10 acre u-pick farm opened in 2010.

Horse Hill Berry Farm

Horse Hill Berry Farm

They currently offer six different types of raspberries, but have been thinking about adding other fruit. Although they are not certified organic, they do not spray their crops. They will be putting in drip irrigation (the plants require about 1 inch of water a week) and will continue to prune using machinery, though labour-intensive hand pruning is more effective. The ideal air and sunlight penetration Dave described is similar to what grape vines need to thrive.

Horse Hill Berry Farm

Dave demonstrates pruning

It was actually the last day of operations for the farm this year, what they termed the “bonus” week as the growing season typically only lasts five weeks. As their gift to us, we were all given a carton to fill with raspberries.

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My bounty

Until Dave mentioned it, I didn’t realize that they had deliberately planted grass between the rows to make the raspberry patch more patron friendly (so parents and kids alike wouldn’t have to worry about trekking through the dirt or mud). This, combined with their raspberry guide of the types of berries better suited for canning, freezing or wine-making, points to the thoughtful design of many aspects of their farm.

Mack and I also wandered to the look-out on the property (where you can see the North Saskatchewan River), featuring an old family heirloom. The rusted truck is also apparently a haven for snakes, which I found out first hand (it was one small garter snake, but I wasn’t expecting it).

Horse Hill Berry Farm

Family heirloom

The bus ended where we started, and by that time in the afternoon, the Northlands Urban Farm activities were up in full swing.

Northlands’ beekeeper Patty Milligan was leading a honey demonstration, and crafts and a petting zoo provided entertainment for the young ones.

Open Farm Days at Northlands

Family activities

We also swung by the newly-installed chicken coop, where the heritage chicken breeds were happily picking at apples and greens.

Open Farm Days at Northlands

Northlands’ chicken coop

Before we left, we had a bite to eat from the Northlands 1879 food truck, and regretted choosing to share the garlic fries instead of ordering our own.

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Meatball sub and garlic fries

Thanks to Northlands for organizing an economical and seamless way to visit a few of the region’s farms – check out the Alberta Open Farm Days website for more ideas next August on how you can meet some of our rural neighbours.

Recap: 2016 Grand Taste Tour with Northlands Urban Farm, Brix ‘N Berries, Triple M Dairy and Tangle Ridge Ranch

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.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

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.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

Travis

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).

Grand Taste Tour 2016

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.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

Patti

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.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

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.

Brix 'N Berries

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.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

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.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

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.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

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.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

Hair sheep

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.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

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.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

Barn dinner

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.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

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.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

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.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

Pork ribs

Lactuca and Sundog Organic supplied the vegetables in the salad course, made up of radishes, greens, carrots, pumpkin seeds and a green goddess dressing.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

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.

2016 Grand Taste Tour

Gnocchi

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.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

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.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

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.

Celebrating the International Year of Pulses with Alberta Pulse

The UN General Assembly declared 2016 as the International Year of Pulses, highlighting their affordability, nutritional value and sustainability. As nearly 10% of Alberta’s crop acres are dedicated to growing pulses, it is a good time to promote this commodity at home.

Mack and I were invited to attend a recent event hosted by the Canadian Association of Foodservice Professionals (CAFP) at NAIT celebrating this hallmark year for pulses. The CAFP is a national organization that represents chefs, hospitality representatives, food manufacturers and nutritionists, among others. Local branches host learning opportunities for their members, including visits to area food production facilities. In February, in collaboration with Alberta Pulse, the Edmonton branch explored the topic of pulses.

CAFP Alberta Pulse Dinner

CAFP at Ernest’s

It’s a subject I’ve been learning more about in the kitchen for a few years now. After reading Mark Bittman’s Food Matters more than five years ago (his mission was to encourage more conscious consumption of non-meat proteins), I was inspired to start including more beans and lentils in our diet. In 2011, Julie Van Rosendaal and Sue Duncan’s cookbook, Spilling the Beans, was released, becoming one of our go-to guides for meal inspirations. Now, pulses have just become a part of our regular rotation, both as a meat alternative but also to enhance soups, salads and mains, stretching the meal all while adding nutrients. At this point, our pantry and freezer would feel bare without having some variety of pulses on hand. CAFP Alberta Pulse Dinner

Allison Ammeter

That said, the presentations that evening were informative, especially to provide a local context. Farmer and chair of the Alberta Pulse Board, Allison Ammeter, shared the following:

  • Lentils fix their own nitrogen in the soil, meaning a reduced need for fertilizer when used as a part of a regular crop rotation;
  • Most pulses use less water, particularly peas and lentils, which is great for drought-prone regions; and
  • Pulses leave the soil better than it was – wheat grows better on pulse stubble.

Alberta grows a variety of pulses: primarily peas (green, yellow, marrowfat), but also beans (great northern, black, cranberry, pink, small red), lentils (red, green) and chickpeas. And though most are familiar with whole pulses, they can be purchased as flour products as well.

It’s also an unfortunate reality that it’s not easy to locate "product of Alberta" pulses. Unless it is packaged in the province, even locally-grown products end up with a broader "product of Canada" label. Perhaps in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter if it lists the growing province, but it does make it more difficult for those hoping to source their food as locally as possible (thankfully in Edmonton, Gold Forest Grains does sell excellent organic red lentils). As the Minister of Agriculture was present that evening, I was hoping that some advocacy might have happened on the need for more production facilities in the province.

CAFP Alberta Pulse Dinner

Debra McLennan

Debra McLennan from Alberta Pulse shared some nutritional facts of pulses:

  • They are gluten-free and vegetarian;
  • They are low in fat, and protein-packed (curiously, in Australia, legumes are classified as a vegetable when a 1/2 cup is served, but as a meat alternative when 3/4 cup is served);
  • They are an excellent source of folate and are high in fibre; and
  • They are beneficial in reducing "bad" cholesterol.

Pulses are also relatively light on the wallet, costing significantly less when compared with meat sources of protein. In the context of rising food prices, affecting everyone from consumers at home to restaurant operators, this spotlight on pulses couldn’t come at a better time.

In collaboration with the chefs at Ernest’s, Debra designed the evening’s menu to highlight the many sides of pulses. To start, we enjoyed a duo of yellow split pea soup and a pork croquette which used a white bean purée to bind the meat.

CAFP Alberta Pulse Dinner

Duo of yellow split pea soup and pork croquette

The entrée was a pan-roasted chicken served with a lentil and rice pilaf. The chicken was very well-prepared, and the pilaf tasty enough, but it was a missed opportunity not to highlight pulses as the main event (Indian-inspired dal, or falafel, for instance).

CAFP Alberta Pulse Dinner

Pan roasted herbed breast of chicken

For dessert, we were treated to a lentil fudge pie. The pie incorporated a red lentil purée that could not be detected, taste-wise, and with the added nutrients, it’s almost a guilt-free dessert. That recipe can be found online at the Alberta Pulse website.

CAFP Alberta Pulse Dinner

Lentil fudge pie

If you’re interested in learning more about pulses, check out more recipes at pulses.org, and consider taking the pulse pledge – all it takes is committing to eating a half cup of pulses per week.

Thanks to the CAFP and Alberta Pulse for having us!