Alberta foodies satisfied with being small and local

Laura and Cal Siebenga of Gull Lake, Alta., stock their store, Small Circle Foods and Retail, with locally produced food and crafts. The couple raises about 70 ISA brown chickens. The breed is known to be prolific layers giving large brown eggs. The Siebengas raise Suffolk Dorset cross sheep. They sell their meat and also have two other producers who supply the same breed and quality of lamb. A protective llama keeps the flock safe from coyotes. The Siebengas sell food and artisan items from more than a dozen producers around central Alberta.  |  Maria Johnson photo

GULL LAKE, Alta. — The conversation is easy and relaxed like friends catching up.

Laura Siebenga chats with a longtime customer who stops for eggs at Small Circle Foods and Retail, the store located on her and husband Cal’s 17-acre Brown Eggs and Lamb farm.

“That’s a huge part of what this store is,” says Laura. “Its about people building relationships”.

That includes connecting with producers who supply dozens of food and artisan items for sale at the store.

Laura worked in commercial real estate for a decade and liked working with people.

She also cited the connections, relationships and sense of community that small businesses often foster.

In 2011, they found, moved and refurbished a garage building.

Laura says her role in the business has evolved over the years from sole producer to a broker for other farm families.

“My mandate is that everything be local,” she says.

Laura once viewed buying local as a trend.

“But it isn’t. People seek me out.”

The store is two kilometres from the village of Gull Lake, which swells in size each summer.

In addition to the brown eggs and lamb the Siebengas supply from their 270 chickens and 12 ewes, products include trout, beef, pork, chicken, dairy products, fresh produce, preserves, pies, soaps, wool and woven fabric items, stone milled flour and honey.

Cal’s World Famous Pancake Mix is also available periodically, says Cal, who grinds it in his stone mill with hulless barley and food grade wheat.

Laura says being a small enterprise makes it easy to adjust to changes in the economy as well as evolving customer needs and re-quests, which she communicates to producers.

She finds it challenging at times to put a fair price on items, particularly in instances where she does a lot of the transporting.

Cal and Laura sold their dairy farm in 1991. They also subdivided and sold land and currently live on a 17-acre piece.

“We wanted the kids to have the agricultural experience,” Laura says.

They bought ISA Brown laying chickens and began to sell eggs. They subsequently added six Suffolk Dorset cross sheep, one for each member of the family.

Sales of the big brown eggs from the free-range chickens had in-creased and customers were also asking for lamb. The sheep herd grew to as many as 100 ewes.

Laura said the kids learned much about responsibility, business and money.

After their children left, the couple, who are now in their early 60s, sold the entire flock in 2014.

“I was really devastated over the loss of my friends,” says Laura, who bought 12 bred ewes in 2015.

Cal, who would like to scale back his plumbing business, planted barley and oats this year. He would like to do more of that but renting land is often expensive and hard to find.

While the Siebengas plan to continue as is, they did seed a small plot near the store to barley last spring. It is currently up for rent but could end up being a market garden in future.

Laura quotes Canadian radio broadcaster Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Cafe motto to express her satisfaction with Small Circle Foods and Retail.

“We may not be big, but we’re small.”

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