Across Canada in a farmhouse: Camrose to Edmonton

We’ve made our way north and west out of Camrose, Alta. to spend a few days in the "City of Champions:" Edmonton. We’ve camped in a nice little spot just north of Camrose where we had a chance to chat with some fellow campers who are also farmers.

One fellow from east of Camrose spoke about approaching retirement and his son taking over the family’s 3,000 acres. Luckily for him there’s been no major succession planning to be done: his son wants to take over, so that’s that.

What’s interesting is that although the son is taking over the acres, he certainly is not taking over old values regarding marketing, et cetera. As we’ve seen in so many cases this young farmer is brimming with hope and confidence over the prospect of marketing choice for his wheat.

As his dad says, "my son’s got the internet, which I didn’t have, and so he can sell his wheat to Timbuktu if he wants."

It’ll certainly be interesting to see what happens in this neck of the woods as marketing choice plays itself out. Will wheat acreage decline? Increase? What kind of new arbitrage opportunities will emerge with northern U.S. states, as acreage/pricing pressures change for all coarse grains? It’s going to be an interesting few years in Canada’s historic grain business.

Edmonton has grown and become more energetic since the last time I visited (maybe eight years ago). Whyte Avenue, always a hotbed of hipster activity, is definitely busier with new coffee shops, restaurants, bars, and bookstores.

And no, we haven’t visited the big mall yet. After some initial sightseeing we began taking note of an emerging local-food ethic among restaurateurs.

Take Corso 32 on Jasper Street, for example. We connected with Daniel and Ben, the owners and chefs at the very popular eatery, through Ben’s father, a bee farmer and producer of organic honey in Camrose. With this background in mind, Ben and Daniel have created an approachable restaurant featuring local produce and meat in all of their dishes.

Typically, ‘local food’ restaurants come with a lofty price tag, but Corso 32 makes its food accessible to everyone. And it’s paying off — we couldn’t even get a reservation!

The city is obviously enthused about a variety of different eating choices. Not a restaurant per se, but the city is gaga for "Drift" — a food truck, or mobile eatery, which has produced quality, creative food for the working lunch set. We saw lines around the block before the truck even arrived to serve the lunchtime crowd.

There truly is an appetite for this kind of enterprise. Hip urbanites will go out of their way (not to mention stand in lineups) to patronize this type of restaurant.

We would like to build on this enthusiasm and convince urban dwellers that their enthusiasm and support really needs to extend beyond restaurants and organic food. There needs to be similar sympathy for small and mid-sized farmers who may operate "conventionally" but still need the support.

These days, Edmonton city council is undergoing a particularly heated battle with respect to growth planning, food policy, et cetera. The city’s latest municipal development plan (MDP), hashed out over the past few years, has been watched very closely by a citizens’ group — the Greater Edmonton Alliance — that has worked hard to have food issues included.

This group has come up with a number of publicity stunts, including "The Great Potato Giveaway," to forge sympathy for food-related planning strategies. Its efforts were rewarded with inclusion of specific commitments to food policy in the MDP. Again, this kind of work needs to extend beyond intermix zones, all the way out to stand-alone farmland.

Speaking of such land, we have to get back out there, en route to Calgary. We’ve got farm visits lined up at Bashaw, Stettler and Three Hills. Stay tuned for our report from these areas.

— John Varty and his fiancee Molly Daley are driving across Canada in an effort to speak to farmers about the issues that concern them, and to bring those concerns to urbanites. They’re doing it in an unusual fashion — towing a "farmhouse" behind a Massey Ferguson 1660 — and will post periodic reports here of their trek across the Prairies.

Related stories:
Across Canada in a farmhouse: Regina to Camrose, Aug. 7, 2012
Cross-Canada tractor pull, July 26, 2012

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