In Alberta’s Special Areas, there are places where a person can stand in one spot and slowly turn full circle seeing nothing but horizon. On a bluebird day it feels a bit like gazing into infinity. And that’s a rare thing in this mostly crowded world. But, this place is exceptional.
This is a place where there’s still room to roam. And, of course, the modern day way to roam is to take a road trip.
Jumping in a vehicle and heading out on a road trip along the Range and Township Roads that plot The Special Areas north, south, east and west is like being set adrift in a sea of sky. The only wake left behind is a cloud of dust and a brief woosh of air through the stubby, beige grasslands. This is a flat earth place. It’s easily baked bone dry by hot summer sun and ever present wind. The ancient alkali lakes that dot the area are a testimony to these powerful forces.
John Palliser wrote this place off. This area is the northern tip of his “Palliser’s Triangle”. This is the land he surveyed for the Canadian Government and declared as semi arid desert and most certainly not arable or inhabitable.
But, explored in its depth and breadth, this southeast central chunk of Alberta is not all starkness. There are clusters of soft round hills and deeply etched coulees. The graceful curves of the Red Deer River cut a wide swath along its southern border. Saskatchewan lies east. Alberta Highway 12 runs as straight as the crow flies for an east to west northern border. And, on the western side, there’s a more subtle but hugely important demarcation.
Here, there’s a crucial shift in terrain. The fields to the west are more fertile. The soil is black and the crops dense. There’s a transition from Bald Prairie to Parkland stands of Spruce and Aspen and healthy shelterbelts surrounding farms. It’s easy to see where precipitation starts and stops.
Where it stops is this five million acre spread of land known as Alberta’s Special Areas. Some would argue that the 5000 people who call this home are Alberta’s toughest. Like their homesteader ancestors who arrived here in the early 1900s, they work hard to make a living from this place. And, they’ve got a better chance since it was deemed The Special Areas. Only by understanding the history of this place can you understand the designation.
Designating the Special Areas
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the government of Canada was determined to populate the west. There was a great fear of losing a vast swath of land owned by the Hudson’s Bay to the U.S. Then known as Rupert’s Land, that land is now Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
So, the Government bought that land from Hudson’s Bay for $100,000. They then invested heavily in marketing “free land” in the U.K. and eventually Eastern Europe.
Homesteaders came in dribs, drabs and eventually droves. They got off trains and made their way to Land Titles offices. There, they registered their claims for 160 acre quarter sections of land under a legislation known as the Dominion Lands Act. Approximated 1300 teams surveyed and measured off 1,110,000 quarter sections. Canada transferred 178 million acres of land. There’s never been anything else like it.
The pioneers may have only paid $10 to register but their claim came with rigid expectations. They needed to clear at least 30 acres of the land, build a dwelling and harvest a crop within three years or they risked getting turfed off the property. The homesteaders did not get to inspect the properties before they picked from the grid of thousands of quarter sections on the map in the office. They sealed their fate blindly.
And the Catch 22 was, despite marketing that promised rich fertility, the soil quality was not equal throughout the lands being parceled out. The farming methods of the day, ploughing or “sod busting”, produced crops for a few years when rains happened to be good. But then, when the true desert-like conditions of the area prevailed, nothing would grow. And, soil began to drift away. By 1926, there were 450,000 acres of abandoned land.
During the “dirty thirties” the poor farming practices of the early settlers led to widely destructive dust storms and further erosion. Photos show swirling tornado size clouds of black engulfing everything in their path. Dunes of sand are found pel mel throughout the region to this day.
So many settlers were behind in their taxes, the situation became desperate. A solution was needed. Acts regarding the drought and debt relief were passed. Settlers were able to leave their land debt-free and start again. The land was reclaimed by the government.
Reclaiming the Land
A board to administer what became known as The Special Areas was formed in 1938. Farmers were offered the option to relocate or to stay and be moved to equal or better lands. Lands that were abandoned were reclaimed to be overseen by The Special Areas board. Slowly but surely they’ve been rehabilitated.
The area gradually went from an overpopulation (based on an area’s ability to provide a living on the land) of around 30,000 people to its current status of around 5000. It went from the attempt to cultivate crops on land that was never meant for it to the replanting of grasses and community leased grazing lands for cattle.
Highway 9 along the south of the area is the main route for travellers from Calgary to Saskatoon. Highway 12 along the north, is the route for central Albertans. Most people drive through The Special Areas without a thought for this land and its people.
But, as retention of rural life has become a focus for the area, there are many things here worth taking a dally or a detour for. Some of the best have to do with the hard won food grown, made and/or enjoyed here. A person will do well to taste The Special Areas and the entrepreneurs shaping it’s flavour now.
One family of entrepreneurs here pioneered beef direct sales to consumer. TK Ranch is based a few kilometers from Spondin near Hanna in The Special Areas. TK grows Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Grass Fed, pasture-raised, organic beef, chicken, eggs and pork. It has taken a tremendous application of know-how for this to happen. It’s taken the ability to take a fresh look at old ways. And, that approach started with the founder of the ranch.
Thomas Koehler (TK) Biggs, an American and MIT graduate, bought the ranch in 1956. He arrived in December and surprised all the neighbours by weathering out one of the longest, coldest winters on the books. He took it in stride because he had expected this was how all Canadian winters would be.
His family says marrying a local rancher’s daughter, Mary Hallet, was the key to his survival. Mary, along with being an artist, carried water, canned thousands of jars of vegetables, fruit, chicken, beef and pork every year, cooked meals from scratch on a wood stove and appreciated a well broken horse. But, TK also had the distinct advantage of being a greenhorn at ranching. Not buried in the old ways, he questioned things and was open to new ideas. That trait was passed along.
Today, TK’s son Dylan and his wife Colleen plus their daughter Jocelyn and her husband Andre Voortman run an expanded version of the ranch. Their model is unique in that they steward the land and raise animals in what’s known as a vertical integration system. From birth to plate they are responsible for every aspect of the quality.
Being grass-fed and finished, their cattle spend almost three years getting to a weight and fat composition that grain-finished feedlot beef gets to in half the time. They invest that time to avoid the use of hormones, antibiotics, gmo feed, animal byproducts and ionophores that the industrial system may or may not use.
They’ve spent years working through red tape to build a government inspected and approved slaughter house on the ranch and their own meat processing facility in Chestermere near Calgary. All this effort is to ensure both animal welfare and nutrient density in the food they produce.
The ranch is large. “Currently it’s about 9000 acres. We have 240 cow/calf pairs and 550 grass cattle,” says Dylan. About 40 acres is needed for one cow/calf pair due to the challenges in growing adequate forage. Colleen Biggs says, “Most years are dry so the ranch can only sustain 250 cows on 10,000 acres.”
Getting down and digging in the earth, one finds a lot of it is Solonetzic soil. Dylan Biggs says, “(That means) there’s only three to four inches of topsoil covering (impermeable) hard pan. One can only imagine the back-breaking toil of early settlers who piled the rocks we now see as old fence lines. They did it all by hand in attempts to clear the land and sink a plough through it. Here you one can see how cruel the luck of the draw allotment of supposed farm lands could be.”
Looking even further back, the migratory nature of the Indigenous People can be traced through the remains of TeePee rings throughout the property. Dylan’s trained eye can also make out the ancient bison migration routes.
With millions of the animals living on the great grasslands of North America, the First People used to mark the size of a herd by how many days it took to walk past them. They were known as Thundering Ground because of the sensation they created when on the move. It’s no wonder their paths can still be traced.
The Great Outdoors
Animals left in the great outdoors are proving to be healthier. So, Jocelyn Biggs and Andrew Voortman raise their pigs and chickens on pasture – literally. In the backyard of their old but solidly built farmhouse, they’ve replaced the dual-pitch roof of an aged and greying red barn to house their meat and laying chickens. The fowl have free run to the outdoor grass with protective wiring to keep predators at bay. The fresh hay and frequent cleaning result in a rare thing. There’s no odour of ammonia here or in the pig yard either.
The pig pens are a little drive up the property. Lean-to shelters provide shade and windbreak for sows and their litters. Berkshire, Duroc, Tamworth and Large Black pigs root in and roll on the earth and mud when they aren’t napping on stacks of hay or enjoying fresh water or feed. Always curious, they know Jocelyn means TLC and gather around her wherever she goes.
People can buy TK’s naturally raised products through their webstore and at organic markets throughout the province. To buy directly from farmers in The Special Areas, Friday morning in Oyen is a good place to be.
The Oyen Farmers’ Market
The Oyen Arena hosts a myriad of vendors for the Oyen and District Farmers’ Market weekly. Prairie View and Acadia Valley Hutterite colonies have tables piled with perfectly washed and bundled vegetables. The town’s church groups share the opportunity to raise funds with their baking by rotating who fills a table each month. Stacks of homemade bread, brownies, fudge, cookies and those ubiquitous Prairie favourites – squares and dainties – sell quickly. Old settler ways persist and canning and preserving skills now result in ways to add value to farm income.
Anchor of Hope Ranch’s Lynn Crossman sells jams from fruits she’s grown or foraged. This lamb and goat rancher’s offerings include High Bush Cranberry, Nanking Cherry, Chokecherry, Violet Jelly and Strawberry, Apricot, Plum and Raspberry Jams. As the season progresses, more vendors arrive to make this market a happening spot for The Special Areas. And, all summer long there’s something special steeping down in Acadia Valley.
Elevators and Eaton’s
Lorrain Kuhn and her family grow grain on a whopping 50,000 acres around the Acadia Valley section of The Special Areas. On a field laying just north of the town road, a close to the ground green plant with pale yellow flowers looks ready for take off as the late June sun beats down on it.
Mrs. Kuhn confirms it’s not the ubiquitous canola but instead a cousin in the Brassica family – yellow mustard. Canada grows enormous amounts of the stuff and it does well in this part of the region. “Our family has been growing here for over 100 years now. We keep adapting with the times. This year we’re growing nine different crops,” she explains.
The Kuhn’s have a sense of belonging to this community. Mrs. Kuhn and other elders have knowledge of the history of the families that have succeeded here. Love of this place inspired her to spearhead a historical society to save and restore Acadia Valley’s grain elevator.
Originally one of three, this elevator was built in 1968 after its 1920 predecessor burnt. Standing over 100 feet tall, painted in the patented green of grain elevators, this monolithic building is a reminder of the prosperity of the Hamlet. The tradition of delivering the annual harvest to the elevator for weighing and storage was one of the most joyous times of the year.
Interpretive signage in the Prairie Elevator Museum, Tea House and Museum explain how these pillars of the Prairies were built. Touring inside one marvels at the strength of the stacked lumber, overlapping at corners, and unyielding after decades. Using gravity, buckets and pulleys to first store then transfer grain to trains saved back breaking work for farmers and kept trains on time. Trains were the lifeblood of commerce. One could even buy a home and have it delivered by train. And, that’s another part of the museum.
Across the yard from the elevator lies a two storey home that was actually ordered from the Eaton’s mail order catalogue in the 1920s. Fully furnished with artifacts of the era, the main floor now serves as a Tea House during summer months.
Visitors can enjoy tea, sandwiches, homemade pie and dainties and smoothies and ice cream too. And just so people don’t leave thinking this impressive home was the way of life for all, back across the yard is a homesteader’s “shack” that Mrs Kuhn is equally proud of.
Opening the door reveals a bed, desk, stove and wash stand plus a little loft for any children to sleep in. This and four thin walls was great progress for most. “Entering this one room home gives you a better idea of what most people lived like once they graduated from a sod home,” says Mrs. Kuhn. From this history lesson to lessons in modern day farming operations, one can travel north to Altario.
K to 12 lessons in Agriculture
In Altario, the Altario School is a School of Excellence featuring a student-led farm. A barn lies out the back door. A small field and former skating rink turned garden round out the living classrooms. Principal Kevin Van Legan relays, “Students apply for jobs on the farm and do their chores the first 20 minutes of each school day. Calves, chickens and pigs are raised and sold at the end of the school year in a fundraising auction. Money is used to improve the facilities. The reason it works is that it’s entirely student led, not teacher-led.”
The next improvement slated is an in-school store to sell products from the farm. There’ll be eggs and frozen meat. And, the store will also be a chance to involve and support local food entrepreneurs from Altario and nearby Kirrimuir and Consort. One such group is known as the KAC food hub.
The KAC Food Hub
The KAC (Kirrimuir, Altario and Consort) Food Hub consists of a few women entrepreneurs working together to bring the food they create to market. Tasha van Staden is a South African immigrant living in Kirrimuir. She bakes beyond beautiful treats. Nataliia Mantsybora, Iryna Mazur and Tetiana Shkolnik are Ukrainian immigrants who started Smachno (the Ukrainian word for delicious). Former professionals in their own country, they now make traditional Ukrainian breads, pierogies, pelmeni (dumplings), nalysnyky, cabbage rolls and sweets. The final member of the KAC group is Jinel Ference of Kirrimuir’s Double F Farms. She’s adding value to the beef her family raises by taking custom orders and by creating pepperoni and jerky under the brand Meat and Co.
Hamlets like Altario embrace entrepreneurs and efforts to keep their school as keys to rural rejuvenation. Beloved eateries contribute to community spirit as well.
Just off the highway in Consort is The CCR Restaurant and Bar. Under the direction of Head Chef Shania Scammell, who previously worked in Banff’s prestigious RimRock resort, the food is straight up delish. The meat for their famously juicy steaks and handheld burgers comes from nearby Provost and Brownfield. Cheese is sourced from Vermillion. The interior feels a bit like a barn warming party meets Scottish distillery with warm brown woods and a glistening wall of whiskies to whet one’s whistle. The former home of singer K.D. Lang, Consort’s CCR is a great stop off for sojourners through The Special Areas on Highway 12.
And south on Highway 9, Youngstown holds the hidden gem eatery worth the stop. Small World Cafe is owned by locals Lester Klassen and his father-in-law Ian Goodbrand. Open for coffee, lunch and snacks daily, the home-cooked goodies are made by popular branding-time cook Diane Nelson. Homemade soups, sandwiches and oreos (aka whoopie pies) plus a place for this community of 150 to gather were the goals of the owners. And, if some passersby frequent the place it’ll only make the community stronger.
Roamers with a sweet tooth will also enjoy a stop in Hanna. Paulanna Baking not only serves fresh baking, they also source fresh vegetables and have created a mini market for people to access local. The Visitor Information Centre in Hanna also sells hard ice cream. Always a great reason to take a break no matter whether you are starting or finishing your trip.
Back from Beyond
Before leaving The Special Areas, you might take some treats to go and literally head for its few hills. The Neutral Hills and the Mud Buttes are places that naturally take you to a higher ground. No matter what’s going on in your life, a little quiet time to think with the wind blowing the cobwebs from your mind and the land laid out before you will take you beyond your current cares.
Driving back from beyond, anyone who visits Alberta’s Special Areas will know their value to the rest of the world. The deer and the Pronghorn Antelope still play on these plains. The world’s diminishing native Prairie grasslands are hanging on here. Cattle graze. Grains are grown where they will. But most importantly, the perseverance of the people, their friendliness and the pride they take in helping one another are what truly make Alberta’s Special Areas one of the last great places to roam.
About the Author: Karen Anderson
Karen Anderson is founder and president of Alberta Food Tours. She is also a food journalist who has written for radio, television, print and new media including CBC Radio, PBS-TV, Apple Magazine, City Palate, Avenue and WestJet magazines. She’s an IPPY and Taste Canada award-winning cookbook author for A Spicy Touch – Family Favourites from Noorbanu Nimji’s Kitchen with her late Indian cooking mentor Noorbanu Nimji and a World Gourmand travel writing award winner for Food Artisans of Alberta.