Alberta farm family seeks a simpler way of life

Couple launches outdoor dining experience and runs farm and farrier business with focus on natural, slow pace

VIKING, Alta. — Passersby will be craning their necks to see what’s going on at Nature’s Green Acres Aug. 18 when 80 diners sit down to enjoy a five course, white linen dining experience in a cow pasture.

Shannon and Danny Ruzicka provide the lion’s share of ingredients from their own farm with other items drawn from nearby producers and processors.

“You sit down at the table and look at the wide open blue sky,” Danny said about the dinners they’ve hosted since 2011.

They, with Edmonton chef Blair Lebsack of Rge Rd restaurant, created the event to help consumers learn where their food comes from.

“They call us their farm and we call them our restaurant,” said Shannon.

The Ruzickas do the setup and offer tours of their half section farm and horseshoe demonstrations by Danny, a full time farrier. Lebsack manages the food and beverages.

Patrons pay for the dinners, and profits are evenly split between Lebsack and the Rozickas.

The farm includes heritage variety pigs rooting in the bush, chickens pecking in and around their coop and sheep keeping the grass mowed. Their “nouveau beef,” a blend of veal and beef raised exclusively on grass, graze nearby in pastures.

“The more closely to nature that we can emulate, the better,” said Shannon.

The Ruzickas attended Terra Madre in Italy, a slow food event, which further entrenched their desire to live more naturally.

“God set it up this way for a reason and if we can get as close to that as we can, we can’t really screw it up,” said Shannon, who met her future husband at a Christian school in Caronport, Sask.

“Growing our own food is important to me, to know what’s being fed to our food (animals), going into our bodies and our kids’ bodies,” Danny said.

A desire to get back to a simpler lifestyle inspired the family, with their three homeschooled children, to live off the land for a year and restrict necessary purchases to local or Canadian goods only.

That resulted in big savings, allowed them to acquire a tractor, car and truck and eliminated much food waste and garbage.

“All of our ancestors did it. It’s in us. We have the power and ability to do it,” said Shannon.

“We are so reliant on a system where someone else brings us and grows our food. We are growers. Why aren’t we feeding ourselves?”

The farm’s cattle are born in April and May and receive limited handling and no castration or dehorning.

Their animals are processed in Alberta, providing Rge Rd with custom cuts, and direct marketed to the customers. Any animals that have to be treated go to the auction.

Dogs keep predators at bay, say the Ruzickas.

Danny finds it makes economic sense to rent more pasture than bale hay and prefers permanent fencing to high maintenance electric fences, citing recent lightning strikes that shut theirs down. They keep the creek fenced off to protect the riparian zone.

The Ruzickas also found that selling cattle conventionally didn’t make sense.

“It cost us more to raise calves than what we were getting at auction,” Shannon said.

In addition, they oppose the idea of finishing cattle in feedlots.

“We don’t agree with that, and it’s not best for consumers,” she said.

Danny’s family settled in the Prague community, where he married in the same church as many of his elders. He noted the history of the place, which includes a buffalo jump and teepee rings. He related how local farmers were paid to collect buffalo bones for bomb-making materials during the Second World War.

The decor of the family’s new home is described as “shabby chic” with an assortment of doors and wood features from their first home and outbuildings mixed with sprinklings of antiques.

Danny expressed a connection to animals as his motivation for choosing the farm and farrier business.

“It’s in the blood, the business of it all,” said Danny, whose father once ran a pregnant mare’s urine operation.

The farrier business is steady and involves long days, slowing only in winter, so that means much of the day-to-day work falls to Shannon.

“I like having the assurance that Shannon is here to take care of things if I can’t get something done,” he said.

Danny said land prices are the biggest hurdle to expanding the farmland, which is best suited to raising livestock.

Shannon thinks the dinners, which have grown from a table for 30, have maxed out.

Dinners held within more permanent structures seasonally might be options for increased revenue for the farm and children’s recreational activities in 4-H, tae kwon do and hockey, they say.

Danny said farm and family life offers a good lifestyle, and homeschooling allows for more control over his children’s education by Shannon, who trained and worked in drafting.

“You can control what’s being put into their minds and can choose learning techniques that work for them,” Danny said.

They hope their recently enlarged cattle herd will translate into increased sales.

Shannon, who once attended farmers markets to meet customers, now uses social media sites to disseminate information about the farm. She also uses paid speaking engagements to talk about Nature’s Green Acres.

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