Busy farm family takes lead role in charity

Close to home | Saskatchewan family works to raise awareness of diabetes and funds for research

RUSH LAKE, Sask. — Darren Steinley is eating a quick lunch between the morning and afternoon halves of a rural municipality council meeting.

His wife, Michelle, has left work early at Agriculture Canada’s Semiarid Prairie Agricultural Research Centre (SPARC) in Swift Current, Sask., picked up sons Andrew, 13, and Noah, 10, at their school in Waldeck and is driving home to their farm north of Rush Lake to meet Darren and a reporter for a lunch-time interview.

Hectic days are normal for the Steinleys. An unexpected afternoon off school for the boys will give them some time to do chores before evening activities.

The brothers are involved in sports and have 4-H calves on the go. Although they’re still too young to know for certain if farming is in their future, they are following a pattern of brothers working together on this farm.

Darren’s grandfather established a dairy, beef and grain farm near Rush Lake in 1949. Irrigation had come to the area and several dairy farms took advantage of the abundance of water and ability to grow quality hay.

Darren’s father, Howard, and uncle, Ron, took over the farm and turned it into a successful polled Hereford and dairy operation under the Parkview name. The dairy was discontinued in 1998.

“It was build a new barn or discontinue,” said Darren. “They had a strong purebred herd and were able to capitalize on selling the quota. Plus, we weren’t ready to take over.”

Darren and Michelle, who both attended the University of Saskatchewan but met one summer at SPARC, were living on an acreage next door and working off the farm.

Ten years later, the timing was right.

In 2008, Darren and his brother, Kevin, bought the operation when their father and uncle were finally ready to sell and moved into the two houses on the property.

They now run 170 cows, including purebred Polled Hereford and Angus and some commercial cattle.

“We stuck with Polled Hereford a long time, but last year we decided we needed another marketing opportunity,” Darren said of the decision to add Angus cows.

Irrigation is still vital to the operation. They have 391 acres under flood irrigation and 250 acres under sprinklers, yielding three to four tonnes per acre.

Hay sales are a critical component of the business.

“The wet years we’ve experienced have almost been detrimental to our bottom line,” said Darren.

Most of the hay is typically sold in southern Saskatchewan to beef producers, while second cut alfalfa goes to dairy producers, although that business is getting smaller as the number of dairies declines.

Good yields for beef producers outside the hay business have also resulted in fewer sales opportunities.

Contracts to ship hay south can be complicated by trucking issues, but the biggest challenge on the farm is likely time management.

Darren has several irons in the fire, of both the paying and volunteer variety. Kevin works at Meyers Norris Penny, while Michelle works full time as a data manager in SPARC’s wheat breeding program and volunteers with the school community council and their church.

“Months in advance, we’re planning,” said Darren. “We just don’t have the luxury of deciding what to do day by day.”

Darren, who has an agriculture diploma, works on contract with the Provincial Council of Agriculture Development and Diversification Boards and the Environmental Farm Plan program to deliver workshops and help producers fill out applications.

Working as a consultant allows him to choose how busy he wants to be, but he does favour the environmental projects.

“I think it’s important,” he said. “It’s showing how being environmentally friendly can be great for the producer, the operation and his bottom line as well.”

It also gives him time to work with the local irrigation district and as a councilor for the RM of Excelsior.

But no matter how busy they are, the family is united in the goal to help Noah manage diabetes and raise funds for a cure.

He was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in October 2008 at age six.

A steep learning curve followed and he now wears a pump to help control his insulin.

Michelle said there is no history of Type 1 diabetes in their families, but Noah had a viral infection several months before his diagnosis that might have triggered the autoimmune disease.

She said they chose to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation because the agency is seeking a cure.

“Eighty percent of the funds they raise go directly to finding a cure and improve treatments,” Michelle said.

Treatments could include better pumps and an artificial pancreas.

They connected with others in Swift Current and have helped organize successful local versions of the JDRF Walk to Cure Diabetes.

The Steinleys take the lead organizing a poker tournament that raises $15,000 in a single night. A heifer auction at a local bull sale brought in $10,000 on Noah’s behalf.

“We try and put awareness out in our community as well,” she said.

“Noah spoke last summer at a golf tournament organized by the building and trades association.”

Michelle, who has a degree in food science from the U of S, said they have learned to deal with their anxieties about monitoring blood sugar and allowing Noah to attend birthday parties or sleepovers with friends.

“Noah eats just like any other kid. The pump gives him that lifestyle,” she said.

Darren has always been his hockey and football coach so is on hand should anything happen.

“He is pretty independent and takes responsibility for it himself,” Michelle added.

Michelle and Darren say Noah’s diabetes has brought the family closer together. Andrew has taken on as much as any of them, learning the carbohydrate counts of food and asking questions during his brother’s doctor appointments.