When it comes to being a farmers market veteran, they don't come more seasoned than Albert Balabanov. Better known as Albert's Herbs and Nursery, Balabanov is a founding vendor who's been with VFM since day one. "I started 16 or so years ago in the Croatian Centre parking lot, with some herb plants and cherry tomatoes" says the Burnaby-based farmer. A popular provider of a large assortment of herbs and vegetable starts, Balabanov also grows a full range of ground crops from January to October. We asked him to tell us more about the challenges and benefits of growing in the city.
Did you grow up farming, and what did you do before the markets? I had an aunt in Grand Forks with a farm when I was a kid. I spent some summers there, and thought briefly of taking over her farm when she passed. But I grew up in the city, and was a food technologist in a lab before I started farming 20 years ago.
Can you tell us about your farm and where it's located? My farm's situated in the "big bend" area of south Burnaby where there are many small, one acre properties. About half the population here farm or lease out part of their property to farmers, but mine's the only farm on my street of 11 houses. I have several greenhouses that add up to about 20, 000 square feet in space, and 1/3 acre of field that I rent from my neighbour.
What are the challenges of farming in Burnaby? There are many challenges. Cost of land, for one. The same price for 5 acres out in the valley gets you one in the city. Truck insurance is much more expensive - I pay more in vehicle insurance to drive the 13 km to the markets than a vendor from the interior. It's also difficult to find farm insurance for this location - the main insurer in the province does not insure in the city, and few insurance companies even insure farms.
And the benefits? I can say I'm one of the closest farm vendors to the market and so use less fuel to pollute less of the environment. I get to use city water which is about the best water in the world. I'm able to do last minute harvesting in the morning before market, which makes my produce some of the freshest. And the weather is generally more mild here compared to places in the Valley.
Do you follow any particular growing methods on your farm? I'm too small to be certified organic - you need a 30ft buffer zone that would eat up 40% of my space, but I do follow most organic procedures. I've never used any herbicides or pesticides, and I use compost and turkey manure for fertilizer. I grow in a combo of raised beds, containers, field, and greenhouse/hothouse/coldframe. This is a high weed area, so I try to grow plants that are larger and can handle weeding with a gas or electric trimmer. I use a high pressure hose to deal with pests like aphids, and I hand-pick buckets of slugs until there becomes less and less of them.
What's your favourite thing about vending at the markets? Instant feedback on what I grow.
What do you do when you're not farming? About 50% of my time is spent farming, and the other half is spent managing the facilities of a Vancouver-based computer art and animation school. That takes up all my time, especially in the spring and summer when I can be busy from morning to late night.
Albert's super local produce can be found all season long at the Trout Lake market. For more information on his farm or products, visit his website at albertsherbsnursery.ca