The focus was on food and farming all over the province during Open Farm Days where Albertans showed they are interested in where their food comes from.
More than 100 farms participated this year, including HGB Bison Ranch just south of Olds.
It was a brand new experience for Heather and George Briggs, who were amazed to see some 500 visitors come through their farm gates. They came from down the road and as far away as Texas, although most were from the Calgary and Red Deer regions.
“It was absolutely phenomenal,” said George Briggs. “There was so much enthusiasm and happiness abounding. Everybody was having a good time.
“They were wanting to know lots of things about the animals, so there was lots of discussion about what we do and how we do it.”
It was a lot of work getting the ranch ready, which offered activities such as tours of the bison-handling system, the herd itself, and a barbecue. But the family enjoyed all the interactions, with topics ranging from animal weights to how much they eat, he said. They did find a ranch term like ‘pull the bulls off the cows’ took some extra explaining to curious consumers.
The Briggs have been in the bison business for decades, and after numerous consumer requests, began offering on-farm direct meat sales this February. So Open Farm Days was an opportunity to showcase that and do business. It was also an eye-opening experience for people to get close to the mighty animals, and see how calm they can be.
“I think every person had something to say about the naturally raised (aspect), and thanked us for doing this, and thanked us for having the meat store and for looking after the animals.”
Although it was a long day, the couple felt it was a valuable one.
“It was a lot of fun,” said George. “I know we enjoyed it and folks we had helping enjoyed it.
“We had good support from the county here. They helped us with a pile of stuff, like the porta-potties, the wash stations, and the people mover. They even helped us water roads to keep the dust down.”
The family also appreciated the role Open Farm Days played in getting the word out on the event, and helping ‘first-timers.’
“We had great support — we weren’t out there by ourselves. We had people to talk to, and the support system, so it was great.”
That view was echoed by the operators of Winter’s Turkeys. The operation southeast of Calgary came on board with Open Farm Days right at the start four years ago, only taking one year off for a family wedding. That means Lyle Weigum and Laurel Winter spent their anniversary this year touring guests on the fourth-generation family turkey operation.
“This was my second Open Farm Days here, and you can tell as an organization, it’s growing and doing an exceptional job promoting,” said Weigum. “We had 200 people come through, about 50 more than last year.”
‘Willing to learn’
Visitors were mostly new to agriculture, and mainly from Calgary. Family members fielded lots of questions as they toured visitors around the turkey barns.
“We find people often come in with preconceived notions about what a turkey farm looks like, and ours isn’t like that.”
Weigum said they can then explain the differences of their free-range and organic production practices.
“It’s a captive audience and being with the animals gives a direct context to what we’re doing. They’re willing to learn. It’s not like you’re standing on a street corner just talking away. They genuinely want to see what we’re doing.”
The most common question is, ‘where’s the eggs?’ — so they explain how they get the turkeys as small chicks and grow them from there.
“People compliment us on how the birds looked, and as farmers, we appreciate that. It makes us feel good that people notice the hard work we do.”
It’s also valuable as farmers to see what consumers want to know, and Weigum said they noticed a lot of confusion about the various terms describing meat.
“They don’t understand the terms, and wonder what free range means versus free run, or that organic refers to the type of feed the turkeys get. We can see people want to learn about that but don’t have access points. If the grocery store is the only place where they can ask questions, it’s tough to learn. It gives us a chance to answer the questions they might ask in the meat aisle.”
The event is also a chance to show “the passion we have,” he added.
“Some people think of modern agriculture as only mass-produced food, and heartless, and we show them it’s not like that. We’re passionate about it — we have to be because it’s not easy. We love what we do and it’s a perfect opportunity to share that with people.”
While Winter’s Turkeys primarily offers its products through retail and specialty channels, they did have some available for sale during the day, and were taking orders for holiday birds. As well, they had a country market on the farm, with a local apiarist, vegetable farmer, and flower vendor offering products.
Chicks a hit
But there’s one reaction the farmers can count on from their visitors. A visit to the barn with the ‘Thanksgiving flock’ (where the birds are about 2-1/2 months old) prompts lots of questions.
“Then we show them the Christmas flock, which is only eight days (old),” said Weigum. “Instantly, everybody wants to hold the turkeys, and they’ve never seen anything as cute as a turkey, and the phones come out and pictures are being snapped.
“No one took a picture at the grower barn, but when they see those baby turkeys, they really love them. I guess little things are cuter than big ones.”
Being close to Calgary brings a lot to Winter’s Turkeys but it’s tougher when you’re in a more remote area.
Kevin and Lexie Spahich only had about 15 visitors to their commercial lamb and purebred Nubian dairy goat farm near Marwayne (northwest of Lloydminster).
“We definitely didn’t get the numbers we were hoping to get,” said Lexie, who wondered if more regional advertising would help — although the nearest Open Farm Days stops were at least an hour away.
Still, the visitors to Amarula Nubians and Lambs spent about two hours each at the operation.
“We gave them tours of our sheep flock and our rams and our lambing barns,” she said. “We went through the process from when the animals were conceived right to where they would end up at market.”
They also talked biosecurity with the visitors as they all cleaned their boots before heading to the goat side of the barnyards to learn about the herd of purebred Nubians. They discussed costs comparisons between the two species, and returns (as purebreds, the goats bring higher individual returns for the genetics than the commercial meat lambs).
The audience included a nearby local farm family who wanted to learn more about sheep management specifically, but the rest were from cities, including Edmonton.
Most questions centred on herd health, how animals are cared for, and the whole process of raising them.
“It was really nice to be able to interact with the public, to be a feature farm,” said Lexie. “Maybe it will be bigger in the future. You’ve got to start somewhere.”
The couple is hoping to build on the event.
“We are on social media already, but this gave us a notch up, to say we’re serious and not just a hobby farm, and are interested in hosting bigger things and expanding.”
While organizers are still collecting feedback and numbers, Open Farm Days spokesman Tim Carson said numerous farms have already reported how busy they were on the weekend of Aug. 19-20.
“Our host farms have done an amazing job of providing unique experiences for Albertans to enjoy, and to learn how Alberta produces world-class food,” said Carson. “I anticipate this being the biggest Open Farm Days ever.”