A sense of adventure brought Alan and Nicola Irving from England to Canada — and a yearning for a ‘back home’ taste set the stage for their made-in-Alberta success story.
Irvings Farm Fresh’s sausage, hams, and most of all, tasty bacon has made the operation a hit in Edmonton’s farmers’ market scene and with chefs in the city.
But the tale of the couple’s entry into the food business is one of how life can get very interesting if you’re open to new things.
The couple and their children (Sarah is now 18 and Cameron 12) arrived in Canada in 2005. Alan, who grew up on a farm but worked as a trucker in England, found work with an Edmonton transportation company. They preferred rural life and found an acreage a half-hour drive north of the city near Vimy — with no clue that would be the start of a very big Canadian adventure.
“Alan was away trucking lots, and I was at home with the kids,” said Nicola, who has an agriculture degree and worked in the feed industry. “We had buildings and a little bit of land, so I was like, ‘What are we going to do with it?’”
The answer was a few laying hens.
“That’s where Irvings Farm Fresh started — because we were selling ‘farm fresh’ eggs.”
The one thing they missed most about home, other than family, was sausages.
“We would go to the grocery store, and buy what we thought were nice quality, and were always disappointed.”
The neighbours who were hunters and made their own wild game sausage showed the British family how easy it could be to ‘do it yourself,’ said Nicola.
“That sowed some seeds in our minds and we said, ‘Well why don’t we start making our own?’ So we did that, and basically turned that into a business. We were buying pork and making sausages before we ever had pigs.”
Expats who bought their sausages were soon asking for English-style bacon. That led to a trip home to learn a method called quick dry curing.
“It’s the same amount of salt and the same amount of cure, but instead of making it into liquid, we dry hand rub it into our meat,” said Nicola. “It’s then left for period of time, depending on whether it’s from the belly to make side bacon, or our British-style back bacon from the loin.
“Through osmosis, salt goes into the meat and some of the meat’s liquid comes out, so what we end up with is a more concentrated flavour. You’re not paying for water, and it doesn’t shrivel and shrink when cooked.”
And once again, demand wasn’t an issue — supply was.
So the Irvings bought some Berkshire pigs, a heritage breed common on British farms.
“We were running seven or eight (breeding) sows, but as we expanded we needed more.”
Soon, their Vimy farm wasn’t big enough, so the family was on the move again — this time to Round Hill, near Camrose. Still, they could barely keep up. In 2009, they opened a new 1,500-square-foot butcher shop, which now employs one full-time and five part-time staff.
Doing their own meat cutting gave them more control over the end product (even doing roasts with skin on, for the traditional ‘crackling’). But raising pigs and running the meat business was getting to be too much.
“Ultimately we decided keeping control of our processing was what we had to do,” said Nicola.
With the assistance of Alberta Pork, the Irvings connected with Sand Ridge Farm in Barrhead, which supplies them with premium quality Berkshire stock that they feed and finish on their farm in a free-range style. Slaughtering is done at the nearby Tofield plant, with the carcasses cut and processed in their own shop.
They also tapped into other resources. ALMA assistance helped with some initial refrigeration equipment, and the Irvings are now planning to double the size of their meat shop and open a retail store. They also used Alberta Agriculture’s Dine Alberta program to connect with chefs.
“They have been instrumental in really helping us grow our business, because they proudly put our name on their menus,” said Nicola. “So people go in there and eat, love what they have, and then come and find us at the farmers’ markets. It’s cross-marketing, and it works really well.”
Social media, farms tours, and Open Farm Day are also key marketing tools. (They also sell through some independent delis and stores specializing in local foods and make deliveries twice a month to Calgary customers.)
“Our customers are our best form of advertising,” said Nicola. “We just try and connect with our customers. People are so looking to know where their food comes from.”
It was an Englishman who coined the word ‘serendipity,’ but the family’s success is more than just happenstance.
Their business started with a quest to find a food they loved, and it remains squarely focused on the dining experience of their customers, said Nicola.
“We have that vision and mission. We want to always offer our customers innovative products with a wow factor, combining excellent taste, quality, and value for money.”