In a bad year, the Great White Combine does a good chunk of the harvesting in Hailstorm Alley — a little pocket of central Alberta that sees more than its fair share of hail.
And there have been more bad years than good in John Mills’ farming career.
“I’ve been back on the farm for 10 years, and we’ve had hail every year,” said Mills, who operates Eagle Creek Farms near Bowden with his father Stan.
“Not every year has it been devastating, but last year was absolutely devastating. It flattened the farm to the ground. We didn’t harvest anything for two weeks after that while the crops recovered.”
But the Mills family has managed to weather those storms — and even prosper despite them.
“We’re quite diversified, and that’s fortunate,” said Mills. “If we were just focused on one crop, the hail might have wiped us out. Since we’re doing a number of different things, we’re still here standing today.”
Diversification isn’t a new notion at Eagle Creek Farms, which was settled by John’s great-grandfather in 1921.
“My father’s always been experimenting with other crops, so we’ve always had a bit of diversity on the farm,” said Mills, noting his dad was one of the first producers of seed potatoes in the province.
When Mills came back to the farm, the family decided to pare back their seed potato business, and put those acres into a sunflower maze, U-pick operation, and vegetable patch.
Now, the family grows around 40 acres of vegetables and 30 acres of seed potatoes — as well as some grain — as “insurance” against whatever Mother Nature throws at them.
“We’re spread over about a mile and a half now. We’re not only diversifying the number of crops we have for security, but also the land base.”
Even so, Mills knew early on there would be a limit as to how much he could expand his maze and U-pick operation.
“We’re out in the boonies here,” he said with a laugh. “We’re not really close proximity-wise to a big city. In our best year, we might have attracted around 9,000 people to the farm through festivals. A corn maze around Calgary will get upwards of 100,000 people.”
With a wife and three small kids, Mills found hosting festivals to be a “big drain” on his time, and he wanted a better way to support his family — his primary goal when he returned to the farm.
So Mills shifted his focus to vegetables and started a community-supported agriculture program five years ago.
“How we grew from three acres of U-pick to 40 acres of vegetables was through community-supported agriculture,” he said. “The idea is that families that want to support small, local farms invest in the small, local farms. They give the money up front, and in return, the farm harvests and provides food to those families.”
Every week, Mills delivers between seven and nine different vegetables to around 370 families in Calgary that have bought a share in his program. And while the customers get a share in the bounty, they also share in the risk — a real benefit to Mills in years like the last one.
“Last year when we had the hail, there was a week where we didn’t deliver anything to our share families,” said Mills. “The people who signed up for this community-supported agriculture program understood that that was part of the risk. They wanted to support local farms, whether in good times or bad times.
“If we were selling in a farmers’ market, like many of our neighbours were who were devastated by hail, when they had no product to sell, they had no income, but they still had all the expenses.”
By sharing the financial risk with his customers, Mills has been able to diversify and expand his operation quicker than he ever expected when he started farming full time a decade ago.
“With the CSA model, there was room for me to go from three acres up to 40 acres in a matter of three years. It was a way that I could expand the farm in a hurry and generate the income.”