Rural Roots presented by Cam Clark Ford
airdrielife is pleased to bring back Rural Roots, a regular feature on the agricultural community that plays such an important role in the growth and vibrancy that is Airdrie.
When you approach Bob and Norma Bilben’s home off Highway 567, just west of Airdrie, you have to pass between two rows of extremely tall trees. They’ve no doubt stood sentinel off the highway for years, and in many respects they represent how this family has itself stood among Rocky View County’s farming community.
Bob says on his mother’s side, his family has been farming in the region since the late 1800s. “And my dad came from Claresholm and moved up to the Beddington area in the 1940s,” he says. “My dad’s folks purchased my grandmother’s farm on my mother’s side … I guess that’s how they met and why we’re here!”
Norma’s own grandparents homesteaded east of Airdrie, and she and Bob grew up about seven miles apart, becoming sweethearts when they attended George McDougall High School. They’ve now been married 42 years.
The Bilbens, along with their children and in-laws, represent something you aren’t seeing as much of today as you used to: generational farming.
“I grew up on the farm and worked with my dad when I was younger and I guess when we got out of school, we just stayed on the farm,” says Bob.
The couple has three daughters and a son. Holly and her husband, Jason, help with their properties near Airdrie; Carly and her husband, Mike, take care of a property in Big Valley that was purchased seven or eight years ago; Heidi and her husband, Brian, live in Airdrie (“They help us during busy times,” says Norma); and son Cody works in computers, but also helps out on the farm part time.
Bob says altogether, his family owns approximately 7,500 acres, breaking down to about 2,400 around Airdrie, 3,500 at Big Valley, and additional land they lease out. Originally, the home base was closer to Calgary on farmland that is now part of the city’s Beddington region. “We saw an opportunity to expand up to Airdrie, and we [later] had the opportunity to buy the ranch at Big Valley,” Bob says.
Most of the Big Valley operation concentrates on beef cattle, while grain farming is the other main aspect of the family business. “We try to grow malt barley, and that’s a specialized market,” says Bob. “We also try to raise replacement heifers and sell them off and that’s also a bit of a different specialized market.”
With multiple generations of farming behind them, the Bilbens have seen markets rise and fall. “We’re used to that – that’s happened our whole life,” says Bob. “Sometimes you have good markets, sometimes poor markets, and you learn to live with that and you just work around that.
“I think in this area, you have to rely on generations. The land has to be passed down through generations; that’s the only way to keep the farms going because you can’t come in and buy the land, really, and start from scratch … the land is expensive.
We’re fortunate our parents farmed and passed it down to us. Generational farming,” Bob adds.
Community involvement is a traditional part of the farming lifestyle, and the Bilbens are no exception. Bob is currently the president of the Airdrie & District Agricultural Society, which he and Norma joined about 10 years ago after being invited to sign up.
Norma says one of her favourite events hosted by the Ag Society is Art of the Harvest in September, where folks get to see how harvesting was done in days of old. (This year it goes Sept. 17 at the Airdrie Ag Park.)
Bob says farming has been transformed, with new skills and technologies. “The biggest change is probably the way we do our daily business,” he says. “The [machinery] is bigger, computerized, there’s GPS and all the modern mechanisms.”
Adds Norma: “It used to be anyone could jump on a machine and run it, and that’s not the way anymore.” Still, she says, advances have made it at least physically easier to get the work done. “I can remember Dad coming off the combine and being covered in chaff,” she says. “Every time it’s harvest, I sit on the combine and I thank whoever invented the cab. [The chaff] is all swirling around you [outside] and I’m all, ‘I don’t know how my dad did that!’
“Mentally, it’s harder, but boy the physical part of it is a lot easier than it was back then.”
The couple has also been involved in other aspects of community life. Norma, for example, spent more than a half-decade on the board of GoldenRod Community Hall, while Bob’s involvement with the industry side of things saw him serve on the boards of the Balzac Seed Cleaning Plant and Airdrie Gas Co-op, the latter of which supplied propane to the rural area.
“That’s how you get out and meet people,” Bob says of community involvement. “You create a lot of friendships that way.”
Adds Norma: “You like to contribute to your community, to keep it all going. It’s always been important to us. I think over the years it’s changed … now it seems like people are busy running around with their kids and they’re too close to the big centre. It’s harder to get people to commit. People are just busier now.”
Although running a farm is hard work, the Bilbens know the importance of play. Over the winter, you’ll usually find them in Palm Springs, and they’ve also taken a number of “agricultural holidays” through Foothills 4-H, visiting farms from Brazil to Scotland.
Golfing is another passion, and Norma and Bob say they also spend a lot of time with their eight grandchildren.
For the Bilbens, farming is truly in their blood, and they can’t imagine doing anything else.
“Bob has never filled out a resume or had a job interview – there’s not a lot of people who can say that. He loves what he does and never felt the need to pursue anything else,” Norma says.
“What does that tell you about me?” Bob laughs. “It’s a way of life.”