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Sustainable agriculture offers satisfaction

Couple direct markets their heritage poultry and heirloom vegetables and preserves food for their own use

TAWATINAW, Alta. — Beans are planted beside potatoes to keep beetles at bay, hygienic Saskatraz queen bees from Saskatchewan keep hives clean and rooting pigs rototill the corrals.

Sheldon Marko and Natalie Pepin employ these sustainable practices on their Stoney Creek Farms in north-central Alberta where they produce a variety of heirloom vegetables and heritage livestock and poultry for their 40 Community Supported Agriculture customers.

“There is value in bringing a lot of species to the same place,” said Pepin, who has a permaculture design certificate.

Marko, who farmed conventionally for many years, turned to growing non-genetically modified varieties without chemical inputs after his grandmother died from a cancer heavily influenced by environmental toxins.

He works full time on the Tawatinaw farm while Pepin farms and also does business consultations and financial and marketing planning for clients.

“We’re trying to figure out different options, models and keep track of what we do and how we do it,” said Pepin. “The goal is to optimize what is profitable. A mistake is to go too big too quickly.”

They make weekly deliveries of food boxes into Edmonton, adding local fruit and organic fruit from British Columbia, marketing via Facebook and their website,

“We try to give them a reason not to visit the grocery store as often,” said Pepin.

They say typical customers include young families, professionals and the health conscious.

“They want to feel good about what they’re eating, they want peace of mind,” said Pepin.

They chose direct marketing but found farmers markets offered little return for their investment of time.

“There wasn’t enough traffic to make it worth it,” said Marko.

Seeds are saved from gardens planted sequentially with nine varieties of potatoes, five types of squash, five different carrots, eight kinds of beans and 20 tomato varieties.

The pair believes seeding cover crops of clover, barley and oats minimizes weed growth.

They use organic solutions such as neem oil and soap to combat bugs in the gardens. They are not certified organic but treat sick animals with homeopathic remedies.

“The goal is to keep the animal healthy so we don’t have to treat it,” said Pepin.

They can access 480 acres of mostly forest and hayland, but raise the majority of their produce and livestock on 20 acres near a sleepy hamlet named for a Cree word meaning big valley.

Marko said the lack of cultivated fields in the surrounding cattle country means their bees are not feeding on GM crops. The bees also are adept at cleaning mites out of their hives, he said.

Critters in the yard include meat and layer chickens, turkeys, geese ducks, pigs, sheep and rabbits. The couple has acquired a Jersey cow in hopes of starting a breeding program for miniature Jersey cattle.

They also will continue setting up a greenhouse for year round growing, raise more chickens within movable pens outdoors and reduce their pig numbers.

Aggressive goats were dropped.

“Goats were a wonderful tool to test the fence,” Pepin said.

Much of their meat and some live poultry go to other producers and startup operations.

They hope to make their farm a model that others might consider trying.

The land they manage is owned by their business partner, a psychologist who runs a group home for adolescent girls on the site. They were initially engaged to provide healthy food to the home.

It was a shared interest in farming that brought together the couple, whose blended family includes six children.

Their goal is to be sustainable and they are doing that by producing and preserving the food they eat, making candles and cheese, milling feed rations and buying un-sprayed or organic feed.

“The goal is to preserve enough food for a year,” said Pepin.

Marko said they give their animals plenty of space within outdoor pens and inside a large barn, noting injuries are more likely to occur than disease.

Dogs and guns are used to control aggressive predators like coyotes and foxes.

Farming this way means a lot of work for the couple, who employ part-time help to put together food boxes each week.

“I can sleep when I’m dead,” said Marko.

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