This summer we have been taking to the road to learn more about and connect with the producers of Alberta’s flourishing, resilient, and vibrant agricultural community. The goal of this mission is to better connect Albertans to the growers that sustain our communities and to cultivate a greater understanding of the work that goes into ensuring healthy food from farm to table. On July 21st, we were welcomed to the farms of Benedict Beef and Beck Farms, both located in central Alberta. Here we were graciously given the opportunity to walk around their lands and connect with the families and land that have fed Alberta communities.
Our first stop was Benedict Beef farms, located near Wimborne, Alberta. We were first welcomed by the family pups Sprite and Wisp and then by the family ranchers, Derek and Lois Benedict. The first sight to see on the farm tour was their cows. We were driven down to a field clearing, where Derek shouted out “COWS, COME HERE COWS,” and over the rolling hills came the herd, trotting to greet us. We were astonished, as these cows seemed to have a better recall response than most dogs we’ve met! As the cows were aligned to welcome us, Derek and Lois explained that they utilize a rotational grazing system. This ensures that the cattle always have fresh grass to graze while the fields have plenty of time to replenish the grass and nutrients. The quality of feed is imperative to the final product of beef, as good feed will result in the delicious, lean, and marble-like meat texture. This system also guarantees that the cows always have a large space to walk around.
As the tour continued, the Benedicts also showed us some flowers that spurred on their land. Notably, there was the Wild Bee Balm, which is often used as a honey plant that attracts bees, or a medicinal plant. It is also more commonly known as the bergamot plant—which makes a fantastic cup of tea! Next, we were shown a bird sanctuary area for the Kestrel. The Kestrel is the smallest falcon breed in North America. The couple explained that the Kestrel is an endangered species, and they had signed up for a program to assist in creating a sanctuary to repopulate the species. This relationship is beneficial, as the Kestrel homes are southward facing towards the meadow; this helps as the Kestrel’s feed on small rodents that are pests in their field. Moving along, we were introduced to chickens, horses, and plenty of cats. The Benedict farm is certainly a haven for biodiversity.
As we returned to the homestead and sat down for a chat over homemade lemonade and saskatoon berries, we learned more about the origins of Benedict Beef and their values. Derek explained that he had inherited the family homestead, first established by his great-grandfather. The ranch had some tumultuous beginnings throughout the early 1900s, as it had faced both the Spanish Flu and dust bowl. Derek described its history as one out of a “western.”
The conversation then jumped a few decades as the Benedict family began to explain how the beef ranch came to be known throughout the community. The business essentially began as a communal reaction to challenging beef prices and poor profits. The community was aware of this difficult period for ranchers and reached out to the Benedict family to ask how they could help. As a result, the locals then began to purchase beef directly from the producers, and through word of mouth, the family was able to gain more customers. The Benedicts also took advantage of this opportunity to educate their local consumers on how the farm raises their cattle, connect consumers to the land, and deepen community connections. The Benedicts certainly welcome all that are interested in buying straight from the producer and offer farm tours to gain a first-hand education in where food comes from!
When asked about their future ambitions, Derek and Lois explained that they are embracing the day-by-day operations of the ranch and hope to leave something for the next generation to continue their legacy of good quality and affordable produce. The delicious and nutritious beef raised by the Benedict family have made them a valuable part of Alberta Beef producers. But, their values of community roots and education have contributed to making Alberta the community that it is today.
As the morning quickly turned into the afternoon, we packed up and headed west to Innisfail, Alberta for a visit to Beck Farms. When first entering the farm we were in awe of the acres of greenhouses and flourishing fresh produce. We were greeted by Shelley Bradshaw, who operates the farm with her husband Rod and their two sons. Although Beck Farms is famous for their carrots, they have expanded to grow cole crops such as cauliflower, cabbage, kale, and beets, dill, parsnips, peppers, as well as jamming and canning their goods into preserves. They have also begun testing new ventures with the introduction of melons, corn, and tomatillos.
We sat down with Shelley for a chat in the pepper greenhouse to learn about the origins of Beck Farms. Shelley’s husband, Rod Bradshaw, attained the farm through his family. Originally a wheat farm, it wasn’t until the 1980s that Beck Farms was established as a vegetable farm. Due to low wheat prices at the time, the farm began to diversify its crops into vegetable produce. Momentum for the business spurred through community support and neighbours wanting to buy local produce. But why were carrots the produce that Beck Farms had chosen to perfect? When asked, Shelley responded that when attending an Alberta Agriculture conference, the speakers had presented carrots as an extremely viable crop. It was also helpful that the Bradshaws were looking for a crop that could be mechanically seeded and harvested, for an optimum yield. Today, Beck Farms dedicates 40 acres of their 1000-acre land to carrot farming.
As much of Canada is experiencing hardship due to weather conditions, Shelley gave us some insight into how the family continues to sustain their crops through severe conditions. A couple of the tricks that they use is to have a large soil dugout, where the vegetable mulch is covered in plastic. This strategy helps retain water and soil moisture while also deterring pests. Another strategy is to grow eggplants with the peppers in the greenhouse. This helps control and monitor pests, as they prefer the eggplants over the peppers. By studying the eggplants, the farm can measure how many and what kind of pests are in the greenhouse before they can spoil the pepper crop.
We were curious as to how Beck Farms discovered so many unique and useful tricks, but Shelley explained to us that much of their knowledge on protecting and cultivating crops came from the sharing of ideas amongst growers. The approach that Beck Farms has taken to grow their future is rooted within mutual collaboration and co-operation amongst other local growers to share fresh, sustainable ideas and support the community.
We asked Shelley what the future holds for Beck Farms, and she stated that the family looks forward to testing out new ideas and crops, as well as continuing to grow the agriculture community within urban and rural Alberta. You can find Beck Farms at local farmers’ markets as far south as Calgary and as far north as Lacombe.
The opportunity of touring these local Alberta farms gave our team the valuable first hand experience of how our food is grown and raised. We would like to once again thank both Benedict Beef and Beck farms for giving us the opportunity to connect Albertans to their local producers. Happy growing, happy sharing, and happy eating!