Organic Alberta showcases diversity through field day

Organic Alberta recently invited its urban members and friends near Edmonton to share a diversity of agricultural experiences and broaden their understanding of what organic means in Alberta.

It offers its Calgary members a similar experience in mid-August.

Events for the first field day began with a tour of the grounds at the Multicultural Heritage Centre in Stony Plain, led by organic master gardener Bill Waitt.

We saw kitchen herb and vegetable gardens, environmental and aesthetic landscape elements and gardens with zucchinis and tomatoes growing in an area that had been sheet mulched and double dug.

Waitt said the organic master gardener program involves course work, a practical program and volunteer work with other gardeners at the centre. The program is associated with Gaia College in British Columbia and is the only organic master gardener program offered on the Prairies.

Our next stop was Sunrise Garden near Onoway, a four acre vegetable operation that supplies Edmonton area restaurants and a community shared agriculture operation. It starts with spinach and radishes in March and then plants every week throughout the growing season.

The garden supplies a multitude of vegetables in the summer and sprouts year round. While we were there, staff showed us leafy greens, peas, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins and herbs as well as wheatgrass and sunflower sprouts. The small orchard also provided tastes of saskatoons and raspberries.

Dawn Boileau, our tour guide at Sunrise, said the operation is a labour of love. She grows baby lettuce and an abundance of greens, but “I don’t like cabbage, so I don’t plant cabbage. I have to stick to the things I love.”

This love extends to the wildlife. Deer and moose wander through the gardens on their way from the creek to the trees, but they aren’t considered pests. The garden loses some produce, but “I don’t mind sharing,” Boileau said. “I feel I’m borrowing their land.”

However, the damage to the fruit trees was too much to bear. After losing saskatoon bushes four years in a row, the company fenced the orchard. Boileau said they were uncomfortable doing this and are planning to plant dogwood, which the moose love, around the fence to make it up to them.

Boileau, who is new to farming, is a testament to the importance of following your dream.

“I have no farmers in my family,” she said. “I’ve never farmed. I’ve never grown sprouts.”

It took time and lots of reading to “do well … to get acceptance at the farmers’ markets,” but today she has a loyal following.

Boileau feels that community is important., which is why she doesn’t cut corners and produce sprouts hydroponically rather than using organic medium.

“I support the entire organic system, in who I sell to and in who I purchase from.”

Her community shared agriculture customers, called sharers, also ensure she is supported.

Our next stop was Pine Terra, a certified organic, grass fed and grass finished beef operation near Onoway.

The operation has been in the Phillips family for four generations and the land has never been treated with chemicals.

Nadine Phillips, our tour guide, suggested that this chemical free tradition, and finishing the animals on high quality grass in a healthy ecosystem, makes the meat more nutritious, tender and naturally flavoured.

Pine Terra sells at farmers’ markets and to restaurants, stores and individual consumers.

Phillips said “selling them (the cattle) non-organic just didn’t make a living.”

Marketing has become a major undertaking for Phillips, but it allowed her to build on the farm’s unique history and its environmental and healthful production methods.

Field day participants were eager to see the cattle. It was the first time that some of them had ever seen a cow or calf.

We found the Black Angus cattle grazing near the shelter of trees at the distant edge of a pasture. As we stared at the cattle, they turned to stare at us in return. For many, especially the children and their parents, this was an exciting moment to cap off an eventful day.

By reaching out to the Alberta organic consumer, Organic Alberta is showing that it has something for everyone. Hosting consumer field days provides welcome opportunities for learning and sharing and building organic community.