Imagine sitting down to a multi-course dinner on a farm, enjoying food from the very place you’re visiting. Or, taking a wagon ride around a ranch, getting up close and personal with the livestock while learning about the operation’s practices from those who are responsible for raising the food that ends up on your plate.
On the Aug 22/23 weekend, you could do exactly that, as dozens of farms and ranches across the province opened their doors to the public during Alberta Open Farm Days. Whether one had an interest in raising cattle or carrots, making cheese or harvesting honey, or learning about the environmental stewardship practices of a particular producer, Alberta Open Farm Days offered it all. Between numerous culinary offerings on Saturday and free open houses on Sunday, the only problem was deciding where to go!
Although I had an ambitious schedule of 4-5 “hopeful” destinations, I realistically was able to visit two on that list. (Note to self: be better at calculating travel time.) My first stop was Arrowhead Ranch south of Medicine Hat, Alberta. Owned by Dale and Chandra Weiss, Arrowhead Ranch has been a part of Alberta Open Farm Days since its inaugural run three years ago. In addition to chatting with visitors about their operation, the Weiss’ offered wagon rides to check out their pastures and view historic teepee rings on their property. I made sure to say ‘hi’ to their Texas Longhorn, Spanky, and was thoroughly impressed by the tack shed—a space that was easily 10x cleaner and more organized than any spot in my own home. The Weiss’ clearly are dedicated to both their livestock and their grasslands, producing Black Angus cattle that—according to their brochure—are “born, raised, and fed right out [the] back door.” Arrowhead Ranch also has an Environmental Farm Plan, further exemplifying the Weiss’ commitment to sustainable practices.
After sampling some delicious Arrowhead beef brisket, I headed back on the road towards my next stop—the Enchant Demonstration Farm. A partnered project among Rick Stamp (of Stamp Seeds), the owner of Enchant Farm, and the Alberta Conservation Association, the Enchant Demonstration Farm is a working example of how an agricultural area—despite its mostly cultivated status—can serve as a wildlife haven. ACA’s Doug Manzer explained the project’s plans to capitalize on and increase the edge habitat on the farm in order to support a variety of wildlife species—insects, birds, and mammals alike. Furthermore, this type of enhancement is designed to elicit a cascade effect; for instance, increasing the insect community by planting shrub pods will in turn provide an increased food resource for upland game birds on the property. Taking advantage of these marginal areas means that the land can be used to its greatest potential in this system—for both agricultural and wildlife enhancement purposes.
Although I would have loved to have visited several additional host farms, being welcomed to one (let alone two) was worth the trip. The opportunity to meet producers on their “home turf” instilled in me a level of respect and appreciation for agriculture that often becomes lost in the grocery store or even at a farmer’s market. And—with sites in both rural and urban settings, the majority of which are free-of-charge—the Open Farm Days program offers both geographic and financial accessibility (an attribute I hope will expand as the program continues). Based on the 2015 participation list of close to 100 host farms/ranches, Alberta Open Farm Days shows no sign of slowing down. 2016 is sure to exceed expectations—don’t miss it!