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Hilltop Dairy about more than meat and milk

Fundraising, election planning and community involvement are part of busy lifestyle for couple managing mixed farm

FORT MACLEOD, Alta. — If you want something done, ask a busy person, as the saying goes.

That may be why southern Alberta dairy farmers Conrad and Rhonda Van Hierden and their family are involved in so many pursuits beyond managing their 180 cow dairy, 200 beef cow herd and 4,000 acres of farmland.

It’s not that dairy farming isn’t rewarding, said Conrad.

“We enjoy it. It’s all we’ve ever done, mind you, so we don’t know any better.”

Both he and Rhonda grew up on dairy farms in the region and started their current operation, Hilltop Dairy, in 1981 with 70 cows. It ex-panded from there.

“It has been about the same size for the last 10 years,” said Conrad.

“Now our son is starting to get involved in the business so it will probably grow a bit more.”

Conrad spends a lot of time on his cellphone, organizing the farming crew that in mid-April was seeding wheat, barley and canola. Alfalfa is also part of the cropping mix so the operation supplies the dairy feed.

But the phone is also busy with calls about the recent Alberta election campaign. Conrad is on the provincial Livingstone Macleod Progressive Conservative Association executive, as well as the federal Conservative association that will be planning its election strategy.

In addition, he is president of the Fort Macleod crime prevention committee and is a board delegate for Alberta Milk.

Though he doesn’t specify, the activity closest to his and Rhonda’s hearts may be the annual event hosted on their farm to raise money for research into ataxia-telangiectasia, an inherited and rare neurodegenerative disease.

They lost their oldest son, Randy, to it in 2004 at age 20.

The family’s fund-raising efforts for research began in 1998, when the family organized a bike ride and walkathon. Community support has kept it going and growing.

On June 20, the Van Hierdens will host the 17th annual event at Hilltop Dairy, which includes a silent auction, pony rides, petting zoo and other events.

“We’re getting close to the $2 million mark that we’ve raised for genetic research, stem cell research, cancer research and research for the A-T children’s project,” said Conrad.

Rhonda remembers their surprise when Randy was diagnosed at age 7 and they first understood its severity.

“We said, ‘what do you mean, there’s no medicine’, ” recalled Rhonda. When they learned about an A-T children’s project in Florida, they got in touch and started contributing through their own fundraisers.

But the loss of Randy isn’t their only heartbreak. Their daughter, Rebecca, was 13 when she died in an ATV accident in 2001.

“It taught us to persevere,” said Conrad.

“The memory, the love that you shared with one another, that is beautiful. That never stops,” said Rhonda. “But it’s a hard experience.”

Rhonda said she has always en-joyed farm life, especially working with animals.

“It started as a child,” she said. “At home, we had a mixed farm and when my parents were milking, I went with them just to see the cows.”

Their son David, 21, has inherited a love of farming. Recently married, he bought his own quarter section of land and works in all aspects of the family farm operation.

“I enjoy it. It’s fun. It’s what I like to do. I’ve been doing it since I was 10. I bought some land of my own and it just keeps you busy, gives you something to look forward to,” said David.

He also shares his parents’ respect for livestock.

“If you don’t like the animals, you just can’t do it. And the animals have to like you back. … You’ve got to treat them with respect, and they’ll treat you with respect.”

Daughter Jennifer, her husband, Gerald, and their three children manage farm property to the west of Hilltop. Jennifer continues to help on the farm, where she has run most of the farm equipment at one time or another. A third daughter, Katie, is a bank branch manager in nearby Lethbridge.

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