Freshpal Farms: A Geologist Turned Farmer Shares His Story

Posted by Michelle Lam on April 18, 2021

Freshpal Farms is based on Treaty 7 territory, a traditional gathering place, travelling route and home for many Indigenous Peoples including the Kainai (Blood), Siksika, Piikani, Tsuut’ina and Stoney Nakoda. In addition, Métis peoples.

The land is also known in Canadian geography as Olds, AB. 

This case study is a part of Young Agrarians Alberta Land Access Guide, a toolkit for farmers seeking land opportunities.

Farming wasn’t always in the books for Jianyi Dong, co-owner and operator of Freshpal Farms in Olds, AB. With a background in geology from China, he hoped to continue his career when he arrived in Canada in late 2014. Unfortunately, the cards were not in his hands. In 2014, the oil price collapsed and with that, came the abundance of jobs in geology. At this point, Jianyi had to make a life-changing decision: leave the country he loved or make a drastic change in his career. 

After a lot of research, he saw the potential of vegetable growing. To Jianyi, the message was clear: if you can grow good local food, there will be a demand. With no experience in vegetable growing, he moved to Manitoba to learn from a Chinese man who had built Canada’s first passive solar greenhouse. These particular greenhouses are very popular in Northern China where the climate is a lot cooler. Over the next 5 months, he learnt all the ins and outs of vegetable farming in a passive solar greenhouse. The best part yet – he could use these greenhouses to grow vegetables 12-months of the year without the use of expensive resources (ie. heating) as these structures rely solely on solar heating. 

Then, came another obstacle – a lack of funding. After talking to the bank, he realized that he needed to meet one of two requirements to acquire a loan: a steady income or a solid business plan with a proven track record. He had neither of these. As a new farmer and a new Canadian, Jianyi yet again, needed a new plan.

Fortunately for Jianyi, he was able to reach out to a fellow colleague from China. Jianyi brought him to Mantioba to convince him of the potential of bringing this concept of a passive solar greenhouse to Alberta. Convinced by the profitability of this type of vegetable farm, they formed a partnership and began the hunt for land.

Jianyi needed the land to meet 3 criteria: 

  1. It needed to have a good source of water. (Unlike many of the canola/grain farms in Alberta that can thrive off of rainwater, Jianyi’s greenhouses required access to a municipal water supply or a dugout.) 
  2. The property needed to be surrounded by trees to protect the greenhouse. 
  3. Within 100km of Calgary, where he would sell his veggies.

With no assistance from any particular people or organizations, Jianyi dug through the pages of realtor.ca, driving to 20 or so properties before coming across one that met his criteria in Olds, AB. This process took roughly two months, with the biggest challenge being his budget with no access to additional funding. 

Today, Jianyi co-owns the land with his business partner who lives in China. He operates the farm with his wife and sells his vegetables online to Calgarians through a system that he says is “similar to a CSA”. This winter, the temperature outside has dropped as low as -35 at night, but inside the greenhouse, the coldest it’s been is -3. His hard work has paid off; the vegetables are thriving, there’s a large demand for his fresh, local vegetables, and Jianyi is currently building his second greenhouse on his property.

Photos provided by Freshpal Farms.

Interested in exploring a career in regenerative farming in Alberta? Here are some helpful places to start:
  • The Young Agrarians Apprenticeship Program is a full immersion program that puts you into the heart of running a farm business, day in and day out.
  • The Business Bootcamp is a pay-what-you-can online, community-based program that will give you the space and skills to write a stellar business plan for the farm of your dreams.
  • The YA U-MAP is an online tool that can link you to nearby educational, land, and job opportunities!
  • Sign-Up for the YA Newsletter to receive the latest updates on news, events, and jobs.
  • Join the Young Agrarians Alberta Facebook group, an online community of regenerative farmers in Alberta.

Have any additional questions? Send us a message to alberta@youngagrarians.org

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