U-pick market garden focuses on education

On the Farm: Customers learn how to pick a cucumber and receive favourite recipes and tutorials in preserving food

Bawlf, Alta. — If children, parents and customers leave Lil Ryley Farms knowing a bit more about agriculture and food, that’s a win, says owner Kerri Giesbrecht.

“We are about education,” Giesbrecht said about her family’s U-pick market garden, farm store and event farm.

“When we made the move, we made it public about our social commitment,” said Giesbrecht, who operates the 17-acre farm with her husband, Adam, and son, Ryley.

“Our goal is to feed ourselves and feed our community that wants to be part of it.”

Customers have followed the couple from their original location on the outskirts of Sherwood Park near Edmonton to their more rural location outside Bawlf on a farm established almost 120 years ago.

Giesbrecht goes beyond teaching customers how to pick a cucumber in their U-pick vegetable patch. She shares her favourite recipes and offers tutorials in preserving food. Instead of picking beans for a single meal, she encourages customers to pick enough for a season and offers help on how to preserve the vegetables.

Giesbrecht says she can’t keep up with the demand for the eggs from her laying hens. | Mary MacArthur photo

“I’m on speed dial for a few customers who come out every week.”

In the past, she has teamed up with other foodies to offer children’s cooking classes. She is exploring the possibility of teaching food classes through Zoom for schoolchildren this year.

The children often drag their parents out to Lil Ryley Farms to pick cucumbers, eat funny coloured vegetables, peek through the fence at the chickens, or hand feed the small flock of sheep.

“We’ve seen a lot of repeats because the kids are asking to come back.”

It’s the third season for Lil Ryley farms, but Giesbrecht said the harvest was so poor last year she can barely count that season. This is the first year as a U-pick operation and at the larger scale in their new Bawlf location. They moved at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March.

They found the 17-acre parcel through Facebook and knew it was perfect when they drove up the driveway. The older outbuildings, large yard, historic farm home and treed farmstead checked all their buying boxes, and they knew this location could help tell a farming story.

The original 1902 farm home, turned farm shop, is now the farm’s store. Also on the farm is a 1915 pig barn and a 1917 hip-roof barn.

The large 1917 farm house has its original architecture, including solid wood doors and hardware and the couple plans to begin renovations once the weather pushes them inside.

During Open Farm Days, the province-wide day that encourages farmers to put out the welcome mat to non-farmers, visitors to their farm were interested in watching Giesbrecht seed radishes with a special seeder. Since then, visitors have been able to follow the growth progress of the plants through the farm’s social media posts.

“They follow on Instagram. It gives them a feeling of going full circle and they can see what it takes to grow vegetables,” she said.

Potatoes, carrots and beets are the biggest sellers, but kids love to take home the largest zucchini or the largest carrots they can find.

“It’s interesting to see the kids migrate towards the colour.”

Giesbrecht said she tells the kids to pick something and take a bite. Biting into an imperfect apple or an odd-shaped carrot opens a discussion to real agriculture. Just because it has blemishes or a funny shape doesn’t mean it needs to be tossed into the compost.

As well as vegetables, the farm has laying hens, which can’t keep up with the demand for the free-range eggs.

The customers are warned the eggs aren’t the carbon copy kind you get in the store. Sometimes a customer gets surprised with a double-yolked egg and a variety of sizes.

It’s not the family’s first foray into farming. Between crop spraying jobs, Adam, a former Air Canada pilot, farms with his cousin near Rollyview. As a child, Kerri spent summers visiting her farming relatives.

This summer, the family hosted the first annual Lil Ryley farmfest, where they teamed up with a chef to offer a farm-to-table dinner and breakfast. Visitors camped on the lawn, roamed around the farm during the afternoon, listened to a live band playing on the front porch of their house and enjoyed a pig roast with fresh vegetables.

In addition to creating a community event that they hope will become an annual occurrence, they raised $1,000 for an agriculture scholarship. The scholarship could be used for anything from learning to fly a crop sprayer to agronomy certificates at a local college. Eventually, their goal is to raise enough money through their monthly community events to offer three, $1,000 scholarships each year.

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