Ural Farms Delights And Impresses At Grand Opening

·5 min read

After four years of planning, experimentation, and plenty of elbow grease, Ural Farms celebrated their Grand Opening on August 13, 2022, by hosting their first Alberta Open Farm Days event. Anton Goulko purchased the 150-acre parcel that would become Ural Farms in 2018 with dreams of combining modern innovations with traditional farming methods while being a responsible steward for the land entrusted to his care. That same year, Anton began dating his future wife and partner, Dorothy Penner.

Anton and Dorothy are building an extraordinary operation about 50 km southeast of Whitecourt. Ural Farms is currently focused on producing Haskap berries, currants, and sour cherries, but they also have an eye toward the future. They are experimenting with other crops to potentially add to their yield and implementing innovative ideas to expand their business. Anton and Dorothy have concentrated on planting their orchard of fruit-producing bushes and shrubs over the last four years and are still in their early stages of growth.

The land that Anton purchased to establish Ural Farms had not been worked for decades, and much of it had started sliding back to a fairly wild state. He had started out planning to follow the methods the pioneers had used when carving their farms out of the wilderness, but those plans changed as the fruit orchards grew. Anton did his planting by hand during the first year and then invited his nieces and nephews to help him during the second year. After finding that these methods weren't producing the results he had hoped for, Anton invested in a walk-behind tractor.

Experimentation on the farm has also led to different methods. After plowing and planting his test field, Anton discovered a massive problem with thistles that had lain dormant in the soil. Anton has found more success with tilling shallow, narrow rows with a cover crop (clover from seeds gathered on the farm) native to Alberta to help control weeds. Anton and Dorothy are big believers in regenerative farming, reintroducing native species where possible with a broader focus on restoring the soil and ecosystem.

As they work to establish their main crops, Anton and Dorothy also like to experiment with different crops on a smaller scale in their test field. They are currently testing wild raisins, goji berries, French sorrel, and Arctic Kiwis, with plans to experiment with hazelnut and mulberry trees. Anton and Dorothy also want to adopt practices aligned with permaculture as they expand. They envision a whole-systems approach with different crops layered from the ground to the tips of food-producing trees.

In addition to their farming endeavours, Ural Farms has also launched an off-grid pioneer wagon experience. Adventurous guests can rent one of two redesigned authentic chuck wagons. Both units were working wagons used in cattle drives and purchased from ranchers in Alberta's St. Paul region. The covered wagons have been refitted to accommodate a larger, more comfortable bed. Many of the essentials are provided for guests, including bedding, dishes, cooking utensils, coffee, and tea. Anton and Dorothy decided to offer this experience as a way to preserve a unique aspect of Alberta's heritage of cowboy culture and remember the pioneering spirit that paved the way for the farms and ranches to come.

When asked about the many growing aspects of their business, Anton smiled and responded, "Dorothy finds wonderful ideas, and it's my job to make them true."

Anton and Dorothy jokingly refer to themselves as lazy farmers because of their focus on perennial planting and plants that reseed themselves, but they have worked hard to get Ural Farms off to a great start and continue pushing forward to make their dreams a reality.

This year marked Ural Farms' first harvestable crop, a modest amount of Haskap berries. With this first crop under their belts, Anton and Dorothy can look forward to increasing yields as their producing Haskap bushes further mature and the currently immature bushes begin to fruit. The sour cherry shrubs and currant bushes are still mostly immature, with only a few sour cherries produced to date. While it would be nice to have a "fast forward" button, the fact is that it takes years to establish fruiting bushes and shrubs.

Many Albertans are not yet familiar with Haskap berries, but they flourish in northern hemisphere countries with varieties native to Asia, Europe, and North America. Anton was well acquainted with Haskaps from when he lived in the Ural Mountains in Russia, where his grandparents cultivated multiple varieties. He moved to Canada when he was 17 and still has fond memories of his childhood on his grandparents' farm.

Haskap berries are often the first fruit to ripen in many locations, but Anton and Dorothy report that strawberries are ripening first on their farm. Ural Farms purchased their Haskap bushes from the University of Saskatchewan, which has had a Haskap breeding program since the late 1990s. The original Haskap varieties are edible but tend to be bitter and small. When asked about the flavor of their Haskap berries from the U of S cultivars, Anton and Dorothy describe them as tasting somewhere between a saskatoon and a blueberry.

To make the most out of a limited first crop, Ural Farms reached out to Canadian Kettle Corn. Canadian Kettle Corn offers sweet and savoury flavored popcorns, mini donuts, and cotton candy, and they are very supportive of local producers. After inquiring about using the cotton candy equipment to make a Haskap flavored honey floss, the two companies discussed the matter and concluded that a flavored popcorn would be the best way to highlight the flavor of the Haskap berries. Canadian Kettle Corn also produced sour cherry popcorn and cotton candy using sour cherries from Anton's friends and family, who had supplied some of the sour cherry shrubs currently maturing on Ural Farms. Both flavors of popcorn and the cotton candy were delicious, leaving one excited for the next offerings from Ural Farms.

When asked about Ural Farms' first four years, Anton replied, "It's really been an eye-opening experience, but it's absolutely worth every bit of blood, sweat, and tears that go into it."

With Ural Farms' full potential just beginning to blossom, the possibilities are truly endless.

Visit www.facebook.com/UralFarms to keep up with the latest news from Ural Farms. Or visit www.hipcamp.com/en-CA/discover/alberta/ural-farms to book your own pioneer wagon experience.

Dean LaBerge, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Grizzly Gazette