When retired farmers leave the farm

Don and Marie Ruzicka sold their farm and moved into Camrose. They don’t regret making the move.  | Mary MacArthur photo

A couple rented a house in a nearby community while looking for an acreage but discovered that they like living in town

CAMROSE, Alta. — It has been four months since Don and Marie Ruzicka moved off their Killam, Alta., farm to retire in nearby Camrose and there have been no regrets.

What eased the transition was finding the right buyer for their organic farm and being mentally ready to make the transition from farming to retired.

“It was a real nice weaning. If you take it away overnight there will be bawling and I didn’t bawl,” said Don, who thought about selling the farm in 2015 after their century farm celebration.

“I started silently planning how I was going to power down and move on.”

In 2017, they sold their cattle. They also knew their three children were not returning home to take over the 640-acre farm. They wanted to find a buyer who was passionate about organic farming, understood ecosystem services, the importance of habitat for pollinators and a recognition of the value of their native prairie.

Over the years the family planted 100,000 trees to encourage birds and other wildlife in their central Alberta oasis. They taught courses on the farm about the importance of diversity, food security and local food and wanted a buyer who shared their values.

Last year, the Sunrise Community Farm Co-op was formed to raise money to buy their farm and continue to have it as an ecological reserve. COVID-19 halted the co-operative’s meetings and fundraising plans.

Don believes a guardian angel was hovering nearby. On March 4, a couple put an offer on the farm and by May 7 the sale was complete. The Ruzickas moved out of the farmhouse July 2.

“We just had the feeling all the time there was a family meant to buy this farm,” said Marie.

“We found the right people and that is so important,” Don said.

The transition was eased when the buyers encouraged Don to plant a garden and take the extra months to move off the farm.

“Again, picking the potatoes in the garden for the last time was another way of saying goodbye,” he said.

To ease the move from farm to town, the Ruzickas toyed with the idea of buying an acreage. It would allow Don to grow a garden, be outside and stay active. While they looked for the ideal acreage, they rented a house in Camrose. What they discovered is they like living in town.

“If you need something, it is just five minutes in the truck to go and get it. All these years we lived on the farm it was always a trip to town to get groceries,” said Marie.

“I really like living in town,” said Marie, who walks for an hour and a half through Camrose’s extensive walking paths each day for exercise and to explore her new community.

“The feeling of being surrounded by people gives me some comfort. I don’t want to be stuck out in an acreage in the middle of winter when the roads are bad. I am past that stage. I don’t want to have that feeling of being trapped.”

And Don has solved his gardening dilemma by sharing a garden space on an existing acreage near Camrose. He is toying with the idea of starting a gardening project with other gardeners, possibly to supply food to the local food bank or women’s shelter. If things work well, they could buy a large cooler to store the vegetables through the winter. It will also be a way to continue his work raising awareness of local food and food security.

“We could form an extension of community,” he said.

Rules around COVID-19 that limit group activities have put a halt to their plans of volunteering, joining clubs and becoming active in their new community. When farmers move off the farm, their identity is often lost. The couple thought hard about creating a new role in their new life.

“I asked Don, ‘when we leave the farm, my role is not going to change that much because I will still be doing a lot of the same things, but yours will not be the same. Where are you going to find your identity?’ ” Marie said.

Finding an after-the-farm role was important, as was selling the farm to the right buyer key to a smooth move.

“I do not want to leave this farm bitter. We could have sold the farm a few times prior to that, but it just didn’t feel right,” he said.

Keeping existing friends through their church community also helped.

“We were going to church in Daysland and I thought when we move, it would be nice to have some familiarity in our lives. We actually continued going to church in Daysland. That is one concession we did make. We don’t go back to the farm, but we still connect with our former church family and that has been nice,” said Marie.

They also didn’t drag a lifetime’s worth of odds and ends to town. Instead they left pasture poultry sheds, air compressors, welders and other useful farming tools for the new owners rather than holding a garage sale or farm auction.

“I’m a sentimental son of a gun. If I think that lawn mower or sledge hammer is worth what I put on it, I might just be offended if my best friend comes over and says would you take half that,” said Don.

Friends who stopped by as they were cleaning the house and shop also took a few loads to a local women’s shelter.

“If you’re thinking of moving, start cleaning out early. To try and get everything done at the last minute and dump a bunch of stuff on a thrift shop, that’s not fair,” said Marie.

Now that they’re in town, Don ordered kites and during the summer spent time at the park behind the rental house flying kites and enjoying the day.

“I just felt like I was in heaven. I would take a chair and tether one kite to one leg of the chair and have the other one in my hand and think it doesn’t get any better than this.”

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