The dandy life

STROME, Alta. — John and Irene Feddema never thought they would get into the business of growing dandelions.

They were an annoying weed they were tirelessly pulling from their rhodiola rosea crop until John realized he could do something special with it.

“I remembered reading online you could roast dandelion roots, so I tried it and I was so amazed at how close to a coffee it could be,” he said.

Since that discovery, the Feddemas have never looked back.

They currently grow plots on their 27-acre homestead south of Strome, Alta., where they process the roots and sell them as coffee or tea products at local farmers markets.

“It’s quite a bit of work,” John said.

The couple waits until after the first fall frost to harvest them to achieve high nutritional content and better taste. They are washed, sorted and shredded, then dried and stored until they are roasted.

Next spring, the dandelions seed themselves.

“People always ask, ‘what do the neighbours think?’ ” John said. “Well, they don’t want my dandelions contaminating them and I don’t want their weeds contaminating my dandelions, so we’re OK with it.

“I think we’ve changed a lot of attitudes.”

Although their dandelion business has worked for them, the Feddemas didn’t always have it easy.

The family operated a feedlot in the late 1970s, but a spike in interest rates caused them to start a joint venture with their neighbours so they could keep it running. Irene also had to get a job in home care to help make ends meet.

Then BSE hit in 2003.

“I had enough. The cattle business fluctuates. It looks good, then it’s terrible, so we got out of livestock. We were out,” said John.

The couple still managed to keep the land, while John found work building and operating another feed operation. That didn’t survive, either.

He said these setbacks took a toll on the family.

“There were times where I think I’m so thankful I’m still here,” he said.

“When you’re under depression, there’s no other answer but to end it. I went through all those thoughts, but you have family.”

Irene said they persevered.

“Our faith helped. You’re always looking for something new, something to grow, or that adventure,” she said.

The Feddemas’ next adventure was rhodiola rosea.

John worked as the Alberta rhodiola resource co-ordinator, consulting with producers to determine how the crop was growing on their farms.

It became too tricky to manage on his own farm, so he turned to dandelions, first selling them at Edmonton’s Old Strathcona Farmer’s Market in 2011.

Irene said it was such a hit that she had to retire from home care and help out.

“On our first day there, we sold 42 bags of coffee, way beyond anything we had ever dreamt. Then the following week, we sold 60 percent more and then the next we sold double,” said John.

“We think it’s because dandelions were in the news.”

They now predominately sell at the farmers market in St. Albert, Alta.

John said the business doesn’t bring in enough cash to pay for themselves, but they do it because they enjoy hearing feedback from their customers.

“There are such touching stories,” John said.

“Every week, people have this tea and they come back telling us how they feel so much better.

“It’s definitely more than just a hobby.”

  • Dandelion leaves should be harvested before flowering if they are intended to be used fresh — older plants have a bitter taste.
  • Steep one tablespoon of dried dandelion roots in a cup of boiling water for five minutes for a healthy tea — try a bit of honey or cinnamon for extra flavour.
  • Dandelion flowers should be eaten immediately after harvest and can be cooked in soups or eaten fresh with salads.

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