ALBERTA BEEF: MOVE OVER FOR OTHER HOMEGROWN MEATS AND VEGETABLES

(Originally published in the Sept. 2001 issue of Where Calgary magazine)

By John Geary

Mention the words "Alberta" and "agriculture" in the same sentence and there is a better than average chance that the next word popping into people's minds will be "beef."

Alberta is much more than a producer of world-renowned beef, however. Responding to a need for increased agricultural diversification and a public desire for healthy foods, producers now offer a much greater variety of meat, grains, vegetables and dairy products than they have in the past.

The recently released Food Lover's Guide to Alberta, written by Mary Bailey and Judy Schultz, includes details about many of the province's smaller producers that help fill the increasing demand for homegrown foods. Bailey says people buy a much wider variety of Alberta-grown food than they used to, for a few simple reasons.

"That's changed a lot, partly because the quality of the foods produced are much higher than what they used to be," she says. "There are a lot more interesting products available, from heritage, heirloom vegetables to the organic food, which has a very strong market right now."

Smaller producers fill those market niches very well. These smaller producers do not necessarily sell their products only at Farmer's Markets, either. They are making inroads into bigger retail stores.

"That's a bit of a switch, because years ago, vegetables in the stores came from either B.C. or California" says Bailey. "We're seeing a really strong push away from the traditional beef, pork, chicken and grain products for which Alberta was famous for many years. Now we're starting to see development and marketing of other products, like root vegetables, for example. We've always had great root vegetables - carrots, parsnips and potatoes.

"Up to three or four years ago, you could get Bassano potatoes and maybe some local carrots, but that was it. That's changing."

In addition to the improved quality of available products, Bailey says economics also contribute to the increased purchase of local products.

"With the (Canadian) dollar being so low, sellers have had to look for other sources for their products, other than the U.S.," she says.

Alberta growers are also starting to look beyond the production of root vegetables.

"We have a lot more local products like heirloom tomatoes, all the greens like spinach and they don't sell just at the Farmer's Markets," says Bailey.

Another class of product often overlooked, but now coming into its own, is Alberta condiments.

"Zinter Brown's condiments are fabulous. MacFarlane's horse radish jelly is exceptional, and is available at a few retail stores and the Millarville Farmer's Market."

Small-business cheese producers are also making their mark with hand-produced cheeses. Some of Bailey's favorites include Sylvan Star near Red Deer, producer of an award-winning Gouda cheese; Ponoka's Natricia Dairies, a goat cheese producer; and Leoni Grana of Camrose, producer of a cheese similar to those of Italy's Poe Valley.

The Food Lover's Guide also provides information about agritourism as well as restaurants that use local foods.

Edmonton-based Full Course Strategies helps small local producers connect with restaurants that require specific high-quality local foods. The company works with Alberta Agriculture and farmers to develop products and teach producers about the food service market.

Lori Menshik and Nancy Kindler run the two-year-old firm. While working in the food distribution business, Menshik, the president of the Canadian Food Service Executive Association's Edmonton branch, realized small local producers were falling through the cracks.

"In talking with various chefs, it became apparent there was no connection to local producers and growers," she says.

Full Course bridges that gap, supplying Alberta foods to the chefs at high-end restaurants. Right now, their largest meat product is high quality, naturally raised pork.

"Our line of pork, Nouvella Dolca, is free of growth hormones and antibiotics, all farm raised, processed at smaller weights. It has less fat, and it's tenderer, producing lean, tender cuts. It's also very fresh, because we don't use a warehouse; we have animals on farms and process them as they're ordered by the chefs."

Full Course also offers naturally grown rabbit and lamb. The company is looking to expand that list of meats, and is currently seeking an elk supplier. As well, Full Course produces a line of certified organic produce, which, like the pork, is customized to the orders from chefs.

"We custom-grow gardens for chefs," says Menshik. "In the fall, a chef can sit down with the grower and select what he'd like to see grown. The chefs pick the products they want, as fresh as possible, right from a garden or farm rather than from California.

"We like to call it 'food less travelled.'"

Menshik also encourages chefs to use the menu to promote the fact they serve Alberta-grown food.

"People know if it's grown locally, it's going to be the freshest possible food."

Calgary-area restaurants that access Alberta foods through Full Course include Teatro's, the River Café, Martin's on Eighth, Wildwood, La Chaumiere and the Ranche.

Bob Matthews, the chef at La Chaumiere, says Calgarians put more trust in chefs now than in the past. A connection like Full Course Strategies can help them justify that trust.

"I've sourced out these local products and I serve them because I have confidence in them," he says. "I get them locally because they're fresh and I have a chance to speak to the producer.

"We're not 100 per cent local, but we're pretty close. We serve Alberta beef, free-range Alberta chickens, Alberta farm-raised trout. Our tomatoes and herbs for salads come from just south of Calgary."

"We're even looking into purchasing freshwater shrimp from a southern Alberta producer."

Randy Hollands, executive chef at the Ranche Restaurant in Fish Creek Provincial Park, also tries to serve as much local food as possible. Price can influence the decision to serve a particular local product.

"People are willing to eat local food, but if it's too expensive, they don't see the value of it," he says.

If the quality is good enough, higher price does not deter the restaurant from serving local products, as is the case with Full Course products.

"The price is higher than regular products, but the quality is so high, it's easy to sell. It has an added value people will pay for."

The Ranche's local offerings include Alberta beef, Alberta brook trout, field greens and tomatoes.

SIDEBAR: FARMER'S MARKETS A GREAT SOURCE FOR LOCAL FOOD

While large retail grocery stores are starting to offer more locally grown products, farmer's markets still offer the best selection of local foods.

Calgary area shoppers can choose from several markets: Bearspaw, Blackfoot, Hillhurst-Sunnyside, Grassroots Northland, Crossroads and the Millarville Farmer's Market.

The Millarville market is an Alberta Approved Farmer's Market, meaning it has to offer an 80-20 split of local/non-local growers/producers. With the exception of some B.C. fruit, all the products are locally made, baked or grown.

With 165 vendor tables, there is very little local food you won't find at Millarville. Beef and chicken are sold, as are more esoteric meats like buffalo and ostrich. There are Polish, Swiss and German sausages. Local bakers offer a variety of breads, rolls and pastries, some of it wheat-free.

There is plenty of Alberta produce: carrots, beets, lettuce, radishes, green onions, beans and peas, broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, corn, tomatoes, squash and pumpkins.

And don't forget to pick up some Alberta honey.

The market has experienced an annual increase in customers as a result of the public's increased desire to "eat healthy" and support local growers.

"Attendance has been rising steadily during the 11 years I've been manager," says Jackie Lacey.

Crossroads manager Matthew McDonald echoes that.

"I think people enjoy the quality and freshness of the products here," he says. "They like to know where the product is coming from and meet the growers. Ninety-five per cent of our vendors are growers promoting their product."

Customer profiles have changed, too.

"We have seen a transition in the last few years," says Lacey, "away from just local people to more people from Calgary. We're seeing more people in the 25 to 40 age range, people with children."

"Lots of families come to the Crossroads, now," says McDonald.

- JG

SIDEBAR: MORE DEMAND FOR ORGANIC FOODS

Like the trend toward locally produced foods, there is a significant increase in the amount of organic food purchased in Alberta.

A year ago, Community Natural Foods in Calgary opened a second store across from the Chinook C-Train station because its original location on 10 Ave SW was overwhelmed with increasing demand.

"We hit our saturation rate for this store, and it was becoming tough to service the customer," says Frank Sarro, the produce/bulk foods merchandise manager for the store.

"People want a cleaner, better choice and they want to buy it locally."

The store has always bought locally. That means in-season, you will find plenty of homegrown beets, carrots, potatoes, squash and even melons.

Lori Menshik of Full Course Strategies, a company that connects high-end restaurants with local producers, says she thinks that trend will continue as our population ages.

"We're starting to see what additives and chemicals are doing to our bodies, and we're becoming more health-conscious," she says.

The organic food trend is reflected elsewhere. Some large grocery chains have incorporated natural food aisles within some larger stores.

The numbers of organic vendors at farmer's markets have been on the rise.

"We have had certified-organic vendors in our market for about eight years, and the number has increased in the past few years," says Jackie Lacey, the Millarville Farmer's Market manager.

High-end restaurants are also "going organic."

"We haven't put it on the menu yet, but we're looking at adding organically-raised beef to our menu," says Bob Matthews, the chef at Calgary's La Chaumiere.

- JG