Spend a few days in Edmonton, and you can’t help but pick up on the way that locals feel about eating fresh produce. From the city’s top chefs to the average shopper buying groceries, everyone wants to get their hands on locally grown fruits and vegetables.
Luckily, Alberta’s farmers are more than capable of supplying the demand. Given the province’s long summer days and fertile black topsoil, the crops don’t just grow, they thrive — an obvious fact to anyone who’s tasted them in a salad or any other dish.
While more traditional farmers own land outside the province’s urban centers, a few enterprising individuals have started growing crops within Edmonton’s city limits. For example, Reclaim Urban Farm plants in empty lots and front yards along Whyte Avenue, compensating the landowners with a weekly box of produce (which can also be donated to charity). It’s just one example of a 21st-century approach to food production and sustainable land use.
But, no matter how or where the crops are grown, one quality unites all of Alberta’s farmers: they need lots of community support to stay in business. And as it turns out, Edmonton is home to an abundance of markets, allowing farmers to foster relationships with locals. Both parties can attest that those person-to-person, farm-to-fork connections really pay off.
Those personal relationships also explain, at least partly, how Tam Andersen has become a local celebrity. Every week of the summer, city dwellers seek out “Farmer Tam” at the 124 Grand Market and eagerly purchase her “real Alberta vegetables.” And throughout the year, as many as 50,000 people drive to Prairie Gardens, the 35-acre farm owned by the Andersen family. It’s about 45 minutes north of Edmonton, but the locals are happy to get outside and pick strawberries, buy fruits and veggies, and visit the petting zoo. The farm also hosts weddings, helicopter tours, and long-table dinners, where the Andersens serve gourmet meals made from their fresh, homegrown ingredients.
Tam believes that her farm helps people get back to their roots — and she isn’t just referring to Edmontonians. Prairie Gardens’ recent guests include visitors from South Korea, Mexico, and Australia, and Tam has noticed that they often share something she calls the “first-timer’s smile.”
“On the farm, we’re accustomed to the wonder of creating a pumpkin or a potato plant,” she says. “Other folks from the city don’t have an opportunity to be a part of that very often, and in this day and age of technology and button-pushing, it’s a chance to be real. People say that a lot: it’s real.”
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Tam’s work ends with farm visits or crop harvests. She’s also plugged into Edmonton’s food scene, and she says it’s amazing to see the city’s chefs in action. They serve her finest seasonal offerings in appetizers like “Tam Andersen’s beet salad” and “Tam Andersen’s tomatoes.” Occasionally, they ask her to grow a specific, non-native crop — a type of cabbage, endive, or mustard green that they tasted overseas and want to incorporate in their menus.
Tam, her husband, and their children are happy to oblige. After all, they love what they do, and they have fun planting new crops in their fields and greenhouses. Their produce includes everything from wheat to cucumbers, and they have a loving relationship with the land they till.
It sounds like an idyllic lifestyle, but Tam doesn’t take any of it for granted. She knows that her farmland once belonged to First Nations tribes, and in the spirit of reconciliation, she’s happy to share what she knows with today’s Indigenous peoples. Tam passes her carefully cultivated expertise to a First Nations elder who visits the farm often, and Tam believes that working with Indigenous partners should be a major emphasis throughout the 21st century.
On the subject of farming in today’s world, Tam isn’t naive about the challenges that modern life itself poses to agriculture. She’s concerned about the average age of Canada’s farmers — currently 55 — and she worries about what could happen to small-scale farms as those individuals retire. But Tam hasn’t lost hope, as she believes that urbanites’ interest can motivate current farmers’ children and grandchildren to take up the occupation. She believes in the power of agritourism to keep farms afloat, and she’s grateful that Edmontonians are so enthusiastic about her work.
Today, all is well at Prairie Gardens. So, the next time you’re in the area, head to the farm and look around for Tam Andersen — but, whether you meet the local legend or not, make sure that you pick up some of Alberta’s finest produce. Your stomach will thank you.
Cover photo by Alex Ortega