Alberta family prepares for another harvest

Michele, left, Wayne, Brian and Ryan Slenders have coffee in the farm office at their mixed operation near Vauxhall, Alta. before heading out to the fields. | Alex McCuaig photo

On the Farm: Irrigation has allowed this mixed farming operation to be successful, but it makes slow times a rarity

It’s harvest season for the Slenders family, who run a mixed farming operation north of Vauxhall, Alta.

But when you’re working a 13-quarter section farm with forage corn, wheat and alfalfa seed, not to mention a 300 cow-calf operation and feedlot, there aren’t many times they aren’t busy.

“We’ve always been a mixed farming operation,” said Wayne Slenders. “That’s just the advantage of this area under irrigation.”

Wayne, along with his brother Brian, now run the operation started by their father, who moved to the area from Holland in the 1960s. He rented before buying the core section of land that is the base for the family farm.

Having grown up in that farming tradition, Brian said there is nothing that beats it.

“We’ve never really did anything except farm. We really didn’t want to do anything except farm,” he said. “So, you’ve got to find ways to make everything work between family dynamics, and the more family, the more complicated it gets.”

Originally, hogs and cattle along with alfalfa hay were produced on a few quarter sections but the operation kept getting larger.

“Then you have to get after it, get some land paid off and move forward from there,” said Brian. “And then there’s almost no choice. You just have to get bigger and every time things change, you get new problems and new issues and you continue to grow.”

Wayne said trust and commitment keep things together on a family farm, along with some basic principles.

“It’s vision, it’s mission and achievement,” Wayne said, adding that it’s also about finding ways to use the strengths of every family member so they can operate as a solid unit.

“And our number one rule is if one of us says no, it’s no,” Wayne said of the relationship with his brother.

The Slenders grow forage corn on their farm. | Alex McCuaig photo

Even with the solid backing of his father, Wayne, and uncle Brian, Ryan Slenders says there are still challenges for his generation of farmers.

“It’s the cost of getting in. It doesn’t pencil out for me to go out and buy a quarter or two or three,” said Ryan. “All the money you would make would go straight to the payment if you hit your $1,000 an acre target. Without substantial help from my dad and my uncle, there is no way.”

But there is also no way Ryan said he’d go back to working in the oil patch.

“I see the results of my efforts. You spend 14 hours in a tractor and the crop comes up. Or you nurse a sick animal back to health and they grow up,” said Ryan “They are tangible results that you can see instead of slamming pipe out the door to some guy you’ve never seen before for some faceless shareholder in New York City.”

Brian’s wife, Michele, said one of her biggest challenges was raising three daughters in a household that could be full of farm hands each morning.

That was rectified by insisting that a separate farm office be built when they rebuilt their home.

Michele said a separate office space might seem simple enough but it has made all the difference.

As a retired teacher, who still substitutes, she said a bigger problem is trying to explain to city folks just what goes into making the food her students eat.

“People in cities, whether a small city like Brooks or large city, have lost touch with agriculture and really don’t have a concept or understanding of how this operation works,” said Michele.

That includes conversations she’s had with environmentalists who suggest farm vehicles should be electric powered without understanding that the needed technology doesn’t exist. Even if it did, the price might be beyond reach.

Brian Slenders inspects an alfalfa seed plant. | Alex McCuaig photo

Nor is there an understanding among urban dwellers of the technology already used that lessens environmental impacts on the land, added Brian.

As for the future of the family operation, Wayne says he’ll leave that to fate.

“Life is going to go where it will go,” he said. “I know that a lot of people get hung up on passing on generationally and those expectations.

“I’ve always said to my sons, if you don’t love farming, don’t do it because it’s a choice and you are going to give up certain things in order to do it. So you’ve got to love the lifestyle.”

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