Coming home: One Saskatchewan couple’s journey from the farm to the city and back again

EDENWOLD, Sask. – Who says you can’t go home again?

Alanna Koch is proof that you can.

Every time she steers her car down that long, winding driveway, she knows she’s going home.

“I never imagined I’d move back to my hometown in a million years,” she said recently, while just-poured coffee sent steam curling upward and the scent of muffins filled the room.

Her husband, Gerry Hertz, had squeezed himself behind a toy table in the corner while three-year-old Keisha went about the serious business of serving him. Five-year-old Shayla wriggled on the seat beside her mother, fussing with a toy.

For Koch, returning home meant leaving the crowded subdivisions of Regina and coming back to the flat farmland that stretches out around Edenwold, Sask. This is where she grew up, and the quarter section on which their house sits lies directly north of the farm where she was raised and where her parents and brother still grow cereals and oilseeds.

But home is also a slower pace and a new set of priorities, a change in perspective that has taken her off the fast-and-furious career path she embarked on 15 years ago.

Koch is executive director of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, one of the prairie farm groups fighting for less regulated grain transportation. Before that she worked during the 1980s on the political side of the provincial Progressive Conservative government, as an aide to several cabinet ministers and then as chief of staff, first for the agriculture minister and then the deputy premier. Her last job before the PC government was defeated in October 1991 was as assistant principal secretary to premier Grant Devine. Within months of the election, the wheat growers hired her.

Moving the family to Edenwold in 1994 didn’t derail this career. She is still the wheat growers’ executive director, only now for three days a week.

However, it did slow things down a bit and change her priorities.

“You realize you want to be part of a community and that maybe the way you were raised wasn’t so bad after all and that working full time and not being at home with the kids isn’t the be-all and end-all.”

She said many women of her generation have made the same choices, deciding to change their city jobs from full-time to part-time while their husbands work full-time on the farm.

“In some cases, our friends made a decision that farming is going to be a very big part of their lives,” she said.

“In our case, we both still work and farming is a very small part.”

That’s because while Koch and Hertz wanted to get back to the country and to farming, they weren’t ready to change careers entirely. They came up with an arrangement that could only be possible because their 130 cultivated acres are adjacent to the 4,000 acres farmed by their family.

Koch and Hertz, who is a marketing representative for the fertilizer firm Agrium, decide what to grow every spring and then hire her family to do the work.

“We usually have a game plan for the year and then we let them know what it is and I’ll come home one day and they’ll be seeded,” he said.

This has allowed Hertz, who grew up on a farm near Kindersley, Sask., to return to the land and the age-old occupation of growing food.

But because their acres are so few and they do little of the work themselves, Koch and Hertz are reluctant to call themselves farmers.

“Our life doesn’t depend on our farm and that, I think, defines a farmer,” he said. “To call ourselves farmers would be an insult to a true farmer.”

It’s obvious this limited involvement isn’t by choice, and they both say it’s possible that someday they might buy more land and promote themselves to full-time farmers. Maybe when he retires, Hertz said: “That’s something you don’t hear very many people say.”

But not being able to get their hands dirty as much as they might like doesn’t make their lifestyle any less enjoyable. In fact, Hertz said he can’t imagine a better place than the farm to raise his daughters and prepare them for adulthood.

“If you know where they are and you’re looking after them and they learn about all the good and bad in life that happens on a farm, I don’t think that reality will be a shock to them,” he said.

While raising children on the farm has its advantages, it isn’t always easy to raise them there while the parents work in the city.

In Hertz and Koch’s case, it’s made possible with the help of a 21-year-old woman who has been working for them since she was 18 and who lives a few miles down the road.

“We’re very fortunate,” Koch said.

“She is more than a babysitter, really. She’s almost like a nanny. She does some light housekeeping, she gets supper started, she drives Shayla to skating lessons. She drove Shayla to playschool. She is our taxi service. She’s our sanity.”

There are few regrets in this household, but Koch said their decision in 1994 brought with it a certain sense of finality.

“We said, this is where we’re going to be. If we get offers for jobs, if we get offers for transfers, well, we’re just not going to take them. I mean, it was sort of a fundamental decision that we made.”

Now that they’ve made their decision, even the present financial crisis in agriculture doesn’t make them uncomfortable.

“Everything goes through cycles and agriculture is no different than any other business,” Hertz said.

“With the global population growing, I have no reason to think, other than hiccups here and there, that agriculture is not going to be a good place to be.”

He has a quick answer when asked why they left the city.

“Look,” he said, pointing out the kitchen window at the trees, the fields and the faraway horizon.

“You’re out in the country. You’re away from the hustle and bustle. And it’s just beautiful out here.”

They both left home once, but have no intention of doing so again.

“Twenty years from now, as long as both of us are still above ground, and not below ground, we will be here,” he said.

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