Year-round produce | The family at Schipper Farms multi-tasks by raising strawberries, micro greens and broiler chickens
BOW ISLAND, Alta. — The Schipper family markets lettuce, strawberries and micro greens through a large produce co-operative, but the interaction they find when selling at local farmers markets forms an important part of their business strategy.
“We do the farmers markets and we get direct feedback,” says Lia Schipper, who is the most frequent face at the family’s sales booth on market days in Medicine Hat.
The bulk of production from the 30,000 sq. foot greenhouse north of Bow Island is sold through Red Hat Co-op, a grower-owned distributor of vegetables and fruit based in Redcliff.
But when Red Hat wants to explore new products, the Schippers can provide a testing ground.
“I get direct feedback, so if we find new varieties, we first bring them to the farmers market. If they go over, then we say yes,” says Lia.
That’s the way the family’s newest foray into micro greens began. It started as a pilot project to gauge grocery store and consumer interest. Now the Schippers plant 30 different kinds of micro greens, ranging from watercress and kale to radishes, sunflowers, popcorn and peas.
The seedlings are snipped at a young age and marketed as additions to sandwiches and salads, each with their own flavour. The Schippers also sell the micro greens at farmers markets, where Lia has experimented with appropriate package sizing and prices.
“It’s a real mental thing. Farmers market people tend to have smaller families, they’re busy, so this is a product that matches because they are concerned about their health and they are small families, so little quantities are the ticket.”
Lia’s father, Harm, and mother, Dee, say the greens have proven popular year round, but more so in winter when people long for fresh local produce.
Butter lettuce also fills that desire. The Schippers raise the lettuce hydroponically and sell 600 heads per week through Red Hat. With roots attached and packaged in a plastic container, the lettuce lasts two to three weeks after purchase.
Schipper Farms is the only operation in Alberta that grows strawberries in a greenhouse, and has been doing so since January 2013. Theirs are in raised beds and use European technology that allows easy harvesting and clean fruit.
“It’s labour friendly. It’s airy, you don’t get all the fungus. It’s a healthy environment,” says Dee.
The plants are replaced every six months in a system that sees year-round production. Berries are picked only when ripe because of the short distance to consumers via the co-op and farmers market.
“From the Red Hat Co-op, we are the smallest grower. I hope one day somebody else in the Red Hat will also start doing strawberries,” says Dee.
She and Harm say demand is huge for Canadian strawberries but one of the biggest hurdles now is getting varieties suited for greenhouse production. Whole plants can’t be imported from Europe, where this type of production is common, be-cause of biosecurity rules.
They are able to get plants from Quebec but varieties are limited.
“The ideal would be that we would have a greenhouse variety because they produce more kilograms,” says Harm.
“That’s where the biggest hurdle is right now, to get the kilograms. But we can get reasonable production. This is the right scale to start out, to try it out. If somebody else wants to go ahead with it, we have some knowledge.”
Though not certified organic, Schipper Farms uses biological controls for insects and fungicides approved for organic operations.
With 480 acres, wheat and canola crops as well as a broiler chicken operation with 28,000 birds, the Schippers need additional help. They employ four people through the temporary foreign worker program, which has been a godsend, says Dee.
Though they advertise locally for workers, “nobody comes,” she says. Their employees, all from Thailand, are here for two years and she has found them to be diligent and willing workers.
“To get a Canadian for this job, I would pay half more, at least, and I would not have the same quality as what these people offer me.”
Of course, that means many instructions have to be translated into Thai, but that hasn’t been much of a problem.
Lia and her sister, Colleen, have one more iron in the Schipper Farms fire. They operate Flip Flop Flowers, which Lia describes as a glorified 4-H project.
That business, run solely by the girls, sells bedding out plants and flower planters to businesses and people in the Bow Island area.
“We started with the 50 geraniums and then we got a little bigger and a little bigger and now we do pots for quite a few businesses,” says Lia.
“We usually sell every last flower. It has also taught us a lot, selling it, and dealing with all of the paperwork. Now my younger sister does all of the paperwork.”