Urbanites seek ‘garden fresh’

Consumers wanting local produce are investing in community shared agriculture programs

When John Mills explains the concept of community shared agriculture to his city clients, he speaks plainly about sharing the bounty and the risk.

Last year at this time, his Bowden, Alta., farm had received 200 milli-metres of rain. This year there has been barely a trace of moisture.

Weather can be a setback in the direct marketing business but his 400 clients have faith and every week for 16 weeks he makes deliveries to Calgary to those who have purchased shares from Eagle Creek Farms.

Community shared agriculture offers a subscription to receive weekly supplies of freshly harvested food such as fruit and vegetables, dairy or meat products.

Mills’s clients can expect to re-ceive six to nine fresh items each week. The variety depends on seasonality and weather. He also works with other local farmers to fill the orders.

His family farm also has a large U-pick strawberry and vegetable operation, seed potatoes as well as sunflower and corn mazes.

He likes the concept because he is dealing directly with his customers and has learned as much about his urban clients as they have about food production.

“It is a way for small farms to connect with customers,” he said at a community shared agriculture fair to introduce Calgarians to the concept.

When clients receive some crisp peppers or luscious tomatoes in their order from Mills, some of them have come from Shirley’s Greenhouses at Didsbury.

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The family owned 32,000 sq. foot greenhouse grows cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and other hot house products.

When Dawn Buschert’s parents ran the operation, they dealt exclusively with wholesalers, but now all the products are marketed direct. It was difficult to compete against imported products but with the growing desire to buy local, Dawn and her husband, Cameron, have been able to turn the business around.

“It brings me back to the customer,” she said.

Every buyer at one of the six farmers markets she attends gets a cheery, “Thank you for supporting our farm.”

Nolan Fisher of Didsbury says he is in transition from a full CSA program to a mobile food truck.

Clients are invited to buy credits from his farm and then use that investment to shop every week.

The modified refrigeration truck stops in downtown Calgary as well as select farmers markets. Clients can browse through and pick up the items they want.

“People want local and they want to support local businesses,” he said.

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He supplies most of the vegetables but also gets some products from Buscherts and a fruit grower in British Columbia. Eggs and frozen meat from local suppliers are available.

He rents a 12-acre space from his parents and grows a wide variety of peas, beans, zuccini and 5,000 pumpkin plants this year. Some of his vegetables are also on sale at the local retailer Sunterra Market.

He was inspired to try this after living on Vancouver Island for a time. Land was too expensive there for a young family to start a similar program so he returned to the family farm in central Alberta.

For him, this was a way to farm in the highly developed region be-tween Calgary and Edmonton where land prices are out of reach for most. In addition, he employs up to a dozen local people, of which half are from Calgary.

“They want to learn how to grow their own food and they want to get dirty,” he said.

Community shared agriculture is still not a well-known concept for many consumers. Alberta Agriculture has been monitoring the growing trend to buy local. The last study in 2013 found community shared agriculture is a growing trend with great potential but only about half of those surveyed knew what it was.

That study estimated there are about 40 operations but since they are independent, tracking the numbers is a challenge so there are probably more.

The study found Alberta households purchasing from these kinds of programs spent an average of $564 annually.

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Another 2012 study found market value for farmers markets has tripled since 2004. The sector was worth $724 million in 2012, up from $233 million in 2004.