Alberta orchard not afraid of diversification

DNA Gardens offers visitors a variety of options: a trip to the orchard for fresh berries, a walk on the wild side with the self-guided nature trek, a more serious hike on the blue bird trail or kid-centred fun in the family fun park.  |  Maria Johnson photo

On the Farm: A greenhouse and tissue culture lab followed the fruit trees — and then came the store and patio café

ELNORA, Alta. — Dave and Arden Delidais own and operate DNA Gardens. The 15-acre orchard is nestled into the rolling parklands of central Alberta, where the hills and valleys dotted with wetlands gradually give way to sprawling prairie.

The fruit farm is known for an abundance of saskatoons and boasts 19 varieties.

“We are the oldest ongoing single owner commercial saskatoon orchard in the world,” says Arden.

After the saskatoons came apples, black currants, cherries, chokecherries, pears, pincherries, plums, raspberries, strawberries and rhubarb. Haskaps will likely be added next year.

Arden says that customers who come to pick saskatoons invariably reminisce.

“People tell me stories,” she says — memories from their childhood, of time spent with family, of warm saskatoon pie or sweet canned fruit, of the staining blue berries that went into the mouth as much as into the bucket tied about the waist.

The first trees were planted in 1976, the year after the couple married. They had met at Elnora where Arden took her Grade 12. They both attended nearby Olds College. Arden studied horticulture and Dave was enrolled in agricultural mechanics.

The couple made their home on the farm where Dave grew up. It’s where they raised their own three daughters. Dave has always worked outside the farm, but is very much involved in business planning and decision making. On his days off from his oilfield consultant and operator jobs he’s generally working around the farm. During harvest, he’s the commercial fruit combine driver.

DNA Gardens employee Rebecca Wood fills a pie shell with saskatoon pie filling. The commercial kitchen has been built into the operation’s former plant tissue culture lab. | Maria Johnson photo

Most of the farm is rented out and gradually being transitioned from cropland to hay land.

“We’re removing the risk of spray drifting to the orchard,” says Arden.

In earlier years, along with the orchard, Arden’s business included a greenhouse and tissue culture lab. She raised and sold plants and exported them around the world. Through the tissue culture lab Arden worked with the University of Saskatchewan.

“The fun part was discovering new varieties and networking.”

Arden continues to draw on the expertise of Ieuan Evans, a well-known plant pathologist.

“I call him the Don Cherry of horticulture,” she says.

Although the Delidais family sold the plant tissue culture lab about 15 years ago, DNA Gardens continues as a nursery and experimental farm.

“I’m going to pioneer a root trial developed by Dr. Evans, growing apples on a bush as opposed to a tree,” she says. “I’ll be planting that this year.”

She’s also grafting varieties of hardy Russian pears and experimenting with growing the arctic kiwi.

DNA Gardens holds propagation rights on certain plants such as the Treasured Red Columnar apple.

“It’s a large-fruited apple suitable for small spaces,” Arden says. “We also hold propagation rights to a sister columnar, the Treasured Gold, that we’ll be bringing to market in a few years.”

DNA Gardens was named Innovator of the Year 2020 from the Alberta Farm Fresh Producers Association.

“That was in recognition of our previous plant work,” Arden says. “We helped to introduce lots of different varieties over the years.”

Since 2018, the couple have been transforming DNA Gardens, with a focus on consumer products and agricultural tourism.

“We’re changing our whole program here”, says Arden. “I love the relationships I develop with my customers but how often does a person need another fruit tree? With the value-added of consumables there’s opportunities to interact more.”

DNA Gardens’ on-farm store and patio cafe offers juices, gelato and sorbetto, cheesecakes and pies, all made with farm grown fruit. The store also sells locally made honey, jams, pickles and sauerkraut. DNA Gardens’ foods are produced in the commercial kitchen built into the converted tissue culture lab.

Sunday pancake breakfasts featuring farm fresh fruits have been drawing visitors this summer. Arden said their unwalled outdoor dining space has made the COVID-19 distancing protocols manageable.

A 45-minute nature trek winds around the farm and provides education on all manner of subjects. There’s bee, bat and birdhouses to observe, natural areas to discover, antique machinery to inspect, play areas for energetic kids, and picnic spots for lunch.

Dave and Arden are particularly excited about recently receiving a licence as a winery and distillery. Not only will the wines and liqueurs be produced from DNA Gardens’ own fruit but labels include photographs and history of the farm dating back to the early 20th century, when Dave’s grandparents emigrated from France.

Arden says DNA Gardens’ marketing has been paying off.

“We’ve definitely seen a huge increase in traffic to the farm.”

Dave and Arden Delidais make their home on land that Dave’s grandparents farmed when they emigrated from France in the early 20th century. | Maria Johnson photo

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