Couples falling in love with Willow Lane Wedding Barn

Ria and Ken Holgerson built a barn on their Alberta farm in 2015 to host weddings and special events and are now booked into 2019. | Brenda Kossowan photo

Once the dream of owning a cattle farm came true, the couple invested some of their profit into a building and planning project

OLDS, Alta. — Retired businessperson Fred Huizing feared his daughter and her husband were about to lose their farm.

“He thought we were crazy,” Ken Holgerson says, describing his father-in-law and former employer’s reaction to his and Ria’s new plan.

They were setting up financing to build Willow Lane Barn, a special-event building in which Ria could host weddings and other special events at their farm, east of Olds.

To meet county and financial requirements, it could also store farm equipment.

Before starting on the barn, Ria had been working for a local florist. The owner wanted to sell her business to Ria, but had a hard time with the notion of retiring and they were unable to make a deal. Ria was left without a job.

“I love planning things, so I planned a wedding for my nephew, which happened to be in a barn,” Ria says while slicing a beef roast for sandwiches. “Everybody said to me, you guys live on a farm, why don’t you build your own barn?”

Ken came to her one day and said he had a perfect site in mind.

“Ken actually got the ball rolling, and he basically did this for me, because he knows I like to arrange flowers.”

He saw the barn as an opportunity for Ria to work from home. She had been helping with the farm after the florist shop deal fell through, but they both needed a new project.

“We’re builders and planners,” says Ken.

The couple had met and fallen in love while attending Olds College. Ken was studying agriculture while Ria was earning her diploma in horticulture. After graduating, he worked as an agricultural fieldman in southern Alberta.

In 1989, they bought the first of three quarters to start their own farm, putting Ken on track to fulfil a lifelong dream. He also took a job with Ria’s father, who operated an abattoir and butcher shop in Red Deer.

“I always wanted to farm,” Ken says, while walking out to inspect his small herd of Belgian Blue cows and their new calves.

“My father-in-law and I tried different breeds at his plant. These will out-yield any other breed by five to seven percent, on the rail.”

The breed has the low bone-to-muscle ratio that packers desire, says Ken. It arises from a genetic anomaly creating a double muscle. Cows put on so much meat that they must be kept “skinny” at calving time to prevent internal muscling from interfering in the birth canal.

Ken had built his herd up to 250 head in 2003, when an outbreak of BSE knocked Canada’s livestock industry to its knees.

He started rebuilding his herd as the industry began to recover, but not to the same extent as it had been in the past. He still finds that his animals are difficult to sell to breeders in Western Canada, although the breed is more popular in Eastern Canada.

He and Ria were weighing options for their wedding barn when he got “an offer I couldn’t refuse” from a farm in Ontario. The money from selling off a large portion of his breeding herd kicked the project into gear.

Ria says they searched among thousands of ideas posted on the social media site Pinterest, as they created their building and business plans.

Ken drew designs for an open-beam barn with a loft area over the entry way, a spacious commercial kitchen and roomy public washrooms.

Given that the plumbing would have to be protected from freezing in winter, he included an in-floor heating system that keeps the building comfortable year round.

A massive door at the south side allows access for heavy equipment. The only flaw in the plan is the lack of storage for chairs, tables and other amenities, says Ken.

The 7,000 sq. foot structure was completed in 2015. The Holgersons have four adult children who provided the bulk of the labour, worth about half the project valued at about $1 million.

With a completion date in sight, Ria placed an advertisement online and held her breath — briefly.

Inquiries flooded in and the Willow Lane Barn’s first wedding was booked for June 17, 2015, just as Ken was applying final touches.

The first two years were fully booked within a short time. Most dates in 2018 have since been taken and Ria is now booking into 2019.

The barn is within walking distance of the house, where Ria has set up her office and flower studio, but far enough away to be out of sight and generally out of earshot.

Her dad has been impressed with how the business has thrived, but Ken’s farm machinery still sits outside.

Only once since the barn was finished has he been allowed to store equipment inside. That was last fall, when a sudden cold snap hit and a sprayer had to be kept from freezing. Ken still suffers gentle reproach from Ria regarding the exact amount of oil it leaked on the barn’s polished concrete floor.

It’s not likely that the barn will house any equipment or livestock in the foreseeable future, says Ken, and that’s no problem at all.

“I love my job. I love what we do. I love where we live,” he says.

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