Multi-generational farm looks to innovation

On the Farm: An Alberta family looks for ways to become more efficient so that they don’t have to become bigger

CROSSFIELD, Alta — Returning to the farm does not mean going back to the simple life.

At the Hurt family farm at Crossfield, the next generation is transitioning into the 75-year-old business. Adopting new plans, doing more business analysis, handling the division of responsibility and learning new technology is all part of life on a multi-generational farm.

Ron and Donna Hurt and their adult children were named master farmers by Rockyview County for doing a good job and opening the door to the next generation of food producers.

Daughter Nicole Ireland and son Bradley left their careers behind to work at Cross Rock Ranch to work with their parents. Their brother, Daryl is a civil engineer and often returns to help.

Ron and Donna faced a similar life change when they returned more than 35 years ago. They met at Olds College in 1979 and moved to Calgary. Ron worked as service manager and partner in a New Holland dealership and was later doing the same job when they moved to Crossfield. Donna was a bookkeeper in Calgary and eventually worked at a bank in Crossfield.

Times were good. The oil-fueled economy was bursting at the seams until a recession hit and by 1981 businesses were collapsing.

They returned to the farm in 1984 to a severe drought and no crop.

“It was the worst drought this area had ever had. The first few years were pretty grim,” Ron said.

But they prevailed and worked with Ron’s father and brother, splitting off in 2007 to go on their own.

It was like déja vu when their children decided to return.

Nicole came back for the harvest of 2014 when the region was hit by a record-setting blizzard. Brad returned in May of this year to better circumstances but harvest will be delayed because of a cool, wet summer.

“Mom and Dad said you can’t come back to the farm right out of high school. You have to get an education first,” said Brad.

“If you decide after that, then you are welcome to come back and we will make it work,” Donna added.

All three attended university and pursued their own interests before changing careers. Nicole has an animal science degree and Brad is an accountant.

“We have a chartered accountant, a lawyer and an animal scientist and Brad’s wife has a marketing degree,” said Ron.

Nicole manages the cow herd.

She enrolled the 250-cow herd of Angus-Charolais-Gelbvieh in the National Verified Beef Plus Program as a way to diversify without having to go through considerable expansion.

“We have been audited and that will allow us to get into other markets. Anywhere there is an opportunity, I will be looking for it. If we can get paid for something we are already doing, that is OK,” she said.

They DNA test cattle for parentage verification and identification. They were also able to get government grants to add a specialized scale and electronic identification reader. Herd Trax, a mobile record-keeping system, was also added to monitor every animal and extrapolate the added information for herd improvement.

While Nicole also helps with field work, Brad feels more aligned with the grain side of the operation.

They farm about two and a half sections of land and rent about the same amount from 13 landlords.

The farm is just off the Highway 2 corridor that links Calgary and Edmonton. It is considered one of Canada’s fastest-growing economic regions and consequently land is unaffordable.

More acreages have been developed and industrial parks are edging closer to their operation.

“It is expensive to buy and it is really competitive to rent. In this area, you don’t get land by putting an ad in the paper. You have to come into it somehow,” said Ron.

They want to expand but do not want to move out of the area because their roots are here.

Instead they look for innovation and efficiencies.

“With all the data we are trying to collect and new efficiencies, maybe we can’t be as big as other people but if we can’t be bigger, then we better be better,” Nicole said.

Ron may have sold and serviced farm equipment but the family chooses not to buy the latest and greatest equipment.

Brad is an accountant and his wife Krystal handles the farm books and is controller.

“With Brad here, we will be able to do more things like in-depth analysis and probably make more informed decisions,” said Ron.

“We pride ourselves on doing a good job, working hard and having good relations with our landlords. For us, it is not about having the biggest and best equipment and we think land opportunities have come up because we have done a good job,” he said.

Most of their land is west of Highway 2 where growing conditions can be challenging with its higher elevation and risk of hail and early frost.

Weather is becoming more unpredictable, they said. Last year, they lived through a serious drought where they had to haul water to the cattle and nearly ran out of feed. They have received about 400 millimetres of rain so far this growing season and the hay crop is so bountiful they are running out of storage space.

Every property is different. They have land northwest of Madden, about 40 kilometres away, on which they grow feed wheat because the elevation is higher and the growing season is shorter.

“We won’t take a chance of growing hard red spring wheat out there. There are things we can’t grow here like some of the specialty crops like they do in eastern Alberta,” Ron said.

Their main crops are wheat, canola and barley.

Nicole’s husband, Graham Ireland, was a Calgary lawyer and has become more involved in the farm. His family has started microbreweries and now barley grown on the Hurt farm is used in the process.

“We were able to co-ordinate and got Canada Malt to segregate some of our barley and got it directly to them,” Ron said.

The brewer uses Copeland barley and the label pays tribute to the family that supplied the grain. It does not take much barley but the recognition is fun.

Canada Malt also convinced them to add new malt varieties like Connect and Bow.

Ron and Donna see themselves slowly easing into retirement and enjoying their three granddaughters. Brad’s daughter is Abigail while Nicole is mother to MacKenzie and Emery.

The children are young and will be given the choice to farm or follow another career path.

“We both enjoyed growing up on the farm and the lifestyle. I think we feel fortunate we can raise our kids in the same environment and decide whether they like it and want to come back and farm,” said Nicole.

The average age of a farmer in the country is between 55 and 60.

“There are some kids coming back but if you grew up on a farm, there is no guarantee you are coming back. On the sustainability side, you need young people to be able to do this,” said Brad.

The farm is incorporated and they are slowly working through an amicable succession plan where all members are aware of what is being done.

“Just because it might not be equal, it will be fair,” said Donna.

While the entire family pitches in and shares the workload, they also have two employees. Extra hands show up for harvest.

“The agriculture industry has to go above and beyond to get help,” said Donna. There may be unemployed oilpatch workers in Alberta but there are not many who want the long hours for much less money.

The work has been hard but the farm has prospered and the family unit is cohesive.

“It has been challenging but it has been good,” said Donna.

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