AIRDRIE, Alta. — When the Souto family set up a new farm on 27 acres near Airdrie, they soon learned they were not in British Columbia anymore.
Plenty of wind, new weeds and a different farming style introduced them to foothills cultivation.
“It is completely different from B.C. Everything we learned growing up was out the door and relearned. It is Alberta where it might snow next week,” Chris Souto told a tour group.
The Souto family came from Portugal in the early 1970s and started farming at Oliver in the south Okanagan. They have 25 acres of apples, cherries and soft fruit and work with neighbouring producers to supply farmers markets.
The Alberta operation started two years ago. Managed by brother and sister Chris and Melissa Souto, the farm is growing peas, beans, potatoes, pumpkins, carrots, garlic and other vegetables suited to the chinook zone of Alberta.
Brothers Steve and Dan run a similar operation at Spruce Grove to serve the northern part of the province.
Everything is direct marketed from the May long weekend until Thanksgiving. They work 23 Alberta farmers markets and recently received approval to build an on-farm market that should open next year. They plan to work with local greenhouses to obtain cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers to supply the store.
Two semi-loads of fruit and vegetables from B.C. arrive twice weekly at Airdrie and large coolers keep products as fresh as possible.
“No product that goes to market is any more than three to four days old, usually within 72 hours it is on the customer’s table,” he said.
In addition to the gardens and packaging facility, they added an apple chip business. The family diverts the less-than-perfect fruit from their apple, cherry and soft fruit operation to a dehydrating operation.
“We struggle as farmers. We only make money for half the year,” he said.
The chips can keep the cash flow going year round and they hope to get them into local stores.
When they started the chip operation at Airdrie much of the work was done by hand and they could put together 300 bags every 12 hours. Now they can do 4,000 to 6,000 bags every 12 hours. The bags are the same size as potato chip packages.
The Airdrie farm employs about 35 people for the fieldwork and warehouse where fruit and vegetables are washed and packaged for the various farmers markets Melissa attends each week.
They have about three acres of vegetables but plan to double every year for the next few years. Crops are planted June 1 to fill the market later in the season.
“September is a busy month at the farmers market and most of the variety is gone. Everything is getting earlier and earlier so with me being later, it sustains us until the end of the season,” he said.
The focus is to pick products young and package quickly.
If people want to buy seconds to make jam for example, they can call the farm or make a request at the farmers market.
“We are really big on sustainability and supporting the community,” he said.
They try to reuse and recycle as much as possible. They get used manure from a nearby mushroom farm for their composting site.
They are not organic but try to avoid using pesticides and do not use chemicals to speed up ripening. Weeds are picked by hand.
They have well water for drip irrigation and built a 22,000 litre tank to collect rainwater. During their first year of growth, they faced a drought but this year ample rain keeps the cistern filled and the gardens vigorous.