Edmonton·Video

Visitors welcome as Alberta Open Farm Days proceeds with pandemic precautions

AS COVID-19 puts our food supply, safety and security in sharper focus, local producers are making sure the public can connect a face and a farm to what they're consuming.

Growers and producers are ready to help Albertans connect their food with farmers

The sold-out picnic box offered in the Rural Roots Farmer Showcase featured charcuterie meats, cheese and other local offerings. (Rick Bremness/CBC)

Denise O'Reilly carefully places some fat, ripe strawberries from her U-Pick into a picnic basket. 

O'Reilly is a fifth-generation Alberta farmer who has been working a quarter section in Lac Ste. Anne County for years. The berries are the fruits of her labour at Hill and Dale Farm, land that has been passed down through the women in her family since 1914. 

The berries are tucked into picnic boxes alongside locally sourced meat, cheese and sweets, providing sustenance to folks enjoying Alberta Open Farm Days this weekend. 

Now in its eighth year, the annual event is billed as a farm experience open house. It's a chance for the public to get an insider's view of life on the farm as they meet people behind the ranches, distilleries and orchards across the province. 

The picnic boxes are part of the sold-out Rural Roots Farmer Showcase at the George Pegg Botanic Garden, about 100 kilometres northwest of Edmonton. They're just one example of how producers are adapting to show off their work despite the disruptions caused by the pandemic.

Denise O'Reilly and her family operate Hill and Dale Farm and A'Bunadh Seeds, selling heritage vegetable seeds and running a market garden and U-Pick operation. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

Another important change as a result of COVID-19 is that people must book their farm visits ahead of time.

"We're having people head online to our website and pre-register," said Nathan Anderson, events co-ordinator with the Alberta Association of Agricultural Societies. "There are other safety protocols in place as well."

This year, about 70 producers are taking part, down from the 100 or so that usually sign on to participate.

But Anderson said the cross-section of participants still involved tell a strong story about the diversity of agricultural operations across the province. 

It's been an unusual, often difficult, season for Alberta producers. 

Meet some of the people in Lac Ste. Anne County taking part in this year's Alberta Open Farm Days. 2:38

For O'Reilly, the pandemic has increased the demands on her small operation. She also sells heirloom seeds from her farm and saw a massive jump in her sales this spring. 

"There was about a 400 per cent increase in what we do online and lots of interest from first-time gardeners and people who never put a seed in the ground," O'Reilly said.

With demand increasing, O'Reilly decided to set up a U-Pick at her farm for veggies and fruit. It's a safe option for people who are keen to get out of the city and get their hands dirty. 

"We really can accommodate people with the spacing and booking appointments for people and offsetting that and it's really been good." 

Growing is often about adapting, said Lorraine Taylor, the horticulturist for Lac Ste. Anne County. And she's seen that during COVID-19.

"All the conversation about gardens and what people are growing and seed stores running out of seed because people were so excited," she said. "I'm really hoping that sticks." 

Taylor oversees the George Pegg Botanic Garden, a green space named after a farmer and naturalist who identified more than 100 species of flora native to Alberta during his life on the land from 1913 until his death in 1988. 

George Pegg Botanic Garden features five hectares dotted with buildings, farm history, walking trails and unique plants. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

You can see more from the George Pegg Botanic Garden this week on Our Edmonton on Saturday at 10 a.m., Sunday at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Monday on CBC TV and the CBC GEM. 

Last year, the garden hosted a long table dinner for Alberta Open Farm Days but this year Taylor has helped organized and distribute the picnic boxes instead.

"We're keeping it pretty low-key," she said. "The garden is open throughout the summer and we're just maintaining that kind of status." 

The garden is a favourite place of Dawn Boileau, owner of the Sunrise Gardens organic farm near Onoway, Alta., about 70 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

"It's a beautiful, diverse garden. It's well kept and the amount of history here is really precious to me as a local farmer," said Boileau. 

Dawn Boileau of Sunrise Gardens on a visit to the George Pegg Botanic Garden near Glenevis, Alta. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

Boileau sells fruit, veggies and microgreens at farmers markets in Onoway and Edmonton. She said the last six months haven't been easy. 

"As small growers, we're continually trying to feed our family, feed our community and it can be challenging when there isn't the appreciation for local food." 

Boileau estimated that sales are down by about 40 per cent for her market business, with fewer people shopping.

But Boileau said she also believes that interest in what she does is way up. 

"On a broader scale, people are becoming focused on what can we grow locally, what they can grow themselves and how to supplement that with the growers that are found close to home."

About the Author

Adrienne Lamb is an award-winning journalist based in Edmonton. She's the host and producer of Our Edmonton featured weekly on CBC TV. Adrienne has spent the last couple of decades telling stories across Canada.

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