Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Green House Tour on 165 Ave

As a greenhouse nut living in Edmonton, I've discovered a route that beats all others: 165 Ave, east of 97 Street. Drive past Alberta Hospital and suddenly its greenhouse/nursery/market garden land. Every quarter kilometre another greenhouse pops up. Little ones, bigs ones. Some of them sell bedding plants, other's just bare root trees and shrubs (found $20 Explorer Series Rose bushes at Arrowhead Nurseries!), others, like Kuhlmann's have huge inventories of garden gnomes and water features. 
One of two hanging baskets.

It's a route on which a great deal of money can be spent on a leisurely Sunday afternoon.

Nearly at the end of the road, past the North West of Edmonton and into the North East, is my favourite spot: Visser's Greenhouse. You may know them as the potato farmers who partnered with Greater Edmonton Alliance to for the "Great Potato Giveaway". They are potato farmers, but also greenhouse operators. And what a greenhouse! Hanging baskets provide a overhead carpet of colour and scents. Each plant stand has a variety of choices, offering ideas for companion plantings in pots and boxes. There's a small coy pond and two areas (one outside with sand, the other inside with slides) for kids to play. Every single plant looks happy and healthy-- can't say that for the meagre offers I saw last weekend at Canadian Tire and Rona. 

This year, I planned to splurge on two of my hanging baskets by our dining table and on the window box Mat just built for the garage. We can see all three of these from the deck where we perch most of summer. 

In year's past I've filled these baskets/box with plants I grew from seed. So my petunias flowered in August, and my squash didn't bother to grow past a foot. Every summer I've been cheap and by August rather disappointed I hadn't cheaped out elsewhere. 

So, buoyed by this hot May long weekend and the magic that is Visser's, my cheap back was broken and I spent an average of $40 per basket/box. I filled them with a sun loving variety of begonia with startling colour then filled them out with purple and green sweet potato vine. I filled the box out with bacopia (sp?) and ivy. 

I am delighted with the result. Now, I HAD BETTER WATER!

When I married Mat, I've got to admit that "handy" wasn't on my list of qualities for a life partner.  Now, 12 years wiser, I realize that that was a critical oversight. Thankfully, Mat's handy AND knows how to operate power tools. Even better, he can turn a boring flower box into a bit of art. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Finally Here- The Season for BBQ Hamburgers

Sorry to the vegetarian readers out there; some graphic raw meat pictures in today's post! 

Tonight was BBQ Burger Night- our third this week.  Now that it's spring (it is spring, right?), we're giddy with relief that the sun is out. We've spent the last eight days outside, digging compost and battling mosquitoes. BBQ seems like the only appropriate interruption.

So perhaps it seems pretty basic, a post about homemade hamburgers, but its on my mind (and I think more people buy hamburgers than make 'em). Homemade burgers are cheap, have way better flavour and way less creepy filler, than the frozen kind. A pound of beef or elk or bison will make me 9 medium sized burgers or 6 really large ones.  Even with organic, free-range beef that's just under 35 cents per patty! The one down side is cleanup: in my kitchen raw hamburger touches the bowl, the transfer tray from kitchen to BBQ, and thoroughly coats my hands. 

I'm sure there are hundreds of variations of homemade burgers. In ours, I usually add to the thawed meat a jumble of the following ingredients: 

cracker crumbs
shredded carrot
worcestershire sauce
mustard (prepared and powder)
garlic (crushed and powder)
oregano (fresh or dried)

Etc. Etc. What goes in yours?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

My Honeyberry Blooms


Hurray- this week my honeyberries bloomed!  Two summers ago I planted six honeyberries. Since you need at least two varieties to cross pollinate, I was extra careful and bought three varieties. Last summer, I harvested a record of seven berries off one bush. This summer, my goal is to harvest... well, more. There are many more blooms on all the bushes this time around. 

I've experimented a little with the placement of each. Reading that they grow in both part shade and sun, I've planted the six in a variety of sunny to shady spots. There hasn't been much variation in the amount of growth on each bush, perhaps I'll see the difference in the fruit output.

The fruit, if you've never seen it, is a blue, elongated berry shape. The plants come from Siberia and their blossoms withstand -8 to -10 C frosts. The woman I bought my plants from had bushes which bloomed straight through a snow storm and went on to produce a rich harvest. 

The flavour of my seven berries was pretty mild; each was seedless and plump. According to the researchers at the U of S Fruit Program, however, flavour can range from "terrible to terrific" so there is still ongoing experimentation in the flavour department. 

Shannon Dyrland, who's Shallow Creek Nurseries closed last year, recommends the varieties Cinderella, Berryblue and Bluebell. Many of the greenhouses now carry at least a couple varieties of honeyberry.

Keep in mind too, if you plan to landscape with these, that they aren't fussy about soil Ph, which can't be said for their cousins the blueberry and huckleberry (both need acidic soil). 

So, if you have a honeyberry bush, please let me know where you've planted it and if the fruit output has changed significantly when planted in the sun versus the shade! 

I'll keep you posted on my ambitious goal of "Eat More Than Eight Honeyberries in 2011".

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Stick in the Mail

I got a stick in the mail today- shipped from Winnipeg in a long, six-foot box lined with brown paper.

T & T Seeds tells me that this stick is a Hazelnut- a Flibert Hazelnut (hybrid of American wild hazelnuts with their better fruiting cousins in Europe)- and I can only trust them that this is true.

At the base of this stick is a bulbous growth wrapped in twine mesh. Inside the mesh is a root ball hugged by cedar shavings to help with the shock of the trip in the back of a Canada Post truck. Obedient as I am, I followed the directions and now have the root ball soaking in a mop bucket, accompanied by a High Bush Cranberry that at least is leafing out and looks somewhat like the bush it will be.

In the bazooka sized cardboard box, I also pulled out two, four-inch lingonberry plants, a Ben Nevis Currant, some onion sets and seed potatoes. In baggies were five other plants: three are a I've-fogotten-the-name-of-perennial which I purchased with no research (the flowers nearly burst out of the catalogue!). Two of the baggies are clematis plants, one purple and one red, but you'd never know it. Seriously, all that is in each labelled sandwich bag is a mass of tangled, thick roots. They also look dead, though on very close inspection I found a hint of a bud.

My girlfriend ordered from T & T Seeds last year and had warned me of the sorry state of affairs that I'd receive in the mail. All her sticks and roots magically sprouted life and grew with vigour. In her experience, I find my hope that hazelnuts will grow from what appears to be a dead twig weighed down by its weird tumour.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Sustainability of Small Farms: Q & A with John Schneider

My main intent in these interviews is to understand the business of family farming-- and to understand how Alberta's farms can be sustainable, both financially and environmentally, for the sake of the province's food security.  


Gold Forest Grains is a certified organic grain farm located just 30 minutes north of Edmonton. You can buy Gold Forest Grain's flour, pancake mix, flax seed and other products at Strathcona Farmer's Market, City Market and Alberta Avenue Farmer's Market. To buy bulk, contact John through his blog

1) How long have you been farming? 

 My son Garreth, or daughter Gretta will be the 5th generation of Canadian Farmers in our family should they choose to continue farming. I suspect that will depend on whether or not I am successful at making our current farm profitable. I have been farming since I was old enough to sit between my Dad's legs on the old Allis Chalmers tractor to be able to steer while we were plowing. I was about 10 I guess. I have had periods of my life where I was away from the farm working in the high rise towers of Edmonton. GFG has been operating for 7 years. Before that, it was my Dad's farm where we grew grain on about 2000 acres. Dad sold the farm during my stint away from farming and during a time when I didn't think I would return to farming. 

2) Next to Farmer, do you have another profession(s)?

I am a safety consultant in the construction industry. Currently, I am trying to stay afloat financially by consulting for small companies of all different kinds to get their safety programs up and running. Before Christmas I was laid off from a permanent part-time position at a local construction company as they struggle to get busier. Perhaps I will return to that company as they get busy this summer. Perhaps I will continue to consult to other cos.

3) You have written about taking odd jobs to keep financially viable,  this is something I know has been happening for years- farmers mining, farmers trucking. What are the benefits and problems with needing off-farm income? Is it a blessing or a curse?

To me, working off-farm is a definite curse. It takes away from my attention to the farm. Especially at this stage where we have just relocated the entire farm operation. I have built our house and an out-building but there is still so much to do along with the business of getting seed in the ground and maintaining the equipment etc. etc. I wish desperately, to be able to make my living strictly from the proceeds of my farm.

4)  The 'family farm'  is often talked about with notes of nostalgia-- What, by your definition, is the family farm?

My definition of a family farm is I suppose the same as everybody else's. Your question has me thinking about different ways to define the term "family farm". I know several family farms that are operated with foreign workers and live-in farm hands while the owner does whatever else interests him. I guess I define "family farm" as a relatively small farm operation where the members of the immediate family perform the farming activities. 

5)  What are the implications to Albertans and to the Alberta economy if the family farm was to disappear??

That is such a great question Carissa. I am not entirely sure what the implications are to the economy if we lost family farming. The large corporate farms are oftentimes foreign owned. They are usually subsidized heavily. We all know the story of corporate taxation on our continent. The rich get richer. If there were nothing left but corporate farms, my wages would be lower for performing farm activities...I would be making minimum wage I suspect (although there is an arguement that I don't even make that now! LOL) Even more foreign workers would come in to Alberta willing to work hard for less money. There are many scenarios that I am not smart enough to foresee. It would be a tragedy though to lose the way of life that has been a fabric of our society for so many thousands of years. I doubt that will ever happen. I am optimistic that the family farm will return as more and more people such as yourself make the conscious decision to purchase direct from the farmer instead of the supermarket.

6) One reason I feel concerned about the loss of numbers of farms, shrinking diversity of farms, and increasing scale, is that I wonder if we (Albertans) put our food security at risk. Is this concern valid? Thoughts?

Well, all I know about this is that I know of no incidents of people getting sick or dying from eating properly produced local farm products be it high risk products like milk or otherwise. The same cannot be said for corporations like Maple Leaf Foods now can it? 

What about the extreme short sightedness of corporate farming to blindly blunder into the world of GMO? Ever increasing usage of chemical inputs? Food security is really one of the least of my concerns compared to the world scale threat to our ecology and health. 

Why is there such an increase in milk sensitivity? Gluten intolerance? Peanut allergies? The simple fact is that human beings cannot de-evolve that quickly. We have been eating grains for at least 10's of thousands of years. We have not suddenly become allergic to wheat...that is ludicrous in my opinion. Is gluten sensitivity a mis-diagnosis of chemical sensitivity? A recent study in the UK found common farming-practice pesticide residues in bread on the grocery shelves...except for the Organic Samples! Even eating so called Whole Wheat flour from the store is not really "entire wheat". Much of the roughage that we need for proper health has been removed. Another article could be drafted discussing the human health benefits of eating "entire grain" products. The bad press of high-glycemic bread would not exist if the studies were done using bread that contained the entire grain in its flour. 

7) What do farms like yours need in order to be financially sustainable (or what are the systemic factors that challenge your financial success?)?

We are on our way to becoming financially sustainable. We are taking our produce and making it into a processed product that the consumer can use in their homes. We are doing this processing right here on the farm. By growing grains and turning them into freshly-milled flour we take the profits that would have been lost by trucking, milling, trucking again and finally retailing. The only problem with all of this is that the grocery stores have the advantage of everybody knowing they are there! I happily continue to struggle to get people to know we are out there. From our living room at night, I can see the lights of Edmonton sparkling and I think about all those people that use flour and would like to purchase directly from the farmer.

I think though that the key to all family farms becoming sustainable is both an infrastructure for consumers to buy the food and an education that meat, milk and produce from local farms is the responsible choice. An education that food shouldn't be cheap. It should be fairly priced, from environmentally sustainable practices and fresh. I would love to see a large chain of grocery stores that carry nothing but produce from local farms. Perhaps farmers markets will evolve into this model, but I still see so many challenges there. Consumers need to have the choice to buy bacon from one farm or another instead of just whatever farmer is represented at that particular market. Producers also need to get active with marketing and packaging to make their products professional in appearance. 

8) Besides purchasing food at farmer's market or CSAs (direct from the farmer), what can consumers do to advocate for more sustainable financing for small scale agriculture in Alberta?

There is nothing more that consumers need to do other than consume our products. That act alone will make small-scale, family farms viable. Once they are viable, they won't need financing. Once they don't need financing, the banks will be tripping over themselves to finance us! 

9) How do you determine pricing for your flour (the main considerations)? 

 For us, pricing is based on comparing current grocery store prices. We check prices on a regular basis to make sure that we are right around the current, acceptable pricing for organic flour. We do not charge a premium for being local...that's just silly to us. If anything, we would like to be in a position to be able to lower our prices. For now though, we are using established pricing from successful companies who have done all the figuring for us! Currently, with the cost of production of the grain and the cost to mill, package and transport to market, and the cost of the market itself...it is not a very big profit margin. We continue to lose money on our farm which is why I have to get a job elsewhere. I haven't been marketing grain direct to the consumer long enough to be able to do a cost analysis so I will have to get back to you on that. For us, we have many determinations for pricing to consider...land costs, fuel, taxes, labour, equipment repairs, equipment purchases, packaging, electricity, etc. etc. Once we can produce flour on a full-time basis including the actual production of the grain, we will be in a position to really crunch the numbers. If we can sell a whole bunch more flour, we will start to make a profit...that's all I am focused on right now. 

10) What could government or consumers do to help you be competitive?

Buy more flour products from our farm! 

That Bloomin' Garden and Art Show TODAY


Sunday, May 1, 2011

First Plantings for the Square Foot Gardens

Last weekend (April 22) I covered the oldest of the gardens (planted 2008) with 1.5 inches of sheep and cattle manure. By the end of last season it was clear the soil needed nutrients: at the end of their third year they were producing carrots and beets half the size of the new gardens. This year I plan to experiment with a couple types of home-brewed, liquid fertilizers: stay tuned. 
No chance I'll be planting this garden in the next couple weeks!

Lovage, mustard and flax line the back of this garden. I use these square foot gardens like a greenhouse or cold frame- I plant the cold-tolerant seeds early and will move most seedlings to other spots in the garden. 

If you can see my scrawling on the sticks, I've planted 3 square feet of hyssop with 16 seeds each for a total possible 48 plants... I want to do a mass group planting in the front boulevard of our house and I guess I really love hyssop! There are four squares of swiss chard planted in the centre of this bed: Swiss Chard regenerates after cutting, so I won't worry about succession plantings (for those who don't know what that is, it's doing a number of plantings spaced a week or two apart to stretch out the harvest). Four is probably too much swiss chard- but if it goes crazy in the middle of summer, I'll pull the two north squares and plant spinach there (which will benefit from the shade of the fully grown swiss chard up front!).

Here's a map of the two boxes as I've planted them now. I include the date I plant it and often the variety. About half of these boxes will become empty at the end of May as I use the seedlings to plant my yard's gardens (hyssop, cornflower, sunflowers, lovage, mustard and flax will be moved) and my deck pots (nasturtiums, lettuce, red teff grass will be transplanted). 

A closer look. 

It's terribly ugly, I know, but I'm experimenting with creating a micro climate that will extend my season, without the need to build further cold frames and greenhouses. What the tent lacks in attraction, it makes up for in utility-- after a week about half of the seedlings have germinated with the arugula about two weeks from being harvestable. As for the garden on the right side, I've covered it with frost- cloth sold for tomatoes. It also has been effective in keeping the soil warm enough for many of the seeds in this box to germinate. The trick now is keeping the seedlings alive despite the dipping night temperatures. Last year I covered many of the seedlings with the bottoms of pop bottles- which created mini-greenhouses (technically these are often called 'cloches' but pop bottles/ milk jugs are cheaper!). This year I'm trying out old windows. Placed over the top of the boxes, these windows have worked similarly to the cloches. I will need to watch, however, that the seedlings underneath don't burn as our daytime temperatures inch up.

Oh, how nice it is to finally be outside- working and sweaty!

As an aside: happy voting, Canada!