In Joan Olafson’s time as a teacher and eventually a principal with the Calgary Board of Education, the countryside was never far from her thoughts. As an educator, she relished opportunities to take students on field trips to places like the Ann & Sandy Cross Conservation Area, Leighton Art Centre, or Outdoor School at the Rocky Mountain YMCA in Kananaskis so her students could better understand and establish a connection to nature.
In Joan’s words: “We may leave the land but the land never leaves us – it is deeply rooted in who we are.”
With this maxim in mind, she returned to her family homestead in the Lacombe area about five years ago and, this year, her family is participating in Alberta Open Farm Days as a host location for the first time. The farm, Aspen Springs Rustic Barn Retreat and Event Centre, will welcome guests on both Saturday, August 18 and Sunday, August 19 to experience rural living and learn about her family’s history in the area.
The Aspen Springs experience includes games and fun for the kids, self-guided tours, a large display of family artefacts throughout the property (ideal for fun photo ops) and a variety of delicious and locally made goods to sample and purchase.
To be sure, the road to Open Farm Days has been an interesting opportunity for Joan. The jewel of Aspen Springs is the vintage gambrel roof barn that her late father built in 1954 without the luxury of power tools. But you may not have known it to see the structure just a few years ago. It was rundown, ridden with leaks and there were serious questions as to whether it could be, or even should be, salvaged and preserved.
Today, the ol’ barn is restored and repurposed as an event centre; the original interior still visible – a true labour of love. “We just finished the restoration last summer,” Joan explains. “It took us about four years to get the barn up to code to pass building inspections. It also has a new septic and water system.
“When we started out, we were focused on using the barn for ourselves for family gatherings. We enjoyed it so much that it made me wonder whether anyone else would…”
New horizons of ag-tourism
The transition of the barn and farm to becoming a more publicly accessible facility has been a new experience for Joan who is growing into her new role as an ag-tourism operator. While Aspen Springs still farms the cropland, she says she more clearly recognizes the potential to diversify operations on the home quarter.
So, while paths on the farm have been cleared around the crops to accommodate nature walks and snowshoeing during winter months, starting a new event business has been a learning experience for Joan.
“To open the farmland to recreation is new to our family because we never had time to play as kids. Growing up, there was always work to be done, from working in the fields or the garden, to milking and feeding the livestock. It was much more labour intensive than it is now. But we’re glad to have maintained the farm and our connection to agriculture, which is so important to our family.”
Wigger and Pearl
Joan’s father, Wigger Meindersma, was born in Holland in 1921 and moved to Canada in 1926. After settling in the Lacombe district, Wigger would eventually purchase a quarter section of land from which he sold lumber to make ends meet. This same lumber would be used to construct the family home, the barn and other buildings on the property. He also dug a 20-foot well on the property, which provided the family with a source of water for 57 years.
Wigger and his wife Pearl helped instill this sense of independence in all of their children and those lessons and learnings help influence how Joan and her siblings manage the land today.
“Being self-reliant was really just how we grew up,” Joan remembers. “For us kids, we intend to preserve the history of how our parents have farmed while transitioning to a different focus for the future.”
Some ideas never go out of style, however. Years ago, Wigger and Pearl knew the importance of maintaining the old-growth forest and wetlands on the property and used the area for grazing their cattle. Today, these parts of the farm remain not only untouched but they are also protected by the family.
The Lacombe Fish and Game Association has recognized the family’s commitment to protect wildlife habitats and, this year, Joan submitted an Environmental Farm Plan as part of her commitment to biodiversity, wildlife and healthy riparian habitat.
“It used to be that people farmed the land for their own purposes with little knowledge of environmental impact, but now we know a lot more about how interconnected the world is and how important other ecosystems are to us,” Joan explains. “If we don’t pay attention, food sources may not always be there for us, because of use of pesticides, herbicides and climate change. We want to protect our air, land and water sources and have healthy ecosystems so we can continue to live on the farm for many years to come.”
Wigger passed away in 2010 and is survived by wife Pearl, four children, eight grand children and 11 great grand children. Joan says her dad would have been proud to see his family’s continued commitment to the farm, agriculture and the rural lifestyle. And she knows her mom is pleased.
“Our mom is really happy, especially because the barn has been saved,” Joan says. “Mom’s entire life has been spent on the farm and she has embraced her new role as curator for the next generation. And she’s happy that we are all working together to maintain the original homestead.”
For a complete list of Open Farm Days host locations, visit albertafarmdays.ca.