Market vegetable farm thrives in Alberta

On the Farm: Riverbend Gardens grows roughly 45 acres of vegetables with close access to urban consumers

Janelle and Aaron Herbert have what they call the perfect storm for growing vegetables in Alberta.

Their farm, Riverbend Gardens, is situated in an agricultural zone within City of Edmonton limits, giving them close access to urban consumers who demand local products.

They are also lower in altitude, right beside the North Saskatchewan River, allowing them longer growing seasons and access to rich water for irrigation.

“This land is suited for vegetables — we’re close to the city and have access to water,” Janelle said. “It would be weird to grow wheat or canola on this piece of property, although you would get a sweet crop out of it.”

The Herberts grow about 45 acres of vegetables, selling their products at seven farmers markets in the Edmonton region.

They also have a community-supported agriculture program, supplying about 500 customers with weekly boxes of fresh produce for 15 weeks starting in July.

“We grow different things that people like,” Janelle said, showing her transplant crops before they’re put into the field.

Aaron Herbert seeds corn in late April. | Jeremy Simes photo

“We have purple and orange cauliflower and broccoflower (a green cauliflower). There is kale, kohlrabi, cipollini onions, fennel.”

During the peak season, the Herberts hire 20 full-time staff to help with harvest, packing and selling.

Janelle said the staff are knowledgeable and can answer questions from consumers who want to know how their food is grown.

“Customers can connect with staff just as much as they would with us,” she said. “Sometimes I get stuck in the office, so they are better at answering questions.”

Riverbend Gardens, however, wasn’t always a market vegetable farm.

Janelle’s grandparents, Clarence and Jenie Visser, initially grew potatoes and raised hogs, but her dad, Doug, decided to change the operation.

Janelle said Doug initially received a grant to grow two acres of vegetables in the early 1980s.

He then began selling his products at a booming farmers market in downtown Edmonton, realizing consumers were demanding local vegetables.

“He had to beg for a spot at that market, but he just hustled and grew from there,” she said.

Doug eventually got out of the hog business, turning the old barns into cool storage units for the vegetables.

Janelle said the family sold to wholesalers for a while, but it became less profitable because of tough competition from Mexico.

Therefore, the family decided to stick to the markets.

“There was a lot of red tape with doing wholesale,” Janelle said. “Going direct really worked out.”

In 2006, her parents asked Janelle and Aaron to slowly take over the business.

They were high school sweethearts, working in the city for almost two years before they moved back.

Janelle said she was a bit apprehensive at first, knowing the countless hours her parents worked, but Aaron was all for it.

“I knew how much work it was going to be because I watched my parents struggle,” she said. “But being a second generation market garden farmer with the land we have, I realized we have a lot of advantages.”

Janelle’s mother, Evelyn, passed away a couple years after they moved back.

From there, she and Aaron took full control.

“It was a steep learning curve for us, but we were close to the city, so it was nice,” Aaron said.

Added Janelle: “My parents were so dedicated to this for 25 years. It’s been a little over 10 years for us, but it’s been good.”

Janelle and Aaron have three children: Evie,11, Layne, nine, and Carly, seven.

This year they are getting an earlier-than-normal start to seeding, and they hope it will be another successful season.

“We’re fortunate we have enough space so that rotation hasn’t been too much of an issue,” Janelle said. “We have enough variety, keeping the soil diverse.”

Aaron said he plans to install a deer fence to help keep the animals out of their crops.

The deer are so problematic, he said, they had to hire a worker just to keep them out.

“If you don’t, they will wipe out everything.”

The Herberts don’t plan to make major changes to the farm.

“We’ve dabbled in different things, but we’ve always just come back to this,” Janelle said.

“This place is meant to grow food. If you start directing energy to agri-tourism or to this or that, then it takes away from what we’re really successful at. It all comes back to the land.”

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