Off farm work keeps family operation humming

Ken Stasiuk makes sure his equipment is ready for the remaining harvest. He and his wife, Connie, operate a farm near Rochester, Alta. |  Karen Morrison photo

Daughters say they value the rural lifestyle and are exploring possibilities to ensure a long life for the Stasiuk farm

ROCHESTER, Alta. — Ken and Connie Stasiuk kick started the next generation’s foray into agriculture with the gift of a quarter section of their land.

The recipients are their daughter, Kendra Stasiuk, and her husband, James Hoetmer, who operate a 2,500 hive apiary in a region known for beekeeping near Rochester, Alta.

“When the kids got married, we didn’t want them to start out with a big mortgage so we gave them this quarter of land, with the promise I get to farm it until I retire,” said Ken, who currently grows canola and barley on his adjacent five quarters.

“If it was offered to me, it would have made a difference in my life,” said Ken, who like his wife, has worked on and off farm through the years.

“We had to work our way from the bottom up to get to where we are today,” said Ken.

His descendents came from Ukraine to Saskatchewan and eventually settled in Alberta.

Ken trained as a millworker but returned to help run the family farm.

Currently, Connie is the principal at the Rochester school and Ken builds houses, with both noting how off farm jobs gave them cash flow for the family and farm.

“We’re not afraid to try anything,” said Connie, whose past jobs have ranged from hair dressing to cosmetology to counselling.

Ken said growing up with little money meant creating his own toys, solving problems and buying and repairing used equipment.

For Connie, her choice of a busy lifestyle comes from losing a sister at a young age. Ken, at age 18, also lost his father.

“There’s not a moment to be wasted,” Connie said. “We see that today is to be lived.”

Ken conceded he is old school when it comes to farming, using well-used equipment and continuing to summer fallow.

“My dad said the land needs a rest,” he said, citing benefits in rejuvenating bacteria in the soil and cleaning out weeds.

Ken said he grew canola without fertilizer and got 60 bu./acre yields in past, a number he expected would go higher this fall due to good moisture.

The family all helped during the Hoetmer Honey Company’s early days, with James and Ken building the young couple’s plant and home.

Today the operation relies on as many as 16 workers in the busy summer months.

“At the beginning, it was hard to get local kids as it’s only July and August and university age ones want longer employment,” Kendra said.

James became interested in apiaries while working for others and has swiftly increased his operation by buying out other local beekeepers. He sells product internationally from his CFIA and True Source Honey certified plant.

The hives sit at 80 rural locations, with those farmers receiving honey as payment for the use of their farmland.

He enjoys working with bees and as part of a team.

“You are working hard but enjoying the work and those you are working with,” said James.

The Stasiuks’ daughter, Kelsey Stasiuk, who currently lives on her husband Mike Balascak’s family farm nearby, shares the two families’ interest in farming. The newlywed is considering some kind of farming setup with her sister to keep the Stasiuk farm going well into the future.

“Kendra and I have common goals and value of the land and we want to keep the farm in the family,” she said.

Like their parents, both daughters work off farm: Kendra as a chartered accountant and Kelsey as a graphics designer.

Kelsey said her parents gave the sisters an appreciation of farm life and encouraged them to embrace higher education but they always knew the farm was also an option.

“You can leave and come back. There is always a place for us here,” said Kelsey, who recently attended an Advancing Women in Agriculture conference with Connie to explore the many roles for farm women.

Ken recalled how his family scrambled to regroup after his father’s death.

“When he passed, we had no idea because Dad had taken care of everything,” he said.

By contrast, the Stasiuks share details of the family farm.

“We talk with the kids about everything,” said Connie.

“It’s very important to share information,” said Kendra, whose work as a chartered accountant shows her the difficulties families encounter when settling farm estates.

“With us, we know if it’s worth carrying on on the farm. With others, they see the hard work but don’t see that it’s actually making money,” she said.

“It’s a huge benefit. We know what we’re signing up for,” said Kendra, who does accounting work for her parents’ and her own farm operations.

Both she and James agree that her profession is an asset to the business. While such off farm jobs have added to the workload over the years, everyone has pitched in at busy times on a family farm that once included mixed livestock. The Stasiuks cut back to just crops after BSE and the trend to different cattle breeds.

“I said something has to go,” said Ken.

Connie noted her family’s support for her current work, which allows her to teach and administer a small rural school like the one she attended and to stay in her community.

“I couldn’t have done it without Ken’s support and encouragement,” said Connie.

“I grew up on a small farm and I figured out in Grade 2 what would set me apart was education. My brain needed to learn,” she said.

Her counselling work has also revealed that many challenges in mental health begin in the school years.

“I decided that maybe if I could use the counselling perspective – holistic, mental, wellness perspective, that maybe I could help with skills, tools and strategies to prevent some of the things we deal with in later life,” Connie said.

Ken calls agriculture a great release from the business of life.

“It’s satisfying to be out there and to see what I can grow,” he said.

Connie said farming has never been about the money for them, but the chance to enjoy the privacy and open spaces provided by a lifestyle in rural Alberta.

“It’s been the bonus to whatever we have done.”

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