Established in 1901, the Stretch Family Farm, located five minutes east of Ponoka on five quarters of land, has been running for six generations strong.
Traditionally raising a commercial herd of both grass-fed and grain-fed Angus and Simmental cattle, the family is now transitioning to a holistic approach to sustainability and biodiversity, while adding nutrients to the soil and continuing to produce high-quality animals.
Primarily run by Randy and Angela Stretch, their daughter Samantha (Sam) and her husband Brennen are now learning the reins. They hope to fully take over operations of the of the farm one day and Sam is brimming with ideas and enthusiasm for the future.
In all they do, their rule stick is “What do we want our family to eat?” and they follow that, said Sam.
After receiving her bachelor of education in Lethbridge she got married and returned to the family farm.
Now she and her husband and their two children all contribute to the daily operations of the farm.
“I’d like to see a point where the kids could take over. That would be really cool,” said Sam.
Sam attended a holistic conference a few years ago where she said she learned “way too many ideas to try.”
Her husband is always telling her to slow down and focus on growing what they already have, she said with a laugh.
One of her passions is diversifying the farm with direct-from-farm sales, which she and Brennen have overseen for the last year. Customers can now purchase goods including whole chickens and a selection of cuts of beef directly from the farm, either through their website or their Facebook page.
With the cost of feed tripling this year, they’ve had to make some changes in order to stay affordable to customers, however, their chickens are still fed as close to organic as possible, said Sam.
Starting a small herd of sheep over the last few years has been a new adventure, said Sam. They now have about 20 sheep and the first finished lambs should be ready for sale come December.
Enriching the soil is a top-priority for the family.
They use rotational grazing and are transitioning a few quarters of their land to organic with no spraying, chemicals or fertilizers.
They have moved away from using Ivomec for parasite treatment for their cattle as well as Sam said residue that returns to the soil can disrupt biodiversity, such as earth worms.
In addition to raising animals, they also have a few crops, including barley and oat mixes and a couple of fields of canola.
They use swath grazing and their cattle stay out in the pasture for most of the year.
To add more nutrients to the soil, they have planted 10 different seeds into their barley field, including peas, radishes and turnips. Peas add nitrogen to the soil and the others are good for cutting down on weeds.
The cows are then turned out on that field during the winter, with the fence moved through the snow a bit more each day. The cows add extra fertilizer to the soil as well.
As most of their crops are used for the cattle, they don’t often need to purchase feed, which is fortunate considering the rising costs.
They rotate their cattle through the fields and then harvest the rest after the animals are done.
In the fall they have a rye field that they calve out on and then harvest the rest.
Sam spoke about the farm with excitement in a rare break in her busy day.
On a typical day, she’s up by about 7 a.m. with the kids. After feeding them breakfast, one of her first tasks is feeding her other young charge, a bottle-feeding calve. Her mother takes care of the chickens.
Her children, aged three and one, come with her when she moves the sheep to new grass every couple of days, and enjoy going out with her, she said.
She may make meat deliveries for the rest of the day, although she added every day on the farm is different from the last.
“It’s constant; there’s always something that needs to be done.”
A common tale with family farms, her father and husband also work off-farm as well to supplement their income, her dad doing construction in the summer months and her husband working in the oilfield.
The goal is to eventually have everyone working back on the farm full-time, she said.
Investing daily to help maintain and grow the family farm she grew up on, where her grandparents still live on the home quarter, Sam believes in the value of generational farming and farmers supporting other farmers.
“I think (family farms) are a huge connection to our history,” said Sam, she said it’s amazing how much is passed from parents to children and how close-knit those families tend to be.
“There’s a lot of knowledge I think that wouldn’t get passed on from generation to generation without the family farm.”
An example of a simple but valuable lesson she learned from her parents was, “Get the job done.”
One of her favourite things about farming is that while it’s competitive, it’s also a community that always has your back when you need it and there’s always more to learn.
“The value of different farmers working together is huge.”