Produce a growing concern for Alberta trio

IRMA, Alta. — A perk of market gardening is the opportunity to work inside a warm sunny greenhouse on a brisk winter’s day.

“It’s therapeutic,” said Amy Newton, who with fellow growers Kristal MacKay and Janel Fenton operate Spade to Spoon Garden Market and Greenhouse near Irma, Alta.

As with most gardeners, growing started as a way to provide fresh produce for their own families’ needs and led to finding markets for the excess.

The trio began their farm venture two years ago, spurred on by little competition and the closure of other greenhouse businesses in the region.

“It evolved super fast,” said Fenton.

Their four greenhouses are used to start plants as early as December that are later spread over four acres of gardens. They are also their main sales site for their host of products ranging from bedding plants, trees and shrubs to gardening supplies.

They also collect berries from the wild and from families’ fruit trees.

“It’s more affordable and we know that nothing has been sprayed on it,” said Fenton, citing their natural approach to gardening without pesticides.

“We’re not organic, but don’t spray. We just weed.”

They also sell locally sourced goods ranging from beeswax products to art, with excess produce transformed into relish and jellies in a rented commercial kitchen each year.

“There’s no kids, no laundry, we just visit and make preserves,” said Fenton, a mother to four children.

She and Newton, who was expecting her fifth child this summer, are part of family farms, while MacKay, who has three adult children, once operated a dairy with her spouse.

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They say market gardening has brought them closer together.

“If our friendship was falling apart, we’d let the business go. It’s always been us first,” said Newton.

They receive much help with child care, construction, plumbing and yard maintenance from family members.

“If we had to pay someone to do that, it would not have been doable,” said MacKay.

They work every day for six weeks straight in the early spring, with greenhouse planting beginning as early as December and transplanting and seeding beginning in early May for cold hardy varieties such as broccoli or spinach.

The greenhouse operates from May 1 to June 15, opening again for special fall and winter markets.

Their region can see frost during the growing season but the women spread the risk by managing gardens at different farm and town sites.

Bedding plants are the growers’ biggest earner, with produce also selling well.

“Vegetable-wise, we are not supplying the demand,” said Fenton.

The trio has found success with preserves, which reduces food waste while catering to an underserved marketplace.

It allows them to create traditional favourites but also special seasonal flavours such as caramel apple or pumpkin pie jam or gingerbread jelly.

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“The fall market was new to this area. It resonated with a lot of people,” said Newton.

They have loyal customers but their main competition comes from Hutterites and large retail outlets.

“It’s so much easier (for consumers) to stop at the Co-op and grab supper, than seed it, weed it, water, it, harvest it and wash it,” said Fenton.

They share the workload but generally advertising is handled by MacKay, bookkeeping by Fenton and social media by Newton.

They use social media, like Facebook and Instagram, to keep customers informed on what’s available and do deliveries into Irma.

“Social media is extremely im-portant. At 9 a.m., we post that we have 10 vegetable baskets and by 10, they are sold,” said Newton.

In addition, they sell produce to a community supported agriculture venture, create flower gardens in Wainwright and Irma and also offer a variety of classes.

For the future, they believe farming smarter is preferred to farming bigger and will focus efforts on their best markets, either a garden market store, supplying someone else or selling produce boxes.

“We want to better optimize the space we have,” said Fenton.

They would like to offer more nursery stock and use raised beds in the greenhouse to extend the season for potatoes, tomatoes and cucumbers.

“We hope raised ones will be warmer,” said Fenton.

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They also want to do more staggered planting and cutting of plants like spinach and lettuce rather than replanting to reduce the amount of space needed.