Jered Serben never planned to become part of the local food scene, but is glad he is.
The fourth-generation farmer grew up on a traditional hog operation, which transitioned to grain and then exited pork production when hog prices plummeted in the early 2000s.
But his heart was never in it.
“We got into more grain farming, but if you grow up as a herdsman, or with livestock, then that’s what you want to do, I think,” said Serben. “I wasn’t necessarily very good at grain farming. I didn’t like it. There was no real passion there.”
Serben quit farming for several years before returning to the family farm near Smoky Lake, wanting to get back into farming but not knowing how. It came by accident — he wanted to raise a single pig but the breeder he contacted insisted he take 10. So he sold the extra meat, and his pork was such a hit, his customers asked him to raise chickens and turkeys.
Today, he and wife Julia raise pasture-based pigs, poultry, eggs, and lamb along with vegetables, which they sell at farmers markets in Edmonton and Fort McMurray. He’s able to farm full time, and Julia also works on the farm save for an off-farm job in winter.
“I’m a fairly stubborn person, so I just kept trying, and figuring it out,” said Serben. “I think what we’ve done in the last five years is incredible.”
Incredible is also an apt term for the continued growth in local food.
Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development periodically tracks consumer interest in local foods, and estimates sales at farmers’ markets jumped to $878 million in 2012 — up more than 50 per cent from $561 million in 2008. The survey also found visitors to farmers markets in 2012 spent an average of about $55 (versus $34 in 2008).
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“In all of the venues that we looked at, interest has remained the same, or in most cases, has increased,” said Karen Goad, the province’s farm direct-marketing specialist and a member of the Explore Local initiative, which promotes local food.
Interest is flourishing in both urban and rural areas, she said, and there are currently about 126 Alberta-approved farmers markets across the province.
“We’re seeing growth across the board,” said Goad. “We’re probably seeing more CSAs (community-supported agriculture) in the last three to five years than we have in the last 20, just because we started with fewer, initially.
“The whole sector is certainly enjoying a growth.”
The boom is attracting a wide variety of entrants. Some, like Serben, have a conventional farming background, while others have no agricultural background at all.
“There is also a large number of people who are looking at farm direct marketing as a second career choice,” said Goad. “So they may have worked for 20 or 25 years as a doctor or a dentist or whatever and they just have an interest in food and getting back to the land.”
New immigrants who farmed in their homeland are also part of the mix.
“It’s a diverse group, but that’s nice to see, because not everyone who is coming into the industry in Alberta is in the same age group or has the same background,” she said.
Some farmers who produce commodities are also developing a local-food sideline.
“A farmer doesn’t have to make a choice,” said Goad. “But it takes a specific personality and a specific family-support structure in order to participate in a successful farm direct operation.
“You have to like people. Farm direct marketing is time consuming. You have the benefit of having the personal relationship to the customer, knowing the producer and having a direct interaction — but all that takes time.”
While community-supported agriculture is growing close to urban areas, rural areas are experiencing a resurgence of farm-based, field meals prepared by chefs.
Sales cover a wide range, too — from less than $20,000 a year to all the way up to $250,000.
“It really depends on the type of operation and the scope of operation, and the scope of how small or big they want to be,” said Goad.
Serben had serious doubts about the financial viability of his business when he started eight years ago, but said the key was determination.
“When you’re in that mode and you want to make it, then you come up with different and better ideas to make money,” he said. “If you’re going to do the same thing that everyone else does, you’re probably not going to make any money.”
Today Serben Free Range farm offers a livelihood comparable to a conventional operation, he said.
“It’s a smaller scale, but we’re not dealing with huge operating loans,” said Serben. “Our profit margins are higher with less risk. I probably wouldn’t have said that two years ago, but now that we’re marketing ourselves fairly well, it’s starting to really take off.
“It’s starting to be fun.”
Having a direct contact with your customers is part of that.
“Here you build a relationship with them, their kids, sometimes their grandparents,” he said. “It’s pretty big, and they’re eating the food that you personally raised for them, which is really cool.”
Even though Serben may be a local food guy, he still respects the role of the conventional farmer. “If there wasn’t any conventional farming, then we would be out too, because our niche would not be a niche anymore.”