May 15th, 2015 found us on a journey to the Bar U Ranch National Historic Site south of Longview, Alberta. Trucks, trailers, people, horses and farm equipment descended on the ranch for the spring planting of a barley crop. It wasn’t just any barley crop—this harvest was going to be brewed into the first batch of Single Malt Whiskey at the Eau Claire Distillery in Turner Valley, Alberta. Farming with horses is a ton of fun on a normal day. There seemed to be an extra buzz in the air on this particular weekend because we were taking part in the creation of a horse-farmed whiskey. Walking through the field where the grain was planted or holding a handful of the barley seed just before it was seeded in the dirt really made us feel like we were doing something special. Wherever possible, Eau Claire Distillery sources local Alberta products to produce their spirits and the barley we were planting came from a local farmer. Although it would be at least three years before we’d have a chance to taste the fruits of our labor, we were going to be part of a true Farm to Glass experience!
Mother Nature received her invitation to the spring planting. As you know, she always likes to be the center of attention and will come blasting into the room with a performance that leaves people talking.
Friday was mostly arrival and set-up day. The horses were hitched and the first implements into the field were the plows where the boys played around with set-ups and turned some dirt. Some folks brought their RVs and some of us camped on the floor in the Ranch house. On Friday night, we ended up around the wood burning fireplace in the Ranch house swapping stories and catching up after a long winter. The weather forecast wasn’t looking great but we had come to plant a crop and there was no doubt the gang that had gathered was determined to get it done.
It started raining early Saturday morning, but people, horses and even some mules continued to arrive throughout the day. It was too wet and cold to work in the field so a bunch of us hung out in the Ranch house. We drank some beers, swapped lies, pooled our groceries and shared a couple of great meals. We had a lot of field work left to do before we could even think of seeding, but everyone remained optimistic it would get done. Now it is 2:30 a.m. Sunday morning and it had just started to snow outside. It was time to crawl into bed, say a prayer and pull the covers over our heads. Damn Mother Nature and her party crasher ways.
Amazingly, we were able to start in the fields by noon on Sunday. I spent the day taking photos, sharing home-baked treats with the boys in the field and enjoying the fresh air. Dale told me early that morning to make sure I got some horse time, but when the end of the day came, I had been too busy to make that happen. Dale was wearing one of those Fitbits which tracks his steps and activity. I know we’ve all heard someone say “I sure put on a lot of miles today.” It was 6 p.m., the field was empty and everyone was shutting it down for the evening. I’m wandering around the equipment and horse trailers when Dale sees me and waves me over. He tells me he’s going to hitch Hank and Pete and I’m going to drive. Dale had been on the go since arriving at the Bar U Ranch. And he has the Fitbit data to prove it—he has walked 12.37 miles. I know he’s tired, hungry and living off the energy in the chocolate chip cookies I’ve fed him all day but he insists I’m going to make a couple passes in the field. He hooks up to the Pioneer Footlift Plow and away we go to the dirt.
I should learn to relax when someone introduces me to a new piece of equipment, but inevitably I have a moment of “can I handle this?” panic. I follow along beside Dale for a few feet and he shows me how to operate it. It looks simple enough, but I’m nervous, as usual. He tells me to get my “man voice” ready and I crawl aboard the seat and give my first command to Hank and Pete. Nothing happens. They know Dale is there and they are listening for his voice. I give them the start command again and nothing. I can’t remember which four-letter profanity tumbled off Dale’s tongue but it was followed by a “yaw-come” and Hank and Pete immediately stepped up. Dale walks along side me for the first pass and when he suggests I go it alone, I won’t let him leave. I know he’s wasted and his legs are sore, but I’m selfishly feeling safer having him walk by my side. My furrows weren’t very straight, but we made a few passes, practiced a couple starts and stops and then called it a day. With the experience I have gained since that day, I laugh at myself for being so intimidated and afraid of trying the plow but I guess we all have to start somewhere.
Victoria Day Holiday Monday was an early start and the skies had cleared. The mountains to the west of the ranch were dusted with snow and it was a beautiful backdrop to our farming day. At the height of activity during the weekend, we had 32 horses and 8 mules working in the field. There were plows, harrows and finally a seeder working to get the crop in the ground. I met Cliff and Bonnie, who had travelled from Vanderhoof, BC to help with the spring planting. I spent most of my time that weekend socializing with everyone and wandering around the fields. Bonnie and I were walking around having a visit when she asked if I wanted to drive their team. They knew I didn’t have horses and Cliff had told her to ask if I’d like to drive his team of Belgians. The most wonderful perk of getting to know a teamster is his or her willingness to share the love of their hobby. The Belgians were named Barney and Buster and I’m sure they were close to being the tallest team we had on site that weekend. I spent the next two hours pulling the harrows around the field under Cliff’s watchful eye—he rode shotgun with me the whole time. My confidence grew a lot that day and I learned a few new skills. What I remember the most when I climbed off the forecart that afternoon was that I had finally relaxed. My arm muscles didn’t hurt and I wasn’t sweating behind the knees. I was a long way from feeling comfortable enough to drive alone, but I was starting to realize that yes, I could do this! It was an awesome weekend in the life of a farm girl from Rowley, Alberta!