January 24th, 2022

Open Farms Days offers education on local crops

By Herald on August 16, 2021.

Paul de Jonge, owner and operator of Broxburn Vegetables & Cafe, gives a tour of his greenhouse as part of Alberta Open Farm Days over the weekend. Herald photo by Dale Woodard

Dale Woodard – Lethbridge Herald

A little bit of fruit and vegetation education as well as some sampling was on the menu at Alberta Open Farm Days Saturday afternoon at Broxburn Vegetables & Cafe.

For owner and operator Paul de Jonge, that was the chance to give his customers a little behind-the-scenes look at how Broxburn Vegetables maintains its impressive array of locally grown crops it has served up since opening in 1994.

With a nod to agri-tourism and rural sustainability, Alberta Open Farm Days features more than 100 farms, ranches and ag-tourism operators opening their gates and inviting visitors to share in local stories, see on-farm demonstrations and purchase locally grown and produced products.

This is the ninth year Alberta Open Farm Days has been held and is a collaborative project presented by the Government of Alberta, the Alberta Association of Agricultural Societies, Travel Alberta and participating farms and ranches.

On a hot Saturday afternoon at Broxburn Vegetables, that behind-the-scenes look featured de Jonge leading an interested group of green thumbs through a tour of his greenhouse. 

“On Open Farm Days we want people to come out and see what’s happening on the farms throughout the region,” said de Jonge. “I want to let people see what we do in our greenhouse.”

Because of the food safety program, de Jonge said the greenhouses are normally not open to the public.

“The garden centre is, but not the vegetable greenhouses. Once or twice a year on any event day we’ll have some tourists and people see how we grow, what we do and how we do it. There are a lot of things to learn, because people don’t see that type of growing very often.”

De Jonge said tomatoes or peppers – for example – in someone’s garden look quite different that what is found in Broxburn Vegetables’ greenhouse.

“The plants in my greenhouse are there for the whole year, so they get tended to every week and they look significantly different than what you would have in your garden. We explain how we do it and those kinds of things.”

De Jonge said it’s extremely important for Broxburn Vegetables to teach people what they do, how they do it and where they differentiate.

“There is a reason why people want to go and buy direct from the farmer because they can ask questions, how we grow it, when it was picked and all those kind of things. But the other advantage is we can do a vine ripen. When you buy a tomato here on the farm it was picked maybe a day or two ago and it doesn’t need a three week shelf life. So we have the ability to do vine ripen where you get that flavour. That’s difficult if it sits in the distribution chain for quite a while. So when you buy direct it doesn’t sit around very long.”

Because he doesn’t use spray chemicals and instead uses biological control – the management of a pest through the use of their natural enemies – de Jonge said typical questions he gets is if he uses ladybugs or other predators. 

“People do you understand a little bit about bio control and people get more and more educated. So we want to reduce the use of chemicals and eat healthier and fresher and tastier.”

In addition to fielding questions from the interested tourists, de Jonge sliced up some brown peppers and served them up sampling.

“If you want to find out why we’re different from local produce, then you have to come to the farm and ask questions about what you’re seeing and what you are buying,” he said. “Hopefully you can taste the difference, but there are also questions that people need to ask.”

Alberta Open Farm Days at Broxburn Vegetables & Cafe Saturday afternoon also featured strawberry picking and a lunch.

“It’s a beautiful day but I think the excessive heat will probably keep some people at home,” said de Jonge. “But hopefully they’re coming to the tour. It’s actually a bit cooler in the greenhouse than it is outdoors.”

Among the tourists Saturday was Kayla Smith of Medicine Hat.

“We heard about Open Farm Days and it was really exciting,” she said. “Especially because people aren’t really allowed in greenhouses, so it’s really cool to see all of the peppers on strings, how small they are and hearing about how they grow the fruit.”

Smith also enjoyed the chance to sample some of the produce.

“The brown pepper was really good,” she said. “It was sweet and I feel that would be really good cooked or raw in a salad.”

The talk on biological control was also of interest for Smith.

“Instead of pesticides, having an option of bringing in predators or insects is really cool, just talking about some of the native species he brings in.”

Smith is also a gardener.

“We grow a lot of hot peppers and will make hot sauces out of them,” she said. “We grow tomatoes, so I can a lot of the stuff that we make. It’s interesting to get some insider tips on what works really well. He mentioned the blossom rot, and that’s something we’ve experienced in the past with our roman tomatoes. We actually changed where we planted them this year and so far the plants, I’m five-foot-two, are taller than I am. It’s nice to get the knowledge from somebody who works with these plants all the time”

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