“This is the roots of agriculture. People need to see where our food comes from.”
It’s not every day you see a mule on a treadmill. And even dear Molly is hesitant at first. But her owner knows just how to coax this vision in white … in his calloused hands, which reflect a lifetime of work as a hog farmer on the outskirts of Airdrie, he holds some oat seeds for Molly.
It’s the annual Art of the Harvest, a free family event put on by the Airdrie and District Agricultural Society, and Molly has an important job to do. She’s here to churn ice cream for the gathered crowds. She also has an oat addiction.
Tentatively, she puts one hoof, then another, on the treadmill ramp. Farmer Joe Jeffray speaks gently to his partner, tempting her with the oats. Up she goes and her nose sinks into the palm of his hand. While she chomps away, Jeffray sets the machine in motion and Molly the Mule starts walking.
Nearby, other Ag Society volunteers have dumped cream, vanilla essence and other ingredients into a metal container surrounded by ice. While Molly treads happily, unfazed by all the attention, a crank turns, a paddle spins, and voilà, ice cream happens! Delicious too, say the lucky visitors.
Molly’s magic is but one attraction at the event, which brings together people tall and small, as the organizers like to say.
“We’re reliving a piece of life that’s long gone,” says Jeffray. “We get lots of grandparents who want to show their grandkids, and great grandkids even!”
Aside from Molly, Jeffray will also transport over his Belgian heavy horse teams, a gigantic vintage thresher and a huge wooden wagon. Neighbour Tom Erdman, a.k.a. “Tractor Tom,” will bring his antique tractor and potato plough.
Visitors can watch the farmers bring in the harvest using only horses and the old-time machinery.
They can help load up the wagon with stooks – the harvested grain stalks that are bundled up and propped against each other – so they’re ready for threshing. That’s when the bundles are pitched into the giant thresher, which separates out the seeds on one side, while spitting out a giant haystack in a spectacular dust cloud out the back.
The kids can get their hands dirty, literally, digging up potatoes, turnips and other produce grown on site by the Ag Society specifically for the event. Visitors can buy a bag full of fresh veggies for $10, with all the money going to Airdrie Food Bank. Last year’s event yielded $800 in cash and 600 pounds of food for the agency.
Aside from the harvest, there are onsite demonstrations of blacksmithing and bee-keeping, as well as hayrides for young and old, and free beef on a bun for lunch.
It’s no easy undertaking for the small but mighty group of seniors who put on the event each year. So why do it?
“This is the roots of agriculture. People need to see where our food comes from,” says Jeffray.
It’s also about being thankful for what we have, and building a sense of community, adds Bob Cornish, chair of the Ag Society’s Harvest Committee, who credits Rebecca Nielsen and a team of young volunteers for pulling off the event each year.
“Farming today is not as physically demanding as it was,” Cornish says. “But this generation brings lots of new management skills and a business savvy we didn’t always have.”
Since 2007, grain prices have gone up, attracting younger folks to the industry, he says. Plus the oil industry isn’t luring people away as it once did.
All in all, these old timers are feeling pretty good about the future of agriculture in our community – even if it doesn’t include a mule making ice cream.
The Art of the Harvest will be held on Saturday, Sept. 22 (weather dependent) from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Airdrie Ag Park, three kilometres west of Airdrie on Big Hill Springs Road.