I have always felt that there is no sky which is more blue and no clouds which are more cumulus than those in Canada’s Central Alberta region. Here fertile farmland stretches over rolling hills which then give way to lush green river valleys, followed by sleepy rural communities, and then to yet more farmland.
It is a place where dust billows behind tractors as farmers begin their annual harvest, everyone drives a pick-up truck, and cowboys are the real deal – not just gunslingers involved in Spaghetti Western shootouts.
This is where I grew up, where my family remains, and where I faithfully return every year. There really is no place like home.
For a region so aware of its roots, it comes as no surprise that many of these sleepy communities show their support to local producers at summertime farmers markets. They are among my favourite places to go when I am home and where I can always find the freshest saskatoon berry jam, the thickest clover honey, and the sweetest maple fudge.
If you don’t know what a saskatoon berry is then it’s likely you’re not from one of the Canadian Prairie Provinces where saskatoons signal summer. They look similar to blueberries but have a distinctly wild flavour, and their vibrant purple flesh is responsible for staining fingers, lips, and clothing.
This is something that many central Albertans know all about. Home kitchens are where batches of raspberry, strawberry rhubarb, and saskatoon jams bubble on the stovetop and where some of the fresh, warm finished product doesn’t always make it into glass jars – it’s simply too good to wait for. That which does is poured, sealed, and sold at farmers markets around Central Alberta by women like Betty from Betty’s Jam.
Her thick purple saskatoon jam swims with crushed berries and is always the right taste of home. On one of my yearly visits to the Ponoka Farmers Market Betty was sold out of my saskatoon precious but gave me her phone number and asked me to let her know the next time I would be in town. I haven’t left empty-handed since then.
In the towns dotted around rural Central Alberta, farmers markets go hand-in-hand with a strong sense of community. They are weekly affairs held in parks, parking lots, and empty hockey arenas otherwise closed for the summer months. Farmers markets are as much about supporting local producers as they are about stopping in to say hello and having a coffee and freshly baked homemade pie with people you have known all your life.
They are places where if you take the time, you can discover more about what you are buying and whom you are buying it from. One local producer, Cecelia from Stirling’s Farm Honey, was happy to share her story.
Cecelia and her husband live on a farm near the village of Clive, grow berries, and raise honeybees. They can be found at the Ponoka Farmers Market every Wednesday and the Lacombe Farmers Market every Friday during the season. I am a faithful, if only once a year, customer at the market in Ponoka. Cecelia told me that their honey is predominantly the sweet clover variety, but that the bees go wherever there is pollen available and that notes of dandelion, canola, and wildflowers also find their way into the hives.
In a good year, Cecelia and her husband harvest their hives twice per year and can get between 30 and 45 kilograms of honey per hive during each extraction. The honey they sell is raw – it goes directly from the hive to the extractor and then into a jar – farm fresh and fabulous. When it reaches the tip of my tongue, I am in happy honey heaven.
Fresh vegetables at farmers markets are often sold by traditionally-dressed Hutterite families. Their produce is straight from the field, with dirt still clinging to the roots of yellow onions and asparagus, beans, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, potatoes, and everything which is in season neatly piled on a long table. For as long as I have been alive, the farmers of the Ferrybank Hutterite Colony have always occupied the same spot at the Ponoka Farmers Market.
For a taste of the farm, minus the market, a stop at the Kraay Family Farm and its corn maze is a must on any summer visit to Central Alberta.
Located seven kilometres west of Lacombe’s city centre, the corn maze opens in July when the corn stalks are tall enough to hide children and adults alike. The design of the six hectare maze is different every year and it is comprised of three separate phases. If you have a keen sense of direction, it should take you around one and a half hours to complete the entire maze. It’s open day and night and if you go in after dark without a flashlight, you risk not finding your way out until fingers of morning sunlight begin to stretch over the prairies.
And when you do eventually succeed, treat yourself with a trip to one of Central Alberta’s farmers markets.
Alberta lies in the Mountain Time Zone and in standard time is GMT-7. Canadian Dollars (CAD) are colourful and while the winter months can be bitterly cold, summer brings beautiful blue skies and cotton candy clouds.
Both Calgary International Airport (YYC) and Edmonton International Airport (YEG) provide access to the rolling farmland of Central Alberta. Public transport outside of Alberta’s main cities is almost non-existent and you will need to rent a car.
The Ponoka Stampede is Canada’s largest seven-day professional rodeo and features high-adrenaline events like bull, bareback, and saddle bronc riding. It draws thousands of cowboys and fans to Ponoka and takes place every year at the end of June and beginning of July, always coinciding with Canada Day on July 1st.
Ponoka’s Centennial Park is also home to a statue of the world’s largest horse and saddle bronc rider.