By Matt McIntosh
In September, I had a chance to visit Alberta for the first time since I was a child, and while there, I visited a few farms in conjunction with the annual conference of the Canadian Farm Writers’ Federation.
I come from farm country in Southwestern Ontario, and the diversity between farms in my own province is staggering; the level of diversity between farms at home and out west is even more intriguing. The funny thing is, farmers all seem to encounter similar problems and find similar solutions despite what they produce, where they produce it and on what scale.
My first visit was to Bow Point Nursery, a nearly 30 year-old tree farm, just west of Calgary. They specialize in native woody plants – trees, shrubs and such – that are well-suited for the climate and soil of southern Alberta’s plains and foothills. All the trees sold are grown on the farm, which itself consists of about 8,000 individual trunks and looks more like a forested glen than tree nursery. Wood mulch made from locally cut trees and other shrubbery is another popular item sold at the farm.
The owners had to overcome a number of problems familiar to farmers elsewhere – cash flow. Trees, for example, take a while to grow, so they had to secure and maintain a stable cash-flow despite a lack of saleable commodity in the beginning stages of their business. They also have to work to develop markets for their products, but sometimes those markets are hard to crack. Lindsey Sonntag, one of the owners of the nursery, says the city of Calgary has a tendency to plant tree varieties that don’t survive for very long, meaning they spend a lot of time and resources on replanting each year; she wants to develop a market with the city while helping to conserve resources, but has yet to convince those in charge that planting native trees would be the way to go.
Regardless, she also says the community as a whole has been supportive of their business.
I also visited Canadian Rocky Mountain Ranch, another business that found the local community to be the answer to their marketing issues. Dr. Terry Church is the manager of the ranch, which produces about 65 elk, 75 bison and some cattle every year for a series of resorts in the Rocky Mountains. The farm itself, with its picturesque foothill pasture, was fascinating – partially because I had not previously seen a bison – but also because we learned that marketing their specialty products came with its own set of issues. The biggest one was what to do with all the cuts of meat not used by the resort kitchens.
Terry explained that the resorts only like using the best cuts of meat, such as a striploin or tenderloin, and that means there are a lot slightly-less-sought-after cuts left over. To ensure those products didn’t just go to waste, the owners and workers forged their own market by setting up an on-farm butcher shop where they sell everything not used at the resorts, as well as other value-added products like sausage and jerky. Some of those products also make their way to a counter at a local farmers’ market.
Disease can be another major issue for any farm business, including Hotchkiss Herbs and Produce – a smaller-scale greenhouse and field vegetable farm that supplies many Calgary-area restaurants and markets. Hotchkiss specializes in heirloom tomatoes – non hybrid tomatoes – but encountered a major issue when a virus infested their greenhouse.
Viruses, unfortunately, can be a very damaging thing to crops of all kinds, and can persist in plants and soil for a very long time. Because Tracy and Paul Hotchkiss, the farm’s owners and operators, specialized in growing heirloom tomatoes, their crops were particularly susceptible to damage from the particular virus afflicting their farm. After many attempts were made to eradicate the virus, Tracey and Paul started planting rootstocks from genetically modified tomato plants, and grafting their heirloom vines to those rootstocks; the genetically modified rootstock is resistant to the virus, meaning the vines can grow properly, but the tomatoes themselves are still heirloom tomatoes. It was a brilliant, though not necessarily unique, solution. Indeed, grafting is an age old, widespread agricultural practice that continues to be valuable to farmers of all kinds.
If I could summarize my Alberta farm tour experience in one word, it would be resilience. Not for me, of course, but for the farmers. These farms are businesses that attract big challenges, and tend to find some pretty innovative solutions.