Local and chemical free, the best food money can buy

It was a gathering of the chefs recently when Galimax, an Alberta fresh food wholesaler, invited chefs, gardeners and other interested foodies on a southern Alberta field trip to see food — real food — being raised for city folk in Calgary.

Two buses of food enthusiasts spent 11 hours visiting and investigating different farmers and local food. We discovered old eggs have a sloppy egg-white and a weak yolk. We learned pigs will cross the road from barn to field even though the road is not fenced, yet not escape to freedom.

But, of course, my real interest was the vegetables and I always encourage home gardeners to grow their own. Visiting the southern Alberta farms gave me another perspective. Organically grown cucumbers under a 0.4-hectare greenhouse and an eight-hectare patch of carrots amazed me and went far beyond the size of veggie patch I am used to seeing.

Henk and Andrew Mans have the first greenhouse in Western Canada using natural soil to grow organically certified tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. The practice of growing inside a greenhouse, but on natural soil, has made a comeback after disappearing for 30 years – the reason often being, you need to grow in soil certified as an organic grower.

Most commonly, greenhouse growers use hydroponics to grow food, but this is not an acceptable organic production practice. Using old technologies such as good bugs to eat bad bugs and worm and fish fertilizer to feed their vegetables, The Man’s commercial scale food greenhouse opened in 2012 and now ships as much as it can grow to stores and restaurants in Calgary and Edmonton.

Outside, on a farm that used to grow grain and cattle, they also have watermelons and cantaloupes almost ready to ship to restaurants in Calgary, Canmore and as far west as Lake Louise.

Howard and Cornelius Leffers, meanwhile, farm near the Mans, just north of Coaldale. They also grow numerous types of carrots, as well as parsnips, leeks and beets. They have to be careful not to start the beets before early July or they will be too big too early and the chefs and diners won’t get the tasty, tiny baby beets they desire.

Growing organic vegetables isn’t just about the timing. Howard told us they have to grow an alternate crop for 16 years before they can grow carrots again. This means on a more than 200-hectare farm, they are only using eight hectares to grow fresh vegetables.

A lot of the Leffers’ land is growing hay to feed animals such as horses and cows. It’s hard to believe they need to grow hay so they can grow the organic carrots we expect at the best restaurants and stores in the city.

It is necessary to weed the carrots by hand three times a year. This means it costs 10 times more to grow organic carrots than ones that are conventionally grown because chemicals are cheap compared to the labour needed to keep a field of carrots clean.

If you don’t grow your own garden but want to eat good organic local food, you need to make a few compromises and price is one of the factors.

Growing local food in your own backyard is the best bet, and many homeowners and restaurants are doing this already. Finding local food – even if it is not organic – at the farmer’s markets and stores is second best. Getting organically grown local food is nirvana.

I say thanks to farmers every day for growing the food we eat. In the case of these special southern Alberta farmers, I thank them for making the efforts, to grow organically as well. Because of their efforts our water and our diets are cleaner.