Alta. ranch operators keen on tackling new ventures

On the Farm: Besides full-time jobs, the Williams family raises Boer-cross goats, pigs and chickens and grows pumpkins for local customers

PONOKA, Alta. — Mike Williams had given up on his youthful dream of farming. The dairy where he grew up had been sold years earlier. He and his wife, Dawn, both had jobs in town and they were happy enough.

“I was telling this to a friend,” says Mike. “Then he told me about a place that was for rent — this place.”

And the rest is history. A deal was made with the elderly owner where, if the Williams looked after the 14-acre farm and cleaned up the yard, he’d discount the rent.

“The place was overgrown with caragana,” says Mike, “and we’ve taken out four different old barns.”

After two years renting, the Williams bought the farm in 2013. It’s close to where Mike grew up. His parents and grandmother live nearby.

The yard site sits on the peak of a hill with a century old grist mill tower dominating the space. Behind that is an old residence of the same era.

The Williams brought in a mobile home where they live with their three children; Emma, 11; Lucas, 10, and Cora, 7.

In the farmyard that angles down from the hilltop are the family’s Boer-cross goats, pigs, chickens, and garden including a massive pumpkin patch.

An assortment of barns and sheds dot the site.

The couple continue to work outside the farm. Mike is a mechanic, a trade he puts to regular use on his farm. Dawn is a psych aide who grew up in Ponoka.

“My mom knew I wasn’t meant to be a town kid.”

Dawn says she loves the rural lifestyle but found it a steep learning curve.

“You don’t realize how much works goes into it until you have to do it.”

Emma, Lucas and Cora have daily chores; feeding and watering the animals and helping in the garden.

“It’s a good lesson in responsibility,” says Dawn.

The children attend a rural school that’s just a 10 minute bus ride away.

“They’re the third generation (of my family) to go there,” says Mike.

The Boer-cross goats number about 50. Kidding season is March and April. The demand for the meat is steady.

The family raises Boer meat goats, which they market through Beaver Hill Auction Services Ltd. in Tofield, Alta. | Maria Johnson photo

The Williams creep feed a rolled oat and barley ration that they mix themselves. The goats are sold through Beaver Hill Auction at Tofield, Alta., at about six months old at a weight of 50 to 70 pounds.

Mike puts up about 20 acres of hay, in small square bales, for the livestock, from his own land and elsewhere.

The chickens provide fresh eggs.

“I always wanted chickens,” says Mike.

Dawn adds: “We sell a few eggs to the neighbours.”

The three pigs took up residence mostly by accident. Two were rescues and the third a gag gift.

Initially, the Williams planted pumpkins as a part of their personal garden produce. Extras were given to neighbours and the kids’ school.

“Then the store ran out,” says Dawn regarding a call she received from a grocer in Ponoka, “They sent people our way.”

So in 2018, the Williams planted 800 pumpkin plants. Growing conditions were favourable. “It’s a crop that likes dry,” says Dawn.

Beginning on the Thanksgiving weekend last fall the family opened their Mill Tower Ranch Pumpkin Patch to the public. Sales were steady until Halloween.

“We sold 800 pumpkins last year,” says Mike.

Wanting to expand on that success the Williams planted an acre of pumpkins this year, about 1,600 plants. Varieties included Rouge, Porcelain Doll, Pink Banana, Captain Jack, Big Mac and Rocket.

This past wet summer with regular cloud cover stunted production.

“A lot got drowned out,” says Mike.

Then last month’s frost and snow killed much of the natural protective canopy. The couple erected a 200 by 60 foot tent over the patch. Strong winds ripped it down. To save what they had, the family picked and moved about 500 remaining pumpkins into a garage in early October.

This trick from Mother Nature was a bit of a hiccup for the Williams but they anticipate treating the public to a great selection of pumpkins during the Halloween season.

Several hundred followers of their social media page, Mill Tower Ranch Pumpkin Patch, are kept in the loop on the evolving pumpkin situation.

“We need to find a way to control the weather,” Mike says.

He and Dawn have talked about building a greenhouse.

The couple are continuously upgrading and expanding the farm but prefer not to go into debt.

“We’re trying to build the farm on cash,” he says.

They have also discussed other crops such as garlic or ginseng. They’ve talked about honeybees. It’s just a matter of trying things and finding what works for the family.

“If I don’t know how to do something, I figure it out,” says Mike.

There’s never a shortage of jobs calling for attention at Mill Tower Ranch. Mike says he often lays awake thinking about all the things he wants to do.

“I don’t need much sleep,” he says, “So I just get up and get to work.”

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