Admittedly, asparagus can be a love-hate thing. Many of us can’t wait for the season to start. Others, well, not so much. But maybe that’s just because those others have never had their chance to try the juicy, sweet asparagus from Edgar Farms.
Okay, so it sounds like a sales pitch. But read on.
This central Alberta farm is run by Elna and Doug Edgar, along with their daughter Keri Graham and husband Randy. The farm is a mixture of 1,000 acres given over to grain cattle, plus 50 acres of asparagus and 30 of market garden peas, green beans and rhubarb.
That’s not exactly the typical split for a central Alberta farm. Nor would you describe their approach to marketing as average. Edgar Farms has become a certified mainstay at multiple farmers markets in Alberta, and also runs its own farm store attracting loyal consumers in search of local food and a friendly face.
It’s a lot different that Elna and Doug imagined when they became the primary farmers here in 1974 and the operation was strictly grain and cows. Even then, though, there were thoughts in the back of their heads. Delivering crops to a country elevator and having to take whatever price was on the board was part of that farm life that always grated on them. And something in them was always curious about direct-to-consumer marketing.
But get serious. Could they make it work?
Elna’s mother-in-law Rose planted asparagus in her garden in the mid-1970s, and as the crop grew a few years later she shared some of the spears with family, Elna thought she should have a row in her own garden too, and soon she was eating her own spears and starting to think, could this be a business?
“The flavour was so remarkably better,” Elna explains. And that, it turns out, was the key. Theirs could be a business based on quality, not bargain-basement pricing.
Around the same time, Doug was tiring of 60-cent barley prices, and he too was open to something different. So, instead of just talking about asparagus, he suggested they take a serious look. Elna agreed, and off they went.
That year, 1986, they selected some of their most forgettable land, a small sandy ridge on the home quarter.
“We picked that location because we couldn’t grow anything else there, not even alfalfa, and so our neighbours wouldn’t think we were stark raving mad,” Elna says with a laugh. “We thought since it’s an experiment and it probably won’t work, we won’t take any sandy loam out of grain production.”
They planted their first batch of crowns eight inches deep and their daughters — Keri and Angie — began to water the plants. Then they waited. And waited. And waited. If anyone thinks grain farming is a long play, try growing asparagus. The vegetable takes three years to start producing, and five years to get into a production cycle with a healthy annual harvest.
But at the same time, asparagus can be amazingly productive. Individual spears can grow up to 10 inches per day. In a good spring, their employees may have to harvest twice before sundown.
Still, weather is always a variable, and in some ways, Alberta isn’t ideal. Elna estimates yields in major producers like Mexico or Peru are five times higher.
However, the X factor that has kept thousands of eager customers coming back every spring and summer, is the famed Rocky Mountains. The farm’s proximity to the rugged landscape brings about cool nights which help convert the plant starches into sugar, filling the shoots with its signature sweetness.
Yes, they have playful smiles and down-to-earth charm, but Elna and Doug are as business savvy as they come, and the decision to grow asparagus was an informed one, and it was business-driven in tandem with their interest in direct-to-consumer marketing.
“The nice thing with vegetables is we can set the price,” Elna says, which isn’t exactly what you hear from your usual grain or cattle producer.
In the interview, I’m tempted to ask, are you sure? And even though I don’t actually put the question in words, Elna responds anyway, “With the vegetables, if you have an amazing quality product, they will come.”
Their initial foray into asparagus was serious, but tempered with low expectations. With their one acre in production, they began to sell at the Innisfail and Red Deer farmers markets for $3.50/lb. in 1988. People were gobbling it up at a time when grocery store stickers were regularly marked at 99 cents.
“I needed to know there was potential in covering our costs,” Elna says. “We were just small potatoes at that point, and we just needed to know what the market would bear, if they were willing.”
It turns out the Alberta market was more than willing. One May day in 1990, Elna found herself with a 250-pound surplus thanks to a stretch of extremely hot weather. She had heard of the Old Strathcona Farmers Market off Whyte Avenue in the heart of Edmonton, two hours north of the farm. It was worth a shot to deal at a booth, and there was always the fall-back option of pickling.
“I thought, if I have to drive two hours to sell it, I need to know people are willing to pay for it,” she says. Elna was proven right by the local consumer pool. It was top quality grass; she set her price at $5/lb.
“People threw money at me,” Elna says. “I can still remember it. I was sold out in half an hour.”
Describing it as a “light bulb moment,” Elna returned home and shared her excitement with the family. Each of the next three years, five more acres went into the ground, driving their crop to 16 acres in 1993.
As the asparagus grew, so did the business and the family’s love of direct-to-consumer marketing. Now, Edgar Farms is a mainstay at both the Old Strathcona Farmers Market and the Edmonton Downtown Farmers Market. In addition, the family also sells their vegetables via a growing co-operative — Innisfail Growers — at a variety of other Alberta markets.
Elna and daughter Keri’s Saturdays during the growing season start around 3:15 a.m., as they load up trucks destined for the two Edmonton markets, after which staff head up and work the booths in Sherwood Park and Edmonton’s Callingwood community.
For Keri, the early wake-up call is part of the grind, but it hardly feels like work once the interactions with customers start. The mutual respect is obvious.
“They’re really neat people and they’re willing to support local,” Keri says. “You get to know those people, they get to know you.”
For Elna, selling direct to consumers over the years has helped her break out of her shell and, despite sales never being a guarantee, she embraces the trials presented by direct-to-consumer marketing.
“I love the challenge and I just love to sell to people and talk about what we do,” she says. “I didn’t see myself ever doing that, but I’ve gotten over being shy. I’ve got a story to tell and I like to tell it.”
Another chapter of that story is the very appropriately titled AsparagusFest, a three-weekend extravaganza at the farm in late May and early June that draws 1,500 to 2,500 people, all of them wanting to see the farm, go on a hay ride, play games, visit the country store and learn about this unique Alberta operation.
“We love the festival,” says Elna. “It teaches kids that food is grown on the farms; it doesn’t just come from Safeway and magically appear.”
Elna is especially fond of hosting Grade 5 school tours and teaches “tomorrow’s consumers that farmers are important, and they feed the population.”
The farmers market days help re-enforce the education component to adults about the nutritional nature of their products, and also about the agronomic realities of growing food in Alberta.
“If it’s cold this week and we don’t have as much, the consumer understands because we tell them that,” says Doug. “We’ve educated that consumer. The communication lines are very open and clear. The communication is the big thing you get when you’re selling direct.”
Doug also explains that the consumers he spoke with 30 years ago are very different than the ones he gabs with today. “The consumer cares more now than they ever did about their food,” he says. “In years past, price was the big thing for consumers. The customer is now willing to step up to the plate and pay for quality food.”
Those paying for quality often take Edgar Farms’ asparagus to new culinary heights as buyers of the vegetables include chefs from the province’s top restaurants, including Calgary’s River Café and Deane House as well as Edmonton’s Corso 32, Bar Bricco and Uccellino.
It’s still family first
With asparagus acres steady and with a sizeable seasonal labour force, Elna and Doug always wondered if either of their daughters would ever return to the farm. Then, in 2007, Keri and husband Randy, along with their two young daughters, thought the farm would bring a certain lifestyle that would be better for everyone. The couple previously worked as environmental consultants and logged countless kilometres on the road.
“With two small kids we decided maybe life on the road wasn’t the best,” says Keri. “(We) wanted to be closer to family. I’ve always loved the farm.”
Many farm children want to return home, but for various reasons, often financial, it’s not feasible. For the Grahams, the decision was met with an immediate nod of approval from her parents.
“When they expressed an interest to come back, it was just what’s going to happen,” says Elna. “We just moved forward, changed directions with our thinking.”
Keri quickly dived into the farm store and took a managerial role with Elna on the vegetable side that seasonal workers couldn’t fill. Randy loved animals and took the lead on managing the Simmental-Red Angus cattle herd.
“It just made our life easier rather than harder,” says Doug. “Especially with staff, you have to have someone around with management (experience).”
As the Grahams integrated back into farm life, the asparagus acres virtually tripled to 50 over a six-year stretch, including the most recent expansion: an eye-popping 22 acres in 2014.
One of their open secrets to success on an intergenerational farm is communication. While that’s nothing new, their stick-to-it-iveness sure is.
“(We have a) family meeting every morning,” says Elna. “They come in, we have coffee and a visit and a meeting. Everything is decisions that the four of us make together.”
It was a tradition Elna and Doug inherited from his parents when they were starting out, so carrying on the ritual was simple osmosis. “We’ve just always had that,” says Elna very matter-of-factly. “Everything is above board — no secrets and no surprises. Everybody needs to have their say so they feel like they’re involved and important.”
Playing the long game
Asparagus has been a success story for Edgar Farms, which now also offers a wide array of pickled items, lasagnas, pies, preserves, peas, rhubarb and more, all made on-site in their commercial kitchen, which allows them to sell year-round.
But it wasn’t always that way. The grain farm carried the load for a good stretch in those early years.
“When we started, the vegetables were subsidized for a lot of years,” says Doug. “It was tough for a while to get it to go. We didn’t make money for a lot of years and we kept pouring money at it. You never get it right the first time, but we knew it was going to be long-term. It’s five years before you get the first payday. Now it’s all on its own. One doesn’t subsidize the other.”
Their approach of quality over quantity has paid off, as well. Instead of scaling up grain production through buying and renting land many years ago, they simply re-purposed a relatively small number of acres to something they felt had a higher return on investment. Then they played the long game.
“We took more of a higher-value, low-acre crop,” he says. “That’s kind of the route we decided. We don’t need 10,000 acres to make a living.”
And while the asparagus has been a success story for the Edgars, it is also a reflection of their meticulous attention to production costs that helps keep their ambitions and reality in sync.
“Don’t think you can go out and plant 50 acres of whatever and get it producing, then think, ‘What can I do with this?’” says Elna. “Start small; experiment with the marketing before you invest your life savings.”
She makes a clear distinction that Edgar Farms is not a hobby, and the reason the business has succeeded for as long as it has is a sharp pencil for accounting.
Beyond the business, putting names to consumers, and interacting and listening to their food fans has been rewarding. It’s a virtual prerequisite if you’re going to last a day in the direct-to-consumer world of food, she says.
“You have to love what you do, whoever you are, whatever you do, no matter what,” she says. As she hears customer testimonials about how much they love her asparagus and how they cook with it, the message is clear: a winning product with a people-first attitude is how to succeed at direct marketing.
“It’s not work. If I hated getting up and doing it, I’d retire. I’m 65 years old. I still go out and walk 15,000 steps a day. I can still go to work and I think we are what we eat.”