Central Alberta operation receives an A for diversity

On the Farm: Angus, Appaloosas and Alaskan husky sled dogs are the name of the game at the Appelman place near Westerose, Alta.

WESTEROSE, Alta. — They call it the A Farm — and for good reason. Hans and Jolanda Appelmans raise Angus cattle, ride spotted Appaloosas and race Alaskan husky sled dogs.

However, the farm is not exclusive to animals starting with “A” nor is it exclusively agriculture.

The mature Angus cows are bred to a Simmental bull.

“To give a little beefier calf,” says Hans, who builds kitchen cabinets from his on-farm woodworking shop.

The cattle herd numbers 90 cows, 20 bred heifers and 18 yearlings. Calving starts in late April.

“I believe in following nature,” he says.

In addition to the two Appaloosa horses, the family also keeps a couple Norwegian Fjords and Silver, a nine-year-old Quarter horse.

Silver belongs to Nathalie, Hans and Jolanda’s daughter, a kindergarten teacher in nearby Winfield. Their son, Ivar, an electrician, and his wife, Tonya, a University of Alberta grad student studying anthropology, live close by in Falun, as does Nathalie. The kids are home often.

“They come out and help when we’re handling cattle,” says Hans.

He and Nathalie have taken part in competitive cattle penning.

The sled dog racing has been a constant in the Appelmans’ lives since before they immigrated from the Netherlands in 2002, when Ivar was 10 and Nathalie seven.

Jolanda and a friend watch as Hans takes the eager dogs out for a run. The family has held many sled dog races on the trails at their farm. | Maria Johnson photo

“For competitions, we had to travel from Holland to the Alps; Austria, Germany, Switzerland, or France,” says Jolanda, a nurse.

Canada’s abundance of snow influenced the Appelmans’ choice of destinations when they contemplated leaving their homeland. They desired a change from their full-time urban jobs and hectic lifestyle.

“We wanted to do more together as a family,” says Hans.

“We both had some history on farms,” and he had fond memories of Canada.

“I was here when I was 18.”

Hans spent a month in 1980 cycling from Vancouver to Anchorage, Alaska. “It was the trip of a lifetime. I liked the freedom, the space, and the climate, with more seasons.”

In addition to the two Alaskans, they own seven Siberian huskies.

“What we do is sprint, 20 miles at most.”

Hans gave some basics of the multi-event races, which include skijoring, where a person on skis is pulled by one to three dogs.

He and the kids race, although Ivar and Nathalie’s busy lives have drawn them away from it.

Jolanda works behind the scenes.

“She’s the handler,” says Hans. “It’s a big job. She does all the care for the dogs.”

The Appelmans have hosted many races but have stepped back from that, although they still attend events. The dogs still need regular exercise and lots of attention.

“They’re like family,” says Hans. “They’ll be here till their time comes.”

In 2000, the Appelmans started to look around for new places to live. It resulted in the purchase of this 480 acre farm two years later.

A herd of 23 bred cows was added in April 2003. Canada’s BSE crisis hit that same year. Combined with the drought in central Alberta, it was a harsh initiation into the cattle industry.

Angus and Angus cross make up the Appelman cattle herd. | Maria Johnson photo

“I had my carpentry, but it took a while to build up my clientele.”

His workshop is a few hundred metres from the house down through a group of trees.

“We knew things would be better,” says Jolanda., who worked in the nursing field during her first few years in Canada.

Eventually, the farm, the dogs, and Hans’ carpentry kept her home.

“She does the administration and the bookkeeping,” he says. “I always need something for the company and it’s all long distance here, so she’s driving a lot.”

Hans’ woodworking shop is just steps from the corrals.

“In winter I feed my cows in the morning and the rest of the day I build cupboards.”

It’s convenient, particularly through calving season when he breaks to monitor the cows.

Hans primarily orders kiln-dried hardwoods for his kitchen cupboard orders but there’s no shortage of local raw material for personal building projects. Along the trail near the farm’s perimeter is a rustic 12 x 18 foot cabin the family built from their own felled and rough-cut lumber.

The A Farm’s ranch-style loghouse and numerous outbuildings are set into a forest backdrop of towering spruce, fir, pine and poplars that border the scenic Battle River valley recreation area.

Two quarters are deeded with about 240 cultivated acres and the third is government lease “with lots of bush,” says Hans.

The Appelmans generally put up hay and green feed but are starting to experiment with organic grains.

“So far it’s peas and wheat. This year we’re thinking about oats as well.”

The Appelmans plan to gradually decrease the number of cattle and focus more on grains. They’ve been certified organic.

“We have lots to learn,” he says. “It’s interesting. I like it.”

It’s part of their plan to rebalance and minimize the workload but they’re not sure it’s working.

“Sometimes the big jobs coincide,” says Hans.

Currently, he’s got a huge kitchen cupboard project on the go and the cows are about to start calving.

“I’m trying to slow down but it doesn’t seem to happen.”

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