Alta. farm prepares for next generation

BEISEKER, Alta. — On a hot day in early August, the Schissel family set about preparing for this year’s harvest.

Don and Betty Schissel, who were recently named a master farm family by their municipality of Rockyview County, have tilled and harvested their fields northeast of Calgary for about 100 years.

It has been a hot dry year with 50 percent normal precipitation but after more than 30 years of experience on their Beiseker-area farm, they are confident there will be a crop.

“It is going to speed up harvest,” said their son, Gerald, who usually spends his Sept. 20 birthday sitting on a combine.

Added Don: “I think we are going to get luckier than we deserve. It has been hot and miserable and we have been without rain for a long time.… Our crops are suffering, but they are not going to be as bad as I thought they would be.”

Don’s grandfather came to the area in 1910 and bought the current farm in 1926 that has been passed down to each generation. Betty’s family arrived sometime after that. Because of a twist of fate, her English grandfather missed a voyage on the Titantic to come the new world.

Don and Betty started farming full time in 1985. They met in high school as teenagers and both attended SAIT Polytechnic in Calgary. Don majored in business and Betty studied tourism. She eventually worked for a travel agency and Don worked with Chrysler Financial.

They lived in Calgary between 1977-84 and experienced the height of an oil boom followed by the economic crash of the early 1980s.

While Calgarians were abandoning their homes and losing their vehicles because they could not make the payments, the Schissels decided they could make a go of it on the farm even with high interest rates and economic uncertainty.

“I wanted to farm and I never would have left the place, but my dad wouldn’t let me stay,” Don said.

“We are not city people.”

Both their families encouraged them to take time away from the farm and they did the same with their four children. Their three daughters now live in Calgary and Bowden. When Gerald finished studying agriculture at Olds College, he opted to return.

Don and Betty are easing into retirement and would like to complete the succession plan in five years.

At age 21, Gerald will need their support to take over. They are confident in his abilities, but they worry about the future of agriculture.

When Don and Betty started farming, there were four elevators in Beiseker and almost all the businesses were agriculture related.

Those elements are mostly gone and they are hauling grain about 40 kilometres. A round trip is about two hours with driving and unloading.

They moved with the times, however, and adopted new concepts like direct seeding and auto-steer tractors. More precision farming techniques and crops are expected to be added to suit Gerald’s style of farming in the future.

Gerald realizes his place in the farm succession plan means huge investments and bone weary work. Few young people are willing to do that.

“It is hard to find people who want to do hard work and put in long hours,” Gerald said.

This is a prosperous grain-growing region of small and large farms where the next generation of farmers consists of many 40 year olds.

“In this area, as an average, compared to a lot of Alberta, we are fairly young in this area,” said Gerald.

Don and Betty worry about the risk facing the younger generation with high land prices and expensive, high-tech equipment.

Improved profit on the farm is an attraction to encourage young people to stay but it remains a risky venture.

“If everything is paid for, there is lots of money in grain farming. It is trying to buy it that kills you. You can’t outlay a $1 million on a quarter section of land and ever think you are going to make the interest payments because it doesn’t generate enough money,” said Don.

The Schissel farm is about 2,000 acres of wheat, barley and canola. They have tried other crops but with a short growing season, high elevation and living in the chinook zone, most were not worth their while. Gerald is willing to try new things but he is also realistic.

He is encouraging his parents to add peas next year even though past experience was not successful.

“I put peas in a 100-year rotation and I have another 80 years to go,” Don said.

There are more robust varieties now that could work better in this area, and malting barley was added to the mix with good results.

Don typically grew feed varieties because he did not like the selection process for malt barley or the added agronomic risks. When Gerald returned, he talked them into trying it malt varieties.

“I was selling feed for $3.50 a bushel and he was selling it for $5.50, so I said OK,” said Don.

There is a local malt plant where they can haul direct but local craft brewers are opening and they would gladly grow special barley on contract if it were worthwhile.

“They are developing these other crops for shorter growing seasons and they will come into play eventually. Wheat and barley are old school. The world doesn’t want to pay for it anymore,” said Don.

“When those things start coming down the pipeline we will be there to try it.”

During the winter months, Gerald works for a nearby hog farm and Don has time for machine maintenance as well as travel and volunteering.

Active in the community, Betty has coached minor league sports and Don is a member of the Elks and Lions service clubs. He is a past-president of the Beiseker agriculture society, Beiseker arena and minor hockey association. He is also on the board of directors for the local seed cleaning plant.

Community involvement is the backbone of many rural areas where everyone has to pitch in to run service clubs and sports.

“It is the same people who volunteer for everything. You volunteer where you are needed,” Betty said.

It is a changing community with larger, consolidated farms and fewer children. New housing developments have brought in new families to Beiseker and nearby Irricana where people commute to work in Airdrie or Calgary.

Yet with all the changes the rhythm of life continues where the farms are prosperous and the neighbours have not moved away. As his parents ease into retirement, Gerald may have new ideas but he also appreciates the legacy of farming built by three generations of Schissels who came before him.

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