Leona and Blaine Staples produce a bit of a different kind of commodity on their operation near Penhold.
“We really farm people,” said Leona Staples, who has been running the Jungle Farm with husband Blaine since 1996.
“One of the passions in our life is sharing our farm with the rest of the world. We really believe our job here is to create really good-tasting food, to educate families, and to create memories for the families that come to visit us.”
The original farm was homesteaded by Leona’s great-grandfather in 1897 and named the Jungle Farm owing to the brown bear that lived nearby. He couldn’t have known then how truly apt the name would turn out to be: since those early days, the Jungle Farm has evolved from a grain and livestock operation to what it is today — a sprawling operation that is one-part U-pick, one-part agritourism and one-part education.
“When we came back to the farm, we started with 3,000 strawberry plants, and we’ve grown from there,” said Staples, who is a member of Innisfail Growers, a local marketing co-operative.
“When we sent the very first of our strawberries in 1997 to the farmers’ market, we had people on our doorstep looking to pick strawberries. That’s when our world started to change.”
They started out with a simple goal — “that people could come at any time, and as long as strawberries were in season, we would have strawberries for them to pick.”
From there, they expanded into producing flowers, offering school tours, selling vegetable boxes, preparing pies and preserves, and drawing families to the farm for activities, events, and workshops.
Early start to the season
Today, the Jungle Farm’s season starts in April, when they open the farm to the public for custom planting. In May, the greenhouse opens with traditional bedding plants and hanging baskets, and school tours begin. July and August are U-pick season, and in addition to the U-pick strawberries, customers can pick any of the vegetables they grow for their vegetable boxes.
In the fall, their “world changes again” when they open up the back play area, which features a 60-foot slide, eight-acre corn maze, farm animals, pumpkin patch, and gnome walk.
And through it all, the Staples take their wares to farmers’ markets across central Alberta, including Edmonton and Calgary.
“We try to do whatever we can to get our vegetables to the market quicker,” said Staples. “That’s always the trick with farmers’ markets — being the first on the block to have it.”
All of this growth has been possible thanks to “significant changes” in consumer shopping habits, including the growing trend toward buying local.
“When we first opened up, we had lovely grannies who were 60 to 90 years old who came and picked 10 or 20 baskets,” said Staples.
“Now we have a ton of families. But they buy more things. And most people are coming for fresh eating, so they come multiple times.”
When the Staples first started doing U-pick about 15 years ago, they found that people weren’t willing to walk if fields weren’t close to the barn, they weren’t willing to pick anything other than strawberries, and they “drank a lot of pop.”
“Today, for young moms, it’s no problem,” said Staples.
“They’ve got these strollers with big wheels, and they will walk a quarter-mile without batting an eye. They will pick anything and everything. And we go through more water than you can imagine.
“The world has really changed, and that has happened only in the last probably five to eight years.”
And with that change has come the opportunity for Staples to help people reconnect with where their food comes from.
“I was not put on this earth to farm,” said Staples.
“I was put on this earth to share agriculture — to make it touchable and make it human.”