Dinner on the farm

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Duck producers thank local chefs for supporting them

BEAUMONT, Alta. - Andreas and Mary Ellen Gruenebergs mixed farming operation is awash in livestock.

BEAUMONT, Alta. - Andreas and Mary Ellen Gruenebergs mixed farming operation is awash in livestock.

Were greeted at the kitchen door by three large dogs, including Liam, their (mostly) Irish wolfhound, and two others of uncertain breed. A few steps into the house are three cats, a rabbit and, in the bird room, a selection of rescued cockatoos, ring-neck parrots and love birds. Its like a petting zoo in here, with sound effects to match.

The red barn is storybook pretty outside, with a workshop, freezers and a greenhouse where Andreas grows many varieties of heritage or unusual greens, turning their year-round salads into a wild palate of flavour, from mild to spicy to slightly bitter.

Behind the red barn, a roomy Quonset houses chickens, turkeys, guinea fowl, ducks, an annual flock of geese and one optimistic billy goat.

Thus the name, Greens, Eggs and Ham - not your average mixed farm, even by todays loosey-goosey definition, but it suits this family.

I had a medical career in diagnostic imaging, Mary Ellen explains, while checking on two ducks roasting in the oven.

Andreas was at McGill (University), but hed always wanted to farm, and he transferred to (McGills) Macdonald College to study agriculture.

That opened the door to a career in agribusiness. Then, in 1989, when their two daughters (Megan and Ariana) were seven and nine, came opportunity: a farm. The Gruenebergs became the proud owners of a four-hectare spread - the real family farm that had topped their wish list for so long.

They started with pigs, and immediately learned a lesson: Be careful what you wish for. The pigs were a disaster.

They moved on to ducks, the beginning of their mixed poultry operation.

We invested $5,000 in a flock of 3,000 ducks that would, after several months, become a laying flock, says Andreas.

They quickly learned the reality of duck economics, of meat birds and laying birds.

Think roast duck and duck eggs, says Mary Ellen with the wisdom of hindsight.

Duck fat, which never becomes solid at room temperature, is delicious for roasting or frying. Theres nothing like potatoes roasted in duck fat.

Duck eggs are twice the weight of chicken eggs. Theyre terrifically healthy, containing only monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, both highly digestible, and theyre wonderful for baking.

The Gruenebergs used to produce fertilized duck eggs, called balut, popular in some areas of Southeast Asia and the Philippines.

In the Philippines, they have balut carts like we have hotdog carts, says Andreas. Its part of their culture. We had a contract for up to 14,000 fertilized eggs a week.

But the feed company made a mistake, delivered the wrong feed, and stressed the ducks.

Switching feed mixtures on ducks is a disaster, says Andreas. Ducks are highly susceptible to stress. We lost 90 per cent of our birds -over $100,000.

The feed fiasco was a huge loss, one that only another farmer could truly understand.

However, there are some notable upsides to operating a mixed farm when it results in excellent products. You make a lot of friends who appreciate your efforts, and the Gruenebergs are well known among Edmontons best restaurants

This year, they came into winter with 2,000 meat ducks. That could mean 4,000 duck breasts for prosciutto, plus duck legs and other bits for the sausage.

Im developing a confit made by simmering the wings for three hours, seasoning the liquids with a bit of soy sauce, skimming off the duck fat and using the meat and juices over couscous, which absorbs the flavours beautifully, says Mary Ellen, who loves to cook.

Still, farming is always a gamble.

We stumble over labour, she says. The costs are prohibitive. We want to hire locally, but its so hard to find people wholl work on a farm.

Were part of Dine Alberta and Slow Food. We try hard, all the time. I give the chefs my best prices. Its not like theres any other way to do it. I cant compromise on quality.

Still, farming is always a gamble.

We stumble over labour, she says. The costs are prohibitive. We want to hire locally, but its so hard to find people wholl work on a farm.

Were part of Dine Alberta and Slow Food. We try hard, all the time. I give the chefs my best prices. Its not like theres any other way to do it. I cant compromise on quality.

Organizations: Macdonald College, McGill

Geographic location: Philippines, Alberta, Southeast Asia

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