Farmers turn to alternative agriculture

Growing numbers of farmers are turning to alternative agriculture and agri-tourism initiatives to help them earn a living. That message was illustrated by several speakers at the recent Canadian Farm Writers Federation annual meeting in Edmonton, Alberta earlier this month.

Ron Hamilton, Mary Ellen Grueneberg and Doug Livingstone have each found a different niche for themselves, but they are bound by a common love of the land, passion for food and dedication to farming. Here are snapshots of their stories I heard while attending the conference.

sunworksRon and Sheila Hamilton of Sunworks Farms raise organic chicken, eggs, turkey, beef, pork and lamb near Camrose, Alberta. They started their organic farm in 1997 with 100 chickens raised on the pastures of their 240 acre farm. This year, they will market 100,000 organic birds in addition to their many other products.

The Hamiltons’ farm is certified organic as well as certified humane by both the British Columbia and Manitoba Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Although they sell some products direct from the farm as well as to restaurants and health food stores, 90 percent of their products are sold through farmers’ markets in Calgary and Edmonton.

Ron HamiltonRon says there are three principle reasons why consumers buy their products: health concerns (the Hamiltons’ products suitable for people who suffer from Celiac’s disease as well as other food allergies), ethics (the Hamiltons raise their birds on pastures in moveable field barns) and sampling. Ron believes that the sampling they do at markets is invaluable as it gives people a chance to try the products, as well as the opportunity to ask questions.

Mary Ellen Grueneberg and her family farm near Leduc, Alberta. They became full time farmers in 2005 and after struggling to make a living as hog farmers, began diversifying into other market opportunities.

Today, they sell a variety of niche market produce, including heritage mixed greens, Asian vegetables and vegetables in all colours, including hot pink and black carrots. They also market duck and goose eggs, as well as processed duck and turkey products like duck ham, smoked duck legs and charcuterie.

Most of their product is sold through farmers’ markets and into restaurants, and the Gruenebergs have become actively involved in Slow Food Edmonton. Their biggest ongoing challenges, says Mary Ellen, are labour (it’s hard to get staff and they have to pay at least $12/hour to attract workers) and financing. Banks are reluctant to back ventures that involve non-conventional agriculture. But in spite of that, Mary Ellen says they love being non-traditional farmers and being able to bring good food to others.

Doug Livingstone is a grain farmer and cattle rancher who has seen his business struggle over the last few years. Drought, high feed prices and lingering effects of the BSE crisis have affected his business dramatically, so he has turned to a different venture to breathe new life into his farm near Vermilion, Alberta.

His family has launched Red Feather Ridge, an agri-tourism operation focused on catering, meetings and events. From weddings to 4-H public speaking competitions, his facility can seat 160 people and they’ve just added a liquor license and a commercial kitchen. As a next step, Doug envisions expanding to a trailer park and building on-farm accommodations for people attending events at Red Feather Ridge.

The facility is by invitation only – not open to the general public – and Doug says that their aim is not just to present a nice meal but to offer an experience. As a farmer, Doug says he realized that there was money in food after it left his farm gate and it became a matter of determining how to recapture some of that value.

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