Advanced seed theory and the scoop on poop were among topics served up for the fall version of ReThink Red Deer’s EcoLiving Fair on Saturday.
The trade fair and workshops were focused on working with natural processes rather than against them, bringing foodies from across the spectrum — urban and rural, growers and consumers — to share ideas and inspect products that overlap ReThink Red Deer’s principles for urban planning.
Michalak admitted on Saturday that the weather could very well have scuttled the plans for outdoor workshops and displays, given that the entire region was under a blanket of snow at this time last year.
“We won a lottery with the weather, all there’s been is a little bit of wind,” said Michalak.
“We have EcoLiving typically in the spring, with Seedy Saturday, and that’s when seeds are typically distributed because it’s time for planting. But, because we have a seed bank, that means the storing has to happen as well.”
Therefore, the fall version of EcoLiving, including Seedy Saturday, was set up at Heritage Ranch to collect and swap seeds, share ideas and promote the annual harvest dinner, prepared by Chef Mike Ubbing at the Westlake Grill. Ubbing said the challenge for him was to create a gourmet dinner using local products without putting the costs out of reach.
“It’s taken me six years to build supply lines and they’re finally getting to my standards,” said Ubbing, who grows herbs outside of his kitchen and also produces some of his own vegetables in a garden at home.
“Price is a huge issue. It costs local growers on small farms a lot more to grow products than your big commercial farms.”
In the yard outside of his restaurant, a collection of those growers had set up displays to show the results of their efforts.
Vance and Brenda Barritt, who operate Earthworks Farm northeast of Alix, have adopted permaculture principles in which the entire farm operation is integrated into single production cycle.
Brenda describes permaculture as a concept that originated in Australia, based on working with the ecosystem in a more permanent and perennial way than standard practices.
They have recently been joined in the operation by New Brunswickan Mark Cogswell, who shed the cosmos of information technology to come west and learn about sustainable farming. Cogswell met the Barritts through Vance’s mother, Connie, during permaculture classes offered at Gull Lake by a company based in Calgary.
He has been working on the Barritts’ farm to hone and develop his skills, with hope of setting up an operation of his own in the future.
“A lot of people who study permaculture, they live in cities and they want to find a way to grow veggies in their backyard, which is great. But permaculture has the ability to solve a lot of sustainability issues on large farms,” said Cogswell.
Vance said he and Brenda are still working on getting their farm to the point where it becomes profitable enough to support the family.
So far, he continues to work off-farm to makes ends meet.
It is doable, says Michalak, pointing to the success of a 106-acre agricultural forest in Wisconsin, operated by CEO Mark Shepard.
It’s no accident that copies of Shepard’s book on sustainable agriculture were being offered for sale at the Earthworks Farm kiosk. The Barritts keep in contact with Shepard and view his work as a model for what they hope to accomplish on their own farm.
Other producers attending the show included Jeff Gillies from Rocky Mountain House, who spoke about the role of bacteria in producing good compost and herb grower Daniel Chappell of Country Thyme Farm at Bowden.
Chappell led a workshop on collecting and saving seeds.
He said afterward that he takes any opportunity available to get exposure for the farm he operates with his wife, Anna.
“We think Red Deer does a lot of good things, and I know they’re trying to get more avenues for local producers to be able to have a presence in Red Deer.”
While the farm is focused on herbs and salad greens, it also produces root vegetables and operates a share program.
Chappell said he has attended the spring version of EcoLiving for the last two years.
“I think it’s gaining momentum. It seems to be drawing a lot of public support. The key factor is the fact that it’s a community group in Red Deer for us and that it’s supporting sustainable living,” he said.