The land east of Elnora and west of the Red Deer River rolls from parkland to prairie in long, sweeping valleys and verdant hills. It’s a beautiful part of Alberta and in among those hills and valleys, just south of Highway 590, sits one of the more unique agricultural operations in the province – DNA Gardens.
It’s home to Arden and Dave Delidais, their friendly dogs and an orchard of saskatoons, currants, plums, apples and cherries. And not just a few run-of-the-mill options. DNA’s twelve-acre orchard is laden with seventeen varieties of saskatoons, thirty-three kinds of apples and eight different varieties of cherries. Production? Arden Delidais says in a good year they can harvest over 50,000 pounds of cherries alone.
Cherries in central Alberta?
The Delidais joined Open Farm Days to help educate people on what can be grown in central Alberta and to broaden the market for their products. Having owned their farm since 1975, they have been key proponents of new Canadian varietals that are being developed at universities and research stations across Alberta and Saskatchewan. They operated a plant tissue lab on their farm for decades, raising and selling plants and exporting them around the world.
More recently, after a brief bout of retirement, they converted the lab into a commercial kitchen and have turned their focus to consumer products and to agricultural tourism. That includes Alberta Open Farm Days. Although not on the beaten path, they welcomed over one hundred people each day during the 2018 event.
DNA offered – and will again this year – an educational, family-oriented scavenger hunt that includes seven stations, a “bee wall” and a look at the flora and fauna of the area. There’s also an opportunity to try their Garden Goodness pies, gelati, juices and jams along with St Albert’s Black Rifle coffee in their farm store.
The Delidais are making their products as healthy as possible, given the natural decadence of pie and ice cream. “Our jams have 75% less sugar than conventional jams,” says Arden. “Wherever possible we use honey instead of sugar, 2% milk or kefir instead of skim and loads of fruit.” They have kombucha on tap and fermented vegetables including pink sauerkraut, curried apple relish, and fermented carrots. There’s a nice picnic area and a patio off the kitchen to enjoy their goodies.
You can also take home gelato made with DNA’s fruits or buy frozen cherry and black currant puree to make your own treats. And they have dehydrated fruit and fruit leathers that are made without added sweeteners.
DNA is open to the public seasonally, kicking off with a busy nursery program in mid-May and following through to the end of harvest. They’ve also expanded into a greenhouse program which produces strawberries, lettuce, peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers. In between you can take courses on plant grafting and bee husbandry or drop in for a piece of pie or maybe even a yoga class in the orchard. Just look for the DNA sign on Highway 590 east of Elnora and the coffee will be on. And someday soon, we might even see some DNA Garden Goodness products in local farmers’ markets too.
“Last year we had one family who said they’d been to three farms and hadn’t seen a “farm dog,” says Arden Delidais. “So we introduced them to our Labradoodle and our Golden Retriever and they gave the dogs a good rub down. It’s part of the farm experience.”
“We retired once but after growing fruit for over forty years, we just couldn’t let go of all those great berries.”
“We have over 80 bird boxes up around our orchard. They give us “bird protection” from insects. We have wrens and swallows and in 2017 we saw three nests of bluebirds. We have owls and kestrels and now bats too. Bats eat loads of insects – they’re good guys.”