Local food production possibilities at course

Robert Spencer has heard some bizarre ideas during his nine years as a commercial horticultural specialist with Agriculture and Rural Development.

Robert Spencer has heard some bizarre ideas during his nine years as a commercial horticultural specialist with Agriculture and Rural Development.

From his Stettler office, he’s fielded queries about the local potential for such obscure crops as medical marijuana, poppies and ornamental flower seed.

“I get all sorts of stuff,” said Spencer.

But he’s also receiving a growing number of calls about more practical products that consumers want and are willing to pay for: locally produced fruit, vegetables and meat.

“The local food market is big. There’s a great opportunity there.”

On Thursday, Spencer was in Red Deer for the Alberta Farm Fresh Local Food Short Course, which he helped organize and was presenting at.

Held annually, it provides information on a variety of topics focused on fruit, vegetable and protein production.

Originally called the Berry School, it expanded several years ago to include vegetables. Last year, four sessions on protein were added.

For 2012, courses are split between fruit, vegetables and protein.

Spencer explained that the Alberta Farm Fresh Producers Association, which is responsible for the event, has members who grow fruit and vegetables, but also some who raise livestock. It made sense to include content for all.

Plus, he added, many of the lessons taught apply to more than one product, and some of those in attendance grow produce and also raise animals.

“There’s a lot of cross-over.”

In most cases, the producers sell directly to consumers through farmers’ markets, U-picks and other one-on-one sales vehicles. But relationships are also being formed with chefs and retail stores, said Spencer.

Driving local food production is consumers’ growing appetite for products that originate close to their home. They are also concerned about the environment and the quality of what they’re eating.

“More people are interested in connecting with that farmer and buying locally,” said Spencer.

“The demand is there,” he adde. “We’re still not saturated in most things.”

There are challenges, said Spencer, including scarce labour and climactic issues.

“People will adapt.”

At this year’s Alberta Farm Fresh Local Food Short Course, which continues today, presentations have covered community-supported agriculture, direct marketing, social media, rules and regulations, production techniques, financing and pests, among other topics.

Reflecting further on the calls he gets at his office, Spencer said questions come in about products for specific ethnic markets.

He’s also noted that producers who once focused on a single product are now diversifying into multiple crops or species.

More than 80 people registered for each day of the 2012 Alberta Farm Fresh Local Food Short Course, including speakers.

hrichards@bprda.wpengine.com