On the Farm: The Bystroms feel the pros of farming outweigh the cons and like the sense of freedom they get from it
SYLVAN LAKE, Alta. — Brothers John and Doug Bystrom have a standing coffee date most afternoons at 3:30 p.m. with their dad, Bernie, at his farm.
The trio, partners in Bystrom Farms Ltd., discuss their crops and livestock, who’s doing what and where, and the daily goings-on in their neighbourhood, as well as the wider scope of the agricultural world.
Today’s conversation includes the recent disturbing turkey barn protest at Fort McLeod, Alta., rural theft, the weather, of course, and several massive bull moose that ravaged Bernie and his wife Doreen’s garden corn and sunflowers earlier in the day.
“If we get combining though, we won’t be stopping,” says Bernie.
Although he’s not as physically involved in the daily running of the farm, at 83, Bernie’s knowledge and opinions gained from a lifetime on the land are valued.
“I did most of the swathing until I was about 80,” he says.
The Bystroms farm about 5,000 acres of owned and rented land in the area. They seeded barley, wheat, canola and oats this year. Rye is an alternate crop.
About 250 acres of hay land provide winter feed for their 150-head, Angus-cross herd that are kept at the main farm.
“It’s where we grew up,” says John.
He refers to another piece of land as the “estate” because it has been in the family for many years.
Calving starts May 1. The Bystroms moved that date out from February more than a decade ago when they realized that calving in warmer weather made sense.
“They do it on their own,” says John.
Labour for the summer roundup is traditional.
“We help back and forth with neighbours,” he says. The Bystroms hire seasonal workers to help with seeding and harvest.
“I also raise a few bucking bulls,” says John, a director of the Benalto Agricultural Society, and its rodeo manager.
In the past, he trucked his Brahma-cross rodeo stock across Canada.
“Farming is busier now, so I don’t do that anymore,” he says. “I sell all my bulls to one guy in the States.”
Between them, John and Doug have five adult children. Some are in university, while others work non-farm jobs. The kids help out in varying degrees.
John refers to his own son and daughter carrying on farming:
“They can come back if they want to,” but he adds that it’s not an expectation.
“I didn’t want to farm in my teens.”
John worked off farm for a few years but came back to farming in 1982, when he bought his first quarter section for $850 an acre.
Prices were down a bit from two years earlier, in 1980, when Doug paid $1,000 per acre for his first quarter.
Today the low average is about $5,000 per acre.
Bernie and his first wife, Ann, who passed away in 2004, also had two daughters. One works in the education system in Red Deer. The other, who has Down syndrome, lives and works in Olds. To encourage and support her and others with special needs, the couple were instrumental in starting Padnoma Support Services in Olds, which recently marked its 30th anniversary.
The conversation turned to Bernie’s life of farming.
“It’s what my folks did,” he says.
“I bought my first quarter of land when I was 17.”
That was in 1953 and the price was $1,700 or slightly more than $10 per acre.
“I didn’t have a nickel to my name,” says Bernie, who is thankful to the neighbour who helped him get started.
“He gave me credit for half and I borrowed the other half from an uncle.”
He never considered another career.
“When I was 13, I asked Dad if I could stay home and pick roots. I missed a week of school. The teacher understood it 100 percent. She had 35 kids; from Grades 1 to 9.”
Later, Bernie farmed with his dad, after hours from his day job driving truck for Alpha Milk.
“That was when milk was shipped in eight-gallon cans.”
In his spare time, Bernie operated heavy equipment. The jobs financed the farming and purchases of more land.
The men have seen tremendous changes in agriculture over the years.
“Everything is on such a bigger scale,” says Bernie. “There are fewer farmers with more land and bigger equipment. And it’s harder to get help.”
While they agree that farming provides a sense of accomplishment and independence, there are challenges.
They refer to the recent negativity surrounding modern agriculture.
“Some of the urban people are very good … but sometimes we have to fight to show that we’re doing the right thing,” Doug says.
What hasn’t really changed is that farming is one of the only industries where the producer has no control over what he’s paid for his product.
“We can’t dictate the price”, says Doug. “But we can find ways to manage expenses and input costs.”
The Bystroms believe the pros outweigh the cons.
“It gives a sense of freedom,” says John.
Doug says it’s a good feeling “knowing you’re involved in feeding the world”.