Welcome to the Jungle

Crguk-Culinary

Jungle Farms provides interactive education with a side of harvest pumpkins

Most working farms are exactly that — workplaces where agricultural professionals grow and harvest the food that eventually lands on our tables, but a growing number of farmers are taking on an added business model that includes public-facing programming to help better connect consumers with the agricultural industry.

The Jungle Farm, a family-owned farm just south of Red Deer, near Innisfail, falls into the latter category. With its welcoming bright red barn, regular farm tours, and educational programs, Leona Staples and her family have used the farm to create an agricultural facility that produces fresh food along with giving visitors a healthy understanding of where our food comes from.

Staples’ family established the farm in 1867 when her great-grandparents, Jacob and Sophia Quartz, travelled west from Ontario to try their hand homesteading in Alberta. While the name Jungle Farm may seem like it was adopted to jibe with the farm’s current programming, it actually dates back to Jacob and Sophia’s time. While clearing their wooded land to make it more suitable for farming, the Quartz family came across a bear living amongst the trees. They named their parcel of land “The Jungle Farm” in homage to the animal, and the name has stuck throughout the generations.

Even though she has always been proud of her family’s legacy, Staples didn’t grow up dreaming of taking over the farm — she wanted a career in food and agricultural education. After getting a degree in home economics, she and Blaine (who has a degree in agriculture and very much did want to farm himself) took on management duties at the Goldeye Centre in Nordegg, where they both picked up community building and educational skills as well as important business and marketing know-how. When Staples’ parents announced that they were preparing to retire in 1996, the couple moved back the farm, but Staples knew that she’d have to get creative if she wanted to take over the family business without compromising her own career goals.

“I was always really passionate about agriculture and I really wanted to stay in the agriculture world, but I had no intention of farming,” Staples says. “When we got back to the farm, we started doing things that really made my day, like school programs and opening the farm to the public so I could continue to do the education that was near and dear to my heart.”

Staples’ parents, like most farmers in the area, were growing grain and also raising cattle, but in addition to the interactive elements that Staples dreamt of, she and Blaine also decided to play with what they were producing on the farm. While they’ve continued with grain farming, neither were all that interested in the cattle, so that was cut out and a neighbour who was involved with Innisfail Growers — a five-member collective of local farms that pool their resources to bring their offerings to farmers’ markets throughout the province — suggested that they try their hand at strawberries. As the first yield of berries hit the market, uninvited strawberry fans started showing up at Jungle Farms looking for a U-Pick experience that Staples felt obliged to provide. After researching what other innovative farms around North America were doing, she’s also gradually developed a series of school and family programs, farm tours, special events and classes to draw curious visitors onto the farm.

Jungle Farm’s U-Pick options remain a popular draw. While the farm sticks to a few key products like strawberries, spinach, pumpkins, and squash for its farmers’ market fare (Innisfail Growers members have an agreement not to complete with one another on specific crops), it has expanded the U-Pick options to include vegetables like potatoes, tomatoes, corn, and cauliflower, so that visitors can experience those harvests firsthand.

“When we first came home to the farm, I thought I would do all sorts of different things, but the customer wasn’t ready for that,” Staples says. “They wanted to come and pick strawberries, but they didn’t want to dig potatoes and they didn’t want to walk very far. Now they want to experience it all. Once they’re here, they want their kids to see how cauliflower grows. The change in people’s patterns has been significant since we came home in 1996.”

While spring and summer are busy times at the farm (though they have curtailed some activities this and last year in response to COVID-19), fall is also a going concern thanks to late vegetable harvest and, most importantly, U-Pick pumpkin season. This year the Staples had to cancel their corn maze for a second year in a row simply because they weren’t able to bring their maze designer up from the States this spring. But the pandemic has made for busy farm days, with families looking for wholesome outdoor activities that will teach their kids about local food and addressing food security more than ever. That growing interest makes Stapes feel secure that the farm will continue into a fifth generation, under the guidance of her three young adult sons.

“We really believe in our mission to create a great farm experience by growing great food and providing education, and creating family memories,” Staples says. “And we’re thrilled to have three boys who are interested in continuing that at various levels because that gives us a path forward. It allows us to continue that excitement about growing and that interest in the world of food.”