Surviving and thriving in last year’s country

Dianne Westerlund is a great example of a return to rural success. Like so many young people she left the farm, went away to university but knew her heart was in agriculture.  That love brought her back home.  For 34 years she has managed the Chinook Applied Research Association (CARA), serving the people of the municipality of Special Areas and the MD of Acadia in the east central part of Alberta.  

Forward thinking farmers and ranchers in the Special Areas could see that applied research and extension for the particular conditions of east central Alberta would increase producer productivity and the resilience of the rural community. So CARA was formed in 1979 and Westerlund was hired as their first summer student in 1980.  She graduated the following year and came back intending to work for another summer.  When the general manager left later that year she was hired for the position.

CARA is the link between the research and the producers.  In an area of about five million acres of cultivated land and native grass and about five thousand people, folks think Westerlund’s roots in the community give her a better understand of their needs.

She acknowledges managing an extension organization in Special Areas brings environmental challenges and perhaps some social and cultural challenges not found in other parts of Alberta.  “Agriculture in the semi-arid conditions of the Pallister Triangle is difficult.  It’s not just low moisture conditions, but the soils have lower fertility.  Solonetzic soils are challenge,” says Westerlund. 

“A conservation attitude has had to be ingrained in production strategies. We are always just a month away from a drought. This year has been a real attitude adjustment after a few good years,” says Westerlund.

Westerlund says, “Our farms and ranches are getting bigger but often doing that means competing with outside investment which has been increasing land prices.  It’s difficult getting skilled help to keep those operations running.  Increased size also means a decreasing population.” 

Westerlund encourages producers to get involved in the Alberta Agriculture Agri-Profits program to understand what their cost of production is.  “Producers tend to underestimate the weight of their cows and overestimate weight of their bales,” she says.  

Knowing production costs has encouraged producers to utilize grazing stock piled native and tame grass or swath grazing annual crops to lower costs of wintering their cows.  “There’s always room for improvement in most people’s operations, says Westerlund. In a year like this where Mother Nature is holding tight to her resources what you did last year has a huge impact on what you can do this year”.  As she makes the statement it’s easy to hear the passion she has for her work and for the area.

Westerlund sees issues on the horizon for producers in the Special Areas. “Forage production on native range is limited by genetic capacity.  We can improve production capacity on tame forage to some degree. However, limited resources are being put into their genetic improvement.  The public system supporting that research has been pulled back.  However we can still improve grazing management,” she says.

Westerlund is of two minds on the increasing scrutiny of agricultural production and use of lease land.  She notes most of the producers she works with are not very comfortable taking on a agricultural ambassador role.  However she says she sees that changing a bit with younger producers and their adoption of social media.  She speculates there might be a role for smaller operations in developing and maintaining a closer relationship with consumers and developing niche markets. A pro-active approach will be important for those involved in the industry. 

Westerlund grew up in a family with deep roots in the Special Areas and a determination to make it.  Her grandparents on the Rude side settled southwest of Sedalia, Alberta in 1912. Her brother still farms that land. When asked why the Rudes stayed when so many left, Westerlund says, “Determination and a strong desire to farm.  It wasn’t an easy time.”  

A Hereford theme runs through Westerlund’s life. Her dad always had Herefords as does her brother now. Her first CARA chair was Murray Huston, a well known Hereford breeder in Alberta, and then she married into a family who raises purebred Herefords.   Her husband’s family, the Westerlunds, moved into the Esther area in the early 1910’s and were one of the families that stuck it out.  

Westerlund and husband, Tim, raise purebred Herefords under the Diamond T brand and keep a commercial herd. They have focused on raising cattle and  have no acres dedicated to annual cropping..  Their annual grazing system includes the use of tame pasture in the spring and early summer while native pastures are typically left until into the summer and fall.  Westerlunds have taken a conservative approach towards both timing and stocking rates on their native prairie pastures.  Managing to make sure over grazing doesn’t happen has ensured adequate forage is available in years like this. How native range is managed this year has a huge impact on next year’s grazing program.

Both their children have finished university degrees.  Katelyn is now a practicing chiropractor and Levi just finished a business degree in Texas.  Both were active in 4-H balancing those activities with sports like baseball and taekwondo which meant parents driving hundreds of miles a year.  Westerlund was an assistant leader of the East Sounding Creek Beef 4-H club for 20 some years and continues to be an enthusiastic supporter of the movement.

Westerlund is also a big supporter of the Return to Rural.  Although there are certainly challenges in the Special Areas she sees some terrific success stories with young women and men coming back to run successful business in the area.  “There are amazing young people coming into agriculture, Westerlund says, if you have your feet firmly on the ground there are great opportunities.”

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