The look on 11-year-old Dakota Sabyan’s face says it best as he takes the first bite from a slice of fresh banana loaf: Pure bliss.
He and his mom are regular shoppers at an on-farm grocery story, opened last year on the Warburg Colony, located just North of Alberta Hwy 39, about 90 km southwest of Edmonton.
There was no way Sabyan was going to wait to get home to Thorsby to get into the banana bread that topped off the load of meats, preserves and fresh produce in the cart his mom and grandmother had filled and brought to the counter.
On this balmy summer Saturday, Sabyan’s grandmother Sheryl Emerson, is making her first trip to the store since moving into the area from Fort McMurray. She chooses bunches of dill, red onions, carrots and new potatoes to go along with the frozen chicken, pork chops and other meat products that will go back with her to her new home in Mulhurst.
And on it goes at the front counter of Warburg Colony Meats, where a hefty investment in a new production centre and store front continues to attract new customers, lured by the promise of home-grown produce, home-raised meats and home-made goodies along with the occasional deal on everything from BC fruits to name-brand peanut butter.
When the colony can make a good deal on bulk products, it shares its find with its customers, advertising its latest acquisitions on social media, says Aaron Wipf, co-manager of the store and head of the colony’s poultry barn.
Selling directly off the farm and at local farmers’ markets is a fairly common practice for many Hutterite colonies, especially those with ready access to major highways.
Warburg is no exception. In the years since it was established, its various operations had developed a solid base of customers who would come out for pies or buns and want to pick up a few other things while they were there, says Wipf.
After some discussion, the leadership decided to consolidate their direct sales enterprises into a single operation, where various pork, beef and chicken products could be processed and packaged for sale alongside garden vegetables, preserves and baked goods.
It’s going to take years to pay off the investment, says Wipf. But the upshot is that the colony has significantly beefed up its direct sales while providing a reliable source of high quality, fresh food, from banana bread to whole smoked pigs.
Behind the storefront, the meat shop has large freezers and a fully equipped area for smoking, roasting, slicing and packing meats as well as a brand new setup for making preserves.
The plan had been to make preserves in the main kitchen, said Wipf. But as the building was going up, the decision was made to set up a work station in the shop where the cooks and helpers could come in and process fruits, berries and vegetables for the store.
While there is a core staff who work in the store full time, most members of the colony get involved at some point or another, says Wipf.
He makes good use of the social media site, Facebook, to inform and attract customers for the store, making sure to let people know when they can expect shipments of fresh fruit from BC and to inform them when seasonal products are available.
They line up out the door when the fruit comes in from BC, says Wipf.
When he got a good deal on a pallet of name-brand peanut butter, he made sure to let the store’s customers in on the bargain.
The store can sell all the chicken his barns can raise, and the colony recently built a new barn that Wipf calls “Chicken Heaven.”
The new barn is divided into rooms where batches of baby broilers run loose from the time they leave the incubator until they’re ready for slaughter.
Warburg also diverts 25 pigs a week from its regular shipments to Olymel, taking them to Rocky Mountain House for slaughter and initial processing.
Having its own processing and retail counter enables the colony to get the maximum value possible from pigs that would be heavily discounted at the Red Deer plant, says Wipf.
Colony members hope to build their own slaughter facility at some point in the future, with separate rails for pigs and beef.
Along with the store, the colony continues to attend farmers’ markets in the surrounding area, including Drayton Valley, Devon, Stony Plain and Edson.
Wipf believes the venture has been good for the colony and that it also provides an option for people who desire fresh, locally-produced food.
Poultry is cut and packaged on the same day it is killed. Meat offered fresh in the coolers is frozen after four days and eggs are also cleaned, candled and put up for sale as soon as possible. There’s no shipping time and there’s none of the storage time that is common with products sold in commercial retail outlets, says Wipf.
Find Warburg Colony Meats on Facebook or take a drive west of Leduc on Hwy 39 to the Village of Warburg. The Colony is just off Hwy 770, about three km north of Hwy 39.  •
— By Brenda Kossowan