Rural Roots, Presented by Cam Clark Ford
The concept of the family farm may be fading for some, but for Bob and Ellen Cornish, it’s still going strong.
Since the early 1980s, the couple have farmed four and a half quarter sections just northwest of Airdrie, as well as another three quarters about 15 miles further west. And it’s long been a family affair.
“I was raised here … in fact, I was raised in the house across the road,” says Ellen.
Adds Bob: “I was born on a dairy farm in Crossfield – which is now the golf course. That was Dad’s dream; he sold the land in hopes they’d develop a golf course there, though he never lived to see it.”
So Bob’s dad must have been an avid golfer, then?
“I don’t know if he ever golfed a day in his life!” Bob laughs.
The current economic downturn has changed many lives in Alberta, and that was also true back in 1983 when a bad recession hit the local economy, forcing many to look for new careers.
“Bob’s an electrician, and in those days in the ’80s with the crash, jobs were scarce and my dad had a hired man who chose to leave, so it was an open door for us,” says Ellen. “It was a great place to raise a family. We had to ease into the farming end because it was expensive, but luckily we had equipment.” Ellen says they’ve been full-time farmers since about the early 1990s.
Over time the Cornish farm has evolved. Cattle used to be part of the mix, but aren’t any longer. These days, they focus on growing barley, canola and peas. Bob points to peas as an example of how agriculture is truly an international business.
“Peas are a good rotation crop to get out of the cereals [for a while],” he says. “There’s more being grown this year because the price has been so good – last year, especially.
“A lot of the peas are exported to India … it sometimes takes a disaster somewhere else for us to gain; India has had three years of drought, so their crops are not doing very well over there. They’re big on pulses [dried peas]. It’s a world economy now.”
Looking back on his year in farming, Bob cites the improvements in technology as the biggest change. “Not only with cellphones and computers, but right into the tractor with auto-steer and all that,” he says. “And even on the agronomics side, there are much better tools now to use for determining your soil fertility and all that.”
He also notes the increasing awareness and, for some, concern when it comes to the chemicals used in pesticides. “I had a guy figure out how much chemical is actually used on an acre of land,” Bob says. “The actual active chemical would fill two shot glasses.”
Adds Ellen: “A lot of water is put on with that spray; if we didn’t spray, we wouldn’t have a crop.”
For Ellen, the arrival of big corporate-run farms has meant “the family farm is depleting.”
Fortunately, for the Cornishes, the opposite is true. The couple has four daughters, all of whom still have some involvement. One daughter, Jacelyn, who works for UFA in Calgary, married Greg Rohleder and they live across the road from Bob and Ellen.
“[Greg] has worked with us for five or six years,” says Ellen. “He was not born on a farm, but he’s learned lots, and he’s done very well. He’s considering to carry it on.”
Adds Bob: “I certainly feel like a mentor to Greg. He’s a good student; he has the aptitude to farm.”
Another daughter, Careen, married Geoff Rohleder (Greg’s brother) and they and their children live on the Cornishes’ second property to the west. Denise and Mike Deere live in Airdrie and she helps out when she can. Their youngest, Ashley, and husband, Tom Callahan, recently started a home on a piece of the Cornish land.
Ellen says one of her grandchildren, eight-year-old Justice, “wants to take over the farm! She’s very keen.”
Beyond their own farm, Bob and Ellen have volunteered for years with the Airdrie & District Agricultural Society, with Bob a past president as well as current Art of the Harvest chair, and Ellen recently serving as chair of the Fall Fair committee. In 2013, the couple were presented with Honourary Life Membership Awards by the Alberta Association of Agricultural Societies for their efforts with the Ag Society, which included being on the ground floor when the society supported the construction of the Ron Ebbesen Arena and launching the annual Art of the Harvest event that recreates how harvesting was done in years gone by.
“I was approached by a good friend, a fellow I graduated with,” Bob recalls. “The Ag Society was struggling and at that time the City had approached them to help build the [Ebbesen] twin arena as the society had access to some funding the City couldn’t get. We went to a meeting and they said we’d either have to fold the Ag Society or take on this project, and it went from there.”
Ellen says, although it’s a continual struggle to get volunteers, “if anything, we’ve gained some great friendships” through the Ag Society.
So is farming the ultimate homebased business?
“It is a great lifestyle,” Bob says. “We aren’t nailed to an 8-to-5 day. Some days are 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., but it’s seasonal when that happens; you can live with it. Through the winter and even the summer, we pick our hours, though we still have repairs to do and yards to look after.”
It’s not completely accurate to say farmers are their own bosses, though, notes Ellen. “The weather is really more the boss,” she says. “But with no cattle we’re a little bit freer in the winter. And our grandkids can’t wait for the combines to get going so they can get a ride.”
Photos: Bob and Ellen Cornish Greg Rohleder (tall guy, son-in-law), Jacelyn Rohleder (daughter), Owen Rohleder (grandson) Hunter (dog)