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Horticulture draws interest

There could be a strong appetite for fruit and vegetable production in Central Alberta, based on attendance at a horticulture workshop in Lacombe on Tuesday.

About 30 people from throughout the region attended the one-day session, which was presented by Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development.

“We drew from a pretty good circle around Lacombe,” said Rob Spencer, a Stettler-based commercial horticulture specialist with the department.

The purpose of the workshop — one of five being held across the province over the next few weeks — was to inform people about opportunities to produce and direct-market fruit and vegetables.

Spencer said his office gets plenty of inquiries about this niche industry, and decided it made sense to take the information onto the road. With many producers approaching or at retirement, he added, it’s also important to attract younger people to the industry.

Those in his Lacombe audience ranged in age from their 20s to their 60s, and beyond, said Spencer. But the average age was lower than it is for farmers generally, he observed. The industry is a promising one, with many consumers eager to buy from producers, said Spencer.

“People do seem to want more of a direct contact, more so than they may have needed before. They want to understand better where their food comes from.”

Market options include U-picks, farm-gate sales, farmers markets and CSAs (community supported agriculture), he said. As for crops, choices include less-common fruits like sour cherries and saskatoons, said Spencer, adding that it’s a good idea to include some staples, like strawberries.

“I’ve heard them referred to as the locomotive of the direct market operation,” he said. “They’ll draw people like nobody’s business.”

On the vegetable side, options extend to leafy greens and ethnic crops.

“But you can still get by on really good quality carrots or baby potatoes or those types of things. Those are staple standbys for any direct-market operation.”

The Lacombe-Red Deer region has already established itself as a fruit and vegetable hotbed.

“We’ve got potatoes, we’ve got greenhouses, we’ve got some good nurseries and a number of really nice market garden operations too.”

Those considering fruit and vegetable production include traditional farmers looking to diversify, direct-market producers of meat and other products who want to expand their offerings, acreage owners keen to put their property into production, and even urban dwellers with no existing ties to the land.

“Its a real mix,” said Spencer.

They can start with a simple operation, and expand from there, he pointed out. That could even include the addition of a greenhouse.

“It really depends on what they’re interested in doing, how they want to stretch their season.”

Hurdles facing prospective growers include finding quality, affordable land with access to water, said Spencer. Having a large population base nearby is also important.

Because fruit and vegetable farms are labour-intensive, the associated costs can be high, he added. Return on investment can take time, especially in the case of perennial plants that take years to mature. And bankers who don’t understand the industry may be reluctant to offer support.

Still, Spencer is optimistic that some of the people attending the workshops will pursue the opportunity.

“We’ll be following up with these groups down the road, and if they want more help we’ll work with them.”

Information about fruit and vegetable production for direct sale can also be obtained by calling Alberta Agriculture’s Ag-Info Centre toll-free at 310-3276.



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